After months and years of sniper shooting and military build-up on both sides, war broke out in South Ossetia on the night of Thursday, August 8 when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered an invasion of the autonomous republic and the criminal shelling of its capital Tskhinvali. According to official Russian sources, up to 1,600 civilians and several Russian soldiers deployed for peace-keeping tasks were killed in the fighting before Russian forces retook the autonomous Republic. Thousands of refugees abandoned everything they had and flooded into North Ossetia in Russia calling for Russia to come to their rescue.
This was the justification that the Kremlin was seeking in order to settle accounts in the region and reaffirm its role as a regional power. The moment couldn't be a more favourable one, with US imperialism entangled in Irak and Afghanistan and without means available to open a new front in the Caucasus.
Given the speed with which the Russian army responded (within a few hours after the Georgian attack) it is clear that the Russian strategists were expecting the attack and the armed forces deployed at the borders with South Ossetia were already on a war footing, ready to strike back.
Despite the heavy fighting the Georgian forces proved to be unable to take control of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and were taken aback. The Russian counter-offensive crushed the Georgian army and retook control of South Ossetia in less than 48 hours. On Monday, Russian tanks and troops entered Georgian territory towards the city of Gori (dangerously close to the capital, Tbilisi), to show that they could easily take over the strategic centres of the country, while bombing key military infrastructures and cutting off Georgian access to Abkhazia, a second autonomous republic that Georgia claims, and the ports in the Black Sea.
The counter-offensive involved high altitude bombing that destroyed the centre of Gori, killing dozens of civilians and a Dutch cameraman. Similar scenes to those witnessed in South Ossetia, with thousands of Georgian civilians fleeing their homes in terror from the Russian counter-attack have been reported by the media internationally.
Imperialist meddling caused the war
Despite what the Russian and Georgian governments are claiming, the war had nothing progressive on either side. The present nightmare of war and nationalism in the Caucasus is the result of imperialist meddling. But it is also the result of the national chauvinism of the former Soviet bureaucracy, which was rotten with Great Russian chauvinism, and which sparked off the rise of regional and national chauvinism against Moscow. These centrifugal tendencies were a factor in the break-up of the USSR, and, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, led to bloody civil wars in many of the former Republics. These conflicts to this day remain a series of festering wounds, which have not been resolved and can explode into violence at any time.
Criminally, American and Russian imperialism have interwoven these conflicts in their own struggle for spheres of influence and strategic interests, with American imperialism building up Georgia as a bulwark against Russia in the south Caucasus. Russia in its turn is using South Ossetia and Abkhazia as pawns in its battle to redraw the spheres of influence, which are connected to the strategic importance of Georgia as a pipeline route for Caspian oil to the west, and possibly gas as well in the future.
Alan Woods explained this process clearly in the article Georgia's "peaceful revolution" heralds new conflicts, published on In Defence of Marxism back in November 2003, at the time of the rise to power of Saakashvili:
"With Georgian President Shevardnadze's resignation, a radical, pro-U.S. opposition has come to power in Tbilisi. This is part of a general thrust to increase Washington's influence in the Caucasus, but it will have set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin. The Russians will not remain with arms folded while a key country on her southern border passes directly into the camp of US imperialism.
"These events will undoubtedly pave the way for greater conflict and disintegration in Georgia. The Russians will tighten the screws on Georgia. So-called independent regions and pro-Moscow political leaders are only too willing to pick a fight with the new leadership in the capital. Since neither side enjoys majority support, chaos and violence will likely prevail, causing further upheavals, wars, bloodshed and misery throughout this beautiful but unhappy region and sabotaging U.S. plans to pump Caspian oil westward.
"Nino Burdzhanadze was giving her first televised national address following the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze: ‘We have managed to overcome the gravest crisis in Georgia's recent history without shedding a single drop of blood,' Ms Burdzhanadze said. But she spoke too soon. The intrigues of the imperialists will cause a lot of blood to flow before the crisis is settled one way or another. The new leaders are already casting a nervous look over their shoulders at Russia. Declaring the disobedience campaign over, she said the country must work to strengthen its ties with its neighbours and "the great state of Russia". But fine words will not impress the Kremlin. Russia will be looking very closely at the policies and conduct of the new government in Tblisi, and preparing to tighten the screws. The result will be new wars, chaos and horrors without end."
