With the conflict between Georgia and Russia lowered
to a simmer after the signing of a cease-fire agreement, questions still remain
about the U.S. role and positions on the start of the conflict as well as where
it stands moving forward toward a resolution.
Ten days ago, a full-scale war broke out when Russian and Georgian forces clashed
over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.
The U.S. role during the beginning of the conflict on Aug. 7 is unclear, but
a Washington Post article this weekend revealed that Matthew Bryza, a
deputy assistant secretary of state and a U.S. special envoy to the Caucasus,
was aware of the Georgian military operations before they started.
At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, and in line with the Georgian
position, Bryza said that the Georgian military movements were a response to
attacks from Ossetian separatists and initial large-scale Russian movements
into South Ossetia.
"Who shot whom first?" said Bryza at the Foreign Press Center."I
don't know if we'll ever know the answer to that question," he continued,
before going on to call the answer "irrelevant" because "Russia
has escalated so brutally" that the international community turned against
Moscow has denied the Georgian and U.S. timeline, but did not provide the Washington
Post with a Russian timeline of the military movements.
Speaking at a forum at the Atlantic Council for the United States, the immediate
former undersecretary of state for political affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, said
that he blamed Russia completely for the conflict, and said that the Russian
incursions were the "most disappointing" turn Russia has taken since
the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Burns, toeing a line pushed strongly by the U.S. representative to the UN Zalmay
Khalilzad last week – and strongly denied by the Russian representative
– said that the Russian actions were a response to increasing freedom and
democracy in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
"Russia has put this at risk," Burns said.
Responding to criticisms that unflinching U.S. support for Georgia may have
emboldened Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to make the misstep of a military
move into South Ossetia, a generally pro-Russian province that has been pushing
for independence since the early 1990s, Burns said that the charges were unfounded.
He said that those "pointing the finger" at Georgia and the U.S.
were wrong, and that Russia was solely to blame for the conflict.
"I don't think the U.S. is to blame for what's happening in Georgia,"
Burns reiterated to IPS after the Atlantic Council conference. "I think
Russia is to blame."
But Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Nixon Center and a specialist
on Russia and U.S.-Russia relations, told IPS that he not surprised that the
U.S. and Georgia don't blame themselves.
"Burns is a person who, as undersecretary of state until recently, was
part of forming the U.S. policy toward Georgia," he said, making it unlikely
for him to find fault with those very policies.
As for the U.S. siding with Georgia, a democratic, pro-Western ally, over South
Ossetia and its Russian backers, Burns said that the U.S. should not take a
role in deciding the borders of European countries.
"We must not be part of the redrawing of lines in Europe," Burns
told the wider audience at the Atlantic Council event.
When asked later in the day by IPS if Burns' comment mirrored the U.S. position,
Bryza said that he wasn't sure exactly what Burns was talking about. But he
was willing to confirm Burns' general message as an appropriate position for
the unique case of the Georgian conflict.
"We should not allow this current situation to draw new lines in Europe
and prevent a democratically elected government to join NATO if they want,"
he told IPS.
Many commentators have noted that Russian ambitions to realize independence
for South Ossetia and another pro-Russian breakaway region in Georgia, Abkhazia,
were greatly bolstered by U.S. support for the independence of Kosovo, which
Serbia still considers part of its territory.
But many U.S. officials and their defenders have strongly denied that U.S.
support of Kosovo – which came swiftly after its declaration of independence
– created a legitimate precedent for Russia to support the independence
of the Georgian breakaway regions.
In questions after the conference, Burns told IPS that the Kosovar independence
and South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence are "fundamentally different."
"We were right to support the right of independence for Kosovo,"
Burns told IPS, explaining that the fundamental difference was UN control over
Serbia since the war there in late the 1990s sparked by what Burns called Serbian
leader Slobodan Miloševic's "savage attack" on Kosovo.
But some commentators have said that the U.S. should have understood when Kosovo
declared independence six months ago that the issue of forming an international
precedent is not as simple as declaring it as such or not.
"[The U.S.] tried very hard and assertively to support Kosovo's independence,
but [not make it] a precedent," Saunders told IPS. "What the administration
doesn't understand is that what's a precedent is in the eyes of the beholder."
"We don't get to decide how other people react to what we do," he
said. "Other people get to decide."
Looking forward to a final resolution of the conflict, Bryza said that Russia
and Georgia would be the main players because of their democratically elected
leadership, which the U.S. views as legitimate.
"We support Georgia's territorial integrity," Bryza said. "That
means that the leaders of the Abkhaz and South Ossetians are not on the same
legal grounds as the democratically elected leaders of Georgia of the leader
South Ossetia and Abkhazia, lacking independence, do not have internationally
recognized de jure governments. However, both regions do have de facto independently
operating governments with leaders.
Moreover, with the U.S. constantly citing Georgia's status as a democracy as
a strong reason to back it, many are left curious by the absence of talk of
a 2006 referendum in South Ossetia where residents unanimously voted for independence.
Whether the leaders of the breakaway region were democratically elected by international
standards or not, their leaders certainly and legitimately represent this view.
"If you asked the people in those two regions where they want to live
[in terms of independence or under the Georgian state], it's quite clear that
the leadership is representative of that," said Saunders.
But if the U.S. continues to ignore that reality, it could further dilute the
U.S.' international standing as an advocate of democracy and self-determination.
"People start to wonder why we are taking these positions," said
Saunders. "It gets a lot harder to say we are standing on principle."
(Inter Press Service)