Krajina, Not Kosovo

Six days ago, as most of the world was watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing, Georgian troops attacked the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. Russia quickly intervened, ousting Georgian forces from the region and attacking Georgian military bases. Despite the training and weapons supplied by the U.S. and Israel, the Georgian military quickly collapsed. President Mikheil Saakashvili, installed in power in 2003 by a CIA-sponsored "Rose Revolution," pleaded for help from his patrons, painting himself and his country as victims of "Russian aggression." Aside from empty words of encouragement and hypocritical condemnation of Russian "excessive force," the Empire had no help to give.

Over the past week, many commentators have compared Russia’s intervention to protect Ossetia with NATO’s 1999 attack on Serbia. The analogy does not apply, though. If there is a Balkans comparison to be made, a far better one would be with the Republic of Serbian Krajina, destroyed by Croatia in August of 1995.

Another August

There are many similarities between Ossetia and Krajina. Both are inhabited by populations distinct from the country they nominally belonged to – Ossetians and Serbs, respectively. Both were created in the aftermath of secessions; Croatia had seceded from Yugoslavia, Georgia from the Soviet Union. Both were a response to the government’s attack on their people’s rights: Serbs were written out of Croatia’s constitution, while Ossetia was officially abolished by the regime in Tbilisi. Both came out ahead in the resulting conflicts with government troops, and both became de facto independent after armistices in 1992.

Here is where their fates diverged, however. Krajina’s armistice was guaranteed by the UN and Serbia, but with the war breaking out in Bosnia, Serbia was blamed for "aggression" and sidelined by a UN blockade. When Croatian forces struck at Krajina, in August 1995, the government in Belgrade stood by and did nothing. The UN did not resist, either.

Backing both Croatia and Georgia was the American Empire. Back in 1995, it was still in its formative stages, neither ready nor willing to get directly involved in a Balkans shooting war and seeking to use Croatians as proxies in the Bosnian War. The troops that attacked Krajina in 1995 were trained and equipped by the U.S. and provided with air cover and intelligence reports. Georgia received similar help after Saakashvili came to power in late 2003.

Among the few who made this connection is Russian analyst Boris Shmelyov. As quoted in the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti:

“Back then, the Croats took an incredibly brutal action and killed many civilians, but the West pretended they did not see it. Now, the Georgians have done the same…"

Noting that the same U.S. military instructors were training Croats, then Albanians, and now Georgians, Shmelyov pointed out there is a powerful structure of the retired officers in the U.S., who are involved in the training of armed forces in the countries supported by the American authorities.

Could it be that Saakashvili’s orders to attack Ossetia were inspired by the August 1995 Croatian "Storm"? The parallels are uncanny. However, unlike Croatia’s triumphant blitz, celebrated even today with a "Homeland Thanksgiving Day," Georgia’s adventure in Ossetia backfired spectacularly. For, unlike Croatia in 1995, Saakashvili was not dealing with an intimidated and blockaded Serbia, but with an angry and powerful Russian Federation.

Enter the Russophobes

It took several days for politicians and the media in the West to work themselves up into proper self-righteous lather. Once they did, however, it became obvious that Russophobia was not a Cold War relic, but rather a fashionable creed in Washington’s policymaking circles. One can understand the hysterical pronouncements coming from Georgian officials about how the fate of their country – or rather, their government – was an issue of "freedom" and "democracy." But it certainly did not take long for ex-diplomat Richard Holbrooke to compare Russia to Nazi Germany. Once again, every enemy is Hitler, and it’s always Munich 1938 – except when it really is, of course.

Washington commentators displayed all the symptoms of what Richard Spencer at called "Putin Derangement Syndrome": a delusional belief that Vladimir Putin is "not simply a totalitarian dictator at home but a super-genius strategist in foreign affairs – if anything unusual happens in his part of the world, it’s all part of one of his wicked schemes."