And added further on:
"Washington and Moscow treat the small, weak, divided Caucasian states as mere pawns in a game in which the whole region acts as a gigantic chessboard. America makes a move, Russia responds, and the result is a war, an assassination, an explosion, a military coup or a ‘bloodless revolution'. We are now awaiting the next move in the game. We do not know when or where Moscow will respond, but one thing we do know: the losers will be the ordinary people, the poor, the defenceless."
In the epoch of imperialism, small nations such as Georgia or Ossetia are too small to play an independent role. National independence under capitalism for such nations does not mean freedom but more militarism and oppression in the interests of one power against another.
Why did Georgia attack?
On the part of the Georgian ruling elite, the attack on South Ossetia was a calculated bet that backfired on them. Saakashvili barely survived last December a massive movement of protest against corruption. He got out of it denouncing the movement as a Russian conspiracy and proclaiming a State of Emergency while at the same time calling for a snapshot presidential election in January, which he won. In April, Russian President Putin made a deal providing Abkhazia and South Ossetia with special relations with the Russian Federation. This move forced Saakashvili's hand. The Georgian President could not stand by and do nothing as Russian interference in the Caucasus grew unhindered under his very nose.
What Saakashvili was betting upon was the idea that Georgia could force the position in South Ossetia, although without occupying it permanently which would be impossible, in the attempt to rally the Georgian population around his nationalist agenda. They expected that despite all protests, the Russians would take the humiliation, like they did in relation to Kosovo, or the expansion of NATO to the Baltic states, but they would not dare to engage in a direct military intervention against a close ally of US imperialism like Georgia. After all, they might have thought, that's what Russia had been doing over the last years every time its interests collided with those of the United States!
But there is something more than that. It is very difficult to imagine that Saakashvili launched the attack against US wishes. The Georgian government is dependent on US aid and support, and US strategists must have endorsed Saakashvili's bet: a serious mistake on their part. But they did so for their own imperialist purposes: to test once again the reaction of Russia. Now that they have disastrously lost their bet, they have two options, either to admit the mistake of not having considered that relations of forces between USA and Russia in the region have changed, or to pretend that the Georgian government fooled them, hiding its intentions. But even if we believed that the Georgians acted on their initiative, how could Saakashvili hide the military preparations for the attack? Should we believe that the Russian security services were better informed than the hundreds of US advisors and diplomats that crowded Tbilisi? In both cases US imperialism comes out of this conflict with its credibility compromised.
Russian imperialism strengthened
On the other side, Russia is not the same country it was 10 years ago. It has recovered from its previous weakness both from an economic and military point of view and in recent years had been looking for a way to break the encirclement strategy orchestrated by US imperialism since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Over the last 15 years US imperialism managed to take advantage of the crisis of Russia to establish strong ties and alliances with former USSR allies or breakaway republics from the Soviet Union of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and the Baltic. NATO's expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1998 and again in 2004, with the second expansion that absorbed the rest of the former satellites of the USSR in Central Europe and the three Baltic states, were rightly considered as strategic threats by the Russian military elite and convinced the Kremlin that they had to seize every opportunity to reverse this position.
The changed attitude and growing bargaining and economic power of the Russian government was highlighted in recent years by the unilateral decisions to cut gas supplies to Ukraine and the Czech republic, but Russia never resorted to the use of military power before August 8. What happened? A Geopolitical Intelligence Report by Stratfor commented:
"The Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could invade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not respond. As for risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there was no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well - indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans needed the Russians more than the Russians needed the Americans. Moscow's calculus was that this was the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months...and they struck."
Georgia happened to be the weak link in the chain of US imperialism's network of alliances in the region and the best way for Russia to show the world (and above all, to the neighbouring countries) that US imperialism was not able to deliver anymore what it promised, that is to protect the weak former Soviet satellites from their powerful neighbour. As Stratfor director George Friedman again puts it:
"The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack. This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk."
Bitter surprise for US imperialism
The war in Georgia has forced the sudden recognition of a reality: Russia has emerged as a regional imperialist power strong enough to claim back the former Russian sphere of influence from the United States. The arrogant comment "They're not a major power, they're Saudi Arabia with trees," more significant because it comes from a long-term serving US diplomat (Robert Hunter, the former US ambassador to NATO) interviewed on the BBC on August 13, reveals to what extent US imperialists have been taken by surprise by this development.
