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Seeing through the fog of war

02.09.2008   Dumitru Minzarari, for World Security Network  1228 

Rethinking the nexus between security and democracy provides a new framework for understanding the ongoing war between Russia and Georgia, and challenges the conventional wisdom dominating the Western thinking on democratic development in the post-soviet area

CHISINAU:The unexpected military operation of the Georgian military in what looked like an effort to quickly deal with the Russia-backed South Ossetias separatism has caught off guard many observers. So did the Russias disproportionate response, which rolled its troops onto the Georgias - principal" territory, deploying SS-21 tactical-ballistic missiles, using ground-assault aircrafts and Tu-22M Backfire strategic bombers. Not only very few realized this may become a precedent for the Russias foreign policy strategy towards its former satellites, but hardly any voice was heard to point out to the core reasons behind the war.

What instead has dominated the public opinion in Europe and to some extent in the United States was the idea that not offering the Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia earlier this year in April during the NATO Bucharest Summit was a correct decision. The argument behind this opinion is that otherwise NATO could have found itself dragged into a military conflict with Moscow. This view was massively disseminated by the Russian mass media, jubilantly quoting William Cohen, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, as well as many officials from European NATO countries, like Belgium, Italy and Germany.

Regardless of the attractive power of this simplistic and straightforward idea, it is based on intuitive thinking and not on objective analysis, which makes it a bad starting point for policy response. Accepting the most popular today explanations of Tbilisis march into Tskhinvali, like miscalculation of the possible Russian response, the intention to internationalize the conflict and portray Russia as a party to it, or gradually being caught by the inertia of intensified exchange of fire with Ossetians, we still cannot ignore that the core reason behind all these potential explanations was Georgias acute perception of insecurity.

The security deficit

To accept this conclusion one must step into the Georgian leaderships shoes. Too often the Western observers have fallen prey to the trap of the - mirror imaging" analysis mistake, trying to project own values and conceptual frameworks on foreign policymakers. Not facing themselves since the WWII a threat that would question the very existence of their statehood, the - old Europe" countries ignore the all-dominating effect of security in the post-soviet area. Uncritically accepting the Russian interpretation of the facts does not help much to understand Georgias motives either, since Moscows habit to provide manipulative and distorted views creates a huge margin for error.

A good example of this is the declaration by president Medvedev that Russias invasion of Georgia was legitimate, having the mandate of international community and being in accordance with the international law. Another one is the interview of the acting Russias representative at the OSCE V. Voronkov, when he claimed the EU observers cannot go into South Ossetia because without the consent of the local authorities (he meant the self-styled South Ossetias leadership) they will violate the international law. Both opinions have nothing to do with international law and in fact are aimed at the domestic audience.

The desperate perception of insecurity that dominated the mental map of Georgian policymakers has been reflected in their bellicose rhetoric towards Russia. Georgia is facing the threat of its annihilation as a sovereign and independent state. The issue of the two separatist conflicts on its territory, whose fire has been fanned by Russia for years, is taking priority over any other problems in the country.

Georgia views the NATO membership as its only effective security option. Given NATO promise to discuss the MAP perspective for Georgia in December, Moscow has made continuous efforts to destabilize the situation in the two conflict areas. It did so to convince the West that Georgia cannot be accepted into NATO, as an unstable country. Strikingly, some NATO members have confirmed this logic, by this inviting Russia to stage incidents and fire exchanges in the conflict regions.

Preceding the war were Russias deployment of military engineering troops in Abkhazia under the pretext to repair the railways, their enforcement with Russian airborne troops, the Georgian UAVs deliberately shut down by the Russian fighters, the admitted violations of the Georgian airspace over the South Ossetia by the Russian ground assault aircraft, the assassination attempts against the pro-Georgian South Ossetian leader Dmitryi Sanakoev in the Russias peacekeepers area of responsibility, and fierce shelling and firing at the Georgian villages and military in South Ossetia -“ everything responded by EUs obvious accommodation and appeasement of Russia, - has tremendously increased the Georgian leaderships sense of insecurity and isolation. It is very likely that because of the desperation, at what was perceived as deliberate attempt of the Russia-directed South Ossetian paramilitary to jeopardize a positive decision for Georgia at the NATO meeting in December, that Tbilisi attempted the attack on Tskhinvali.

In this case the NATO membership would have been a better response to address the Georgias security dilemmas. It would have provided a strong signal, preventing in the first place Georgia from using force to regain control over one of its rebel regions, while discouraging Moscow from - disproportionate" actions against Tbilisi.

If the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts are used by Russia to keep Georgia out of NATO and EU while under the continuing Moscows pressure, then having granted Georgia associate or membership status might have made useless the core meaning and concept of these conflicts. Their importance as powerful leverages both on Georgia and on the West could have been considerably diminished.

Based on the incredible success of NATO to keep out of war for many years the two of its members, Greece and Turkey, an Alliance membership for Georgia could have also made its government more accountable to Brussels, and more susceptible to its advice and counsel.

When democracy comes second

And decreasing the threat perceptions both among Georgian policymakers and population, NATO may also provide the very favorable building ground for democratic development. In fact, all three post-soviet countries that declared their European aspirations, Georgia, Moldovan and Ukraine face severe security threats that hinder their successful democratic transition. The experience of todays consolidated democracies suggests that democracy can prosper only when the survival of the state is not a major issue. The European democracies have flourished either under a U.S. security umbrella or in the absence of an active Russias political subversion, or military and economic pressures.

Facing severe security challenges governments responses usually infringe on democratic principles, restricting individual rights and freedoms. The problem is incomparably more severe in transition democracies, which still lack appropriate checks and balances mechanism to compensate for the governments overreaction to what is perceived as national security threats. Security threats provide excuses to leaders further curbing civil liberties and halt democratic reforms. If some basic living standards are in pace, then the security concerns dominate everything else in the peoples hierarchy of needs.

Therefore the failure of democracy-building efforts in the post-soviet states seems to be the result of insecurity perceptions dominating their foreign and domestic policies. External security threats have the potential to inhibit and erode the democratic development. Attempting to meet external threats the national leaders will try to mobilize national resources, which will inevitably lead to democratic setbacks during security crises. And then in a vicious circle the deficit or regress of democracy breeds even more internal insecurity. Even countries with strong democratic traditions are affected by this imperative. The enactment of the Patriot Act in the United States is just one example, with the alteration of the Dutch immigration laws as a response to terrorism threat being the other.

At present, when the Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers are deliberately violating the Ukrainian airspace along its border the idea of understanding correctly the intricacies of the war between Russia and Georgia is extremely well-timed. Its not too late yet to think out of the box, and address the core issues of the problem. Accepting the cover-up stories that Moscow is feeding to the world will result in the growing effectiveness of aggressive and intimidating foreign policy strategies of Kremlin. And one always uses again what has proved effective in the past.

Dumitru Minzarari is an associate foreign and security policy analyst with the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, a leading Moldovan think tank.

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