This summer brought to light complicated global hostilities and the probability of continued conflict in the Caucasus region. Russia has sent a clear message to the West, who has been trying to lure away countries on Russia’s western border and turn them democratic and market-oriented, that it will not tolerate excessive signs of independence from its neighbours.
For many months preceding the war, Russia imposed heavy sanctions on Georgia and rounded up Georgians in Moscow for deportation. In revenge for Kosovo’s independence, Prime Minister Putin established legal ties with the governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on Georgia’s northern borders, two regions who have broken away from the Georgian territory. In early July, Russia staged a massive military exercise on the border with South Ossetia, and many Russian jets flew over the region, increasing tensions. In August, Georgia and South Ossetian separatists exchanged fire and explosive attacks. Expected peace talks were halted, after the Russia diplomat in charge of facilitating the process blew off the meetings. Russia then claimed that Georgia broke the unilateral ceasefire by ordering a massive “ethnic cleansing” offensive in South Ossetian villages. According to Georgia, the ceasefire was broken by the South Ossetians. Georgia then began to shell and invade South Ossetia, leaving the Russian army (who was conveniently nearby after its military exercises) to move in to “protect” the South Ossetians.
Blood is clearly on all hands. Civilians are caught in the cross-fire. Thousands have been displaced, hundreds have died, and although a ceasefire has been signed, peace is far from a reality.
The region has been struggling to rebuild itself for the past twenty years. Nationalism flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and began dividing the region ethnically and ideologically. Factions that lived in relative peace for centuries, were suddenly ideological enemies, and displaced to their new ethnically fixed territorial regions. Conflicting histories plague the peace process as claims to land are ‘legitimized’ by different regional versions. Massive ethnic cleansing of regions (including forced displacement and relocation) has left pockets of clashing ethnicities eager to slit each others’ throats.
The tendency since the Cold War to describe all conflicts as “ethnic” conflicts has left many wondering if these are in fact “ethnic” conflicts at all. If the tensions are a product of ancient ethnic hatreds, then this would assume that there is something inherently conflictual about ethnicity, making conflict increasingly inevitable since we live in such an ethnically diverse world. We often forget that ethnicities are not some homogenous group, but are in fact constantly changing and fluid. The problems have more to do with access to raw materials and political choices that have pitted one group against another.
Separating ethnicities into homogenous enclaves is a dangerous game.
Academics claim that the more ethnically diverse a society, the less its propensity towards conflict. In fact the chance for conflict increases the more ethnically singular an area is, especially if the society is ranked. Ethnicities need to be recognized and the rights of all peoples, regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, background, etc. need to be enforced.
Violent conflict is always avoidable. There are many ways to transform conflict through non-violent means. Diplomacy must begin to work, and to do this we must demand it work. Our governments must sanction aggressors to the full extent, and ensure that the do not get away with violence. We must write letters, stage protests, and make our voices heard. Violence has no need to continue, but the only way it will ever stop is if we make it stop through international sanctioning, pressures and peace building initiatives. We can transform war into peace, but only through intense solidified effort. We must all work together.