US president George Bush is not the cleverest man in the world, but in relation to Georgia he was forced by more intelligent advisors to adopt a careful line. Although using a belligerent rhetoric to insinuate that Russia would be expelled from the 21st century modern world of the advanced countries if they did not change their attitude, he could not announce any action or concrete measure, apart from promising humanitarian aid delivered by the US military to Georgia.
On Tuesday, August 12, French President Sarkozy, current head of the EU, visited Moscow and then Tbilisi to broker a deal. But what we already said for the United States is even truer for the EU: there is not much the European Union can do with Russia in control on the ground. A deal might be reached only on the grounds that Russia has achieved her objectives in the war.
In Russia, the ruling elite has enrolled the mass media in fuelling a wave of war hysteria. The suffering of the South Ossetian population was used to manipulate the understandable outburst of popular indignation and justify the counter-attack, but the war propaganda connected with a deep rooted resentment against US imperialism amongst the Russian working class. The trade union and Communist Party leaders have capitulated to the Kremlin on the war, just as they do not seriously challenge its line in peace. Instead of carrying the line of the working class into mainstream politics, they carry bourgeois ideology into the labour and communist movement. This is particularly clear on the question of war. Because of the lack of any alternative, this will temporarily increase the support for Putin.
But militarism is a curse for the Russian people. The counter-attack on Georgia is a sign that the imperialist ambitions of the Kremlin and the greed of the oligarchs can lead to new adventures. Large Russian populations live in the Crimea, the Baltic states and Kazakhstan. Where will the defence of Russian citizens outside of Russia's borders end? The economic outlook for Russia is uncertain. The government as well as the capitalists are preparing another wave of cuts in living standards and attacks on rights, particularly workers and trade unionists' rights. The chauvinist poison is the weapon that the Russian ruling class always uses to make Russian workers and ordinary people accept that the military comes first while people themselves are treated as second-rate citizens.
In Georgia, where there are already thousands of refugees from the first war in South Ossetia of 1992-4, there is bitter anger at the defeat in South Ossetia. On Tuesday a crowd of 150,000 gathered in Tblisi to express their support for Saakashvili in a mood of national solidarity boosted by a hatred of Russian aggression. Yet the future of Saakashvili, regardless of high support for him at the moment, is uncertain. His policies of depending on the West to beat back Russia have ended in failure. Many demonstrators showed their rage cursing US imperialism for not coming to their rescue.
The propaganda war - the precedent of Kosovo and the question of NATO
The Russian government claimed that its military operations in South Ossetia were motivated by humanitarian considerations. In this the Kremlin used the logic that NATO used in justifying its attack on the former Yugoslavia. But, NATO strategists reply, Russia opposed the NATO war on the Balkans - if NATO arguments were wrong in relation to Kosovo, why are Russian arguments any better in relation to South Ossetia? Here the Russian reply is much stronger than the lies that NATO churned out back in 1999. Over 90% of South Ossetia's population are Russian citizens, and Russia's own peace-keeping force was being directly attacked. None of these points applied to NATO. The Russian government therefore concludes that it acted perfectly legitimately in defending South Ossetia from Georgian aggression.
Two conclusions follow from this. Firstly, the defeat of Georgia is a setback for NATO and US imperialism, which weakens NATO in the Caucasus. Secondly, the workers and people of Georgia, including internal refugees who fled South Ossetia and Abkhazia in previous fighting, cannot rely on imperialism in their struggle for their rights. They have all been used as small change in the power politics of contending imperialist powers. The only alternative is the class struggle, beginning with the class struggle against the Russian and Georgian oligarchs.
On the defence of South Ossetia
The killing of ordinary civilians in South Ossetia is criminal and completely reactionary. But it does not justify the further killing of ordinary civilians in Georgia. On the contrary this will serve to provoke further ethnic tit-for-tat killings in the future.
The systematic preparation for the war on both Georgian and Russian sides demonstrates that both sides are following their own, reactionary interests. On July 17th over 8,000 Russian troops and 700 units of heavy armour took part in a training exercise called "Kavkaz 2008." The exercises involved rehearsing fighting terrorists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and included preparations for evacuating refugees. The day before 600 Georgian troops conducted a joint military training exercise with 1,000 US troops in an operation called "Rapid reaction 2008."
The truth is that for the Kremlin the question of South Ossetia and the rights of the Ossetians is only of secondary importance.
The fact that the theatre of war extended far beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia also underlines that the aim of the Russian rulers was not the defence of Ossetian people as they claimed, but they wanted to inflict a blow on Georgia and undermine its stability as an independent entity, in order to enforce a regime change in Tbilisi.