Granted, there was some dissent. The rabidly Russophobic Washington Post did run an article by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who condemned the Georgians for starting the war. In the Guardian, Mark Almond challenged the Cold War analogies. Charles King in the Christian Science Monitor argued the conflict wasn’t entirely Russia’s fault. But since when have facts stopped a good story? As Brendan O’Neill argues persuasively, both Georgians and Ossetians have been used as pawns by the West to fabricate yet another morality tale.

Familiar Stories

Despite the fact that Georgia was the clear aggressor, and that Russian intervention only followed after the razing of Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, many civilian deaths, a mass of refugees, and the killing of several Russian peacekeepers, the Western media have slowly spun the crisis as Russian "aggression." As Justin Raimondo put it:

"According to our ‘free’ media, the Georgians didn’t invade the land of the Ossetians – they merely tried to ‘retake‘ it, as a child would bloodlessly and even quite playfully retake a shiny red ball from a playmate. Those evil Russkies, on the other hand, invaded, plunged into, and escalated their attack on Georgia. At least, those are the words our ‘reporters’ are using."

That is another way in which the Caucasus war resembles the Balkans. In addition to loaded words, there are loaded images. Sharp eyes have already begun to question several photographs of Georgians mourning their dead, offering compelling evidence they were staged. There are no pictures of Ossetians mourning, of course, and only a few testimonies.

Speaking of pictures: for their "voices on Georgia" feature, the BBC somehow managed to get portrait pictures of two young Georgians, both making passionate emotional appeals. Representing the other side were an Ossetian professor and a Russian architect, both over 40. No pictures.

On Tuesday, there was even a flashback of Bosnia: several journalists were injured when a "series of sudden explosions" rocked the city of Gori, birthplace of Josef Stalin and the closest city to the Ossetian front. Once again, "it was not clear who was responsible" even though the closest Russian forces were 12 kilometers away and the fire came from "mortars firing from 1-2 km away."

Scapegoating Saakashvili?

On Aug. 12, Russian President Medvedev ordered a halt to military operations, as a peace plan proposed by French President Sarkozy was negotiated. Moscow publicly stated it had no plans to depose Saakashvili, and angrily rejected U.S. charges of plotting "regime change." However, Saakashvili’s political future looks very precarious at this point.

Analysts interviewed by Reuters seem to agree that Saakashvili committed a "strategic blunder" and that Georgia is likely to lose Ossetia and Abkhazia now. The London Telegraph calls him "the man who lost it all," while the Independent painted him as a "beleaguered gambler."

The New York Times blamed "mixed messages" from Washington; supposedly, Washington urged Saakashvili privately not to attack, while publicly supporting him in full. But is that so?

At first glance, it is hard to see how Georgia’s fiasco could benefit the Empire. Its strongest military and political client in the Caucasus has been neutered. The war almost endangered the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the one source of Caspian oil under American control. Russia has asserted itself, and now looms like a shadow over the West…

Once again, keep in mind the way politics works. Saakashvili was a good client, but he failed. Now a liability, he can be written off, allowing the Empire to engage in self-righteous posturing. The very same people who invaded Iraq now thunder about "Russian aggression" and call Moscow’s actions "unacceptable" with a straight face. The Empire may have suffered a defeat, but as we learned in the Balkans, it’s never about what really happens – it’s about managing perceptions. So a setback in the Caucasus is being spun as a proof that the West is righteous, good, and democratic, that Russia is evil and aggressive – and oh, yes, that the Kosovo war was just and right. After all, didn’t Russians validate it with their actions? (No.)

Either way, the Imperial establishment has now latched on to the notion of Russian belligerence as yet another excuse for their project of global hegemony, benevolent or otherwise.

Lesson Not Learned

On the second day of the conflict, before the media received their marching orders, the New York Times carried a story about how the West misread Russia. It quoted George Friedman of analytical think-tank Stratfor:

"We’ve placed ourselves in a position that globally we don’t have the wherewithal to do anything. … One would think under those circumstances, we’d shut up."

When told of the quote, the NYT story concludes, one senior administration official, laughed. "Well, maybe we’re learning to shut up now."

It seems the lesson didn’t take.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.