The question of peaceful relations in the Caucasus will not be resolved by the presence of any number of armies in the region. Putin declared that South Ossetia will not be reintegrated into Georgia. It is also clear that South Ossetia is too small to function as a viable separate state, and that any declaration of national independence would likely be a step towards its integration into the Russian Federation.
Imperialism and capitalism are part of the problem, not the solution. The national question simply cannot be solved within capitalism. This is true not for ideological reasons, but for very material ones. Lenin described the national question as a matter of bread. The only way to solve it is through the development of the productive forces. This can be achieved only by liberating oppressed nationalities from imperialist interference and can be fully developed only by means of the expropriation of the property of imperialist companies and of the local oligarchs and with a harmonious planning of the productive forces under the democratic control and management of the workers.
How can the question of return for all refugees be solved on a capitalist basis? If we consider it within the frame of capitalism it would only mean increased competition to access fewer resources, jobs, houses, medical assistance, education, and other services. It would provoke even sharper tensions on national or religious lines. Independence for South Ossetia or its integration in the Russian federation would end up inevitably in the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian minority of the South Ossetian population, which in turn will strengthen the resentment of the Georgian population and prepare new instability and wars.
The complexity of the national question in the Caucasus
The Caucasus has been for thousands of years a crossroad of different peoples, languages and religions. The perspective of a physical separation of the different peoples as a "solution" to the national question is reactionary madness.
Let's for example look at the case of North Ossetia today, as well as other national Republics in the Caucasus. With the collapse of the USSR North Ossetians, who were Russian citizens, fought against their Ingush neighbours, who were also Russian citizens. This war was the tragic result of Stalin's catastrophic policies on the national question. Hundreds of thousands of Ingush (as well as Chechen) people were exiled on his orders in the 1940s (see Stalin Liquidates Two Republics by Ted Grant).
Much of the land of the Ingush people has not been returned to them. Thousands of Ingush still live in primitive conditions in what are basically refugee camps. The potential for violence at any moment explains why terrorists chose Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, for a horrific terrorist attack on a school on September 1st, 2004. They wanted Ossetians to assume the terrorists were Ingush, and to provoke a new civil war, which could have happened in 2004 and could still happen in the future. Yet the Ossetians who moved onto their land and worked on it for two or three generations, and who also have nowhere else to go, also have rights that need to be considered. This is a complicated and sensitive question.
Back to Lenin!
In his book, Russia - From revolution to counterrevolution, written in 1996, Ted Grant summed up the approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to the national question, which is worth quoting at length:
"Tsarist Russia was a prison house of nationalities. One of the key reasons for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was its approach to the national question. Lenin realised that the only way a new socialist federation could be built was on the basis of complete equality of the national minorities that made up Russia. There could be no compulsion of one nation by another. A socialist republic could only be established on a voluntary basis, as a voluntary union of nationalities. As a consequence, the right of nations to self determination was enshrined on the banner of the party and the young Soviet republic, up to and including secession.
"Lenin stood for the unity of the peoples of the former Tsarist empire, but it had to be a voluntary unity. That is why he insisted from the very beginning on the right to self-determination. This idea which is frequently misinterpreted to mean a demand for separation is entirely incorrect. The Bolsheviks did not advocate separation, but defended the broadest possible extension of national self-determination, up to and including separation. No one has the right to oblige a people to live within the confines of a state when the majority do not wish to do so. But the right to self-determination no more implies the demand to separate than the right to divorce means the demand that all couples must separate, or that the right to abortion means that all pregnancies must be terminated."
But is also important to point out that:
"The right of self-determination was an important part of Lenin's programme, insofar as it demonstrated clearly to the oppressed workers and peasants (especially the latter) of Poland, Georgia, Latvia and the Ukraine that the Russian workers had no interest in oppressing them and would firmly defend their right to determine their own destiny. But this was only half of Lenin's programme on the national question. The other half was equally as important - the need to uphold the union of the proletariat above all national, linguistic or religious differences. As far as the Bolshevik Party was concerned, Lenin always opposed any tendency to divide the party (and the workers' movement in general) along national lines."
Lenin was opposed to any manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism. "I declare war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism", he wrote to Kamenev, and regarded this question as so important to determine his irrevocable break with Stalin when he was already terminally ill on the question of the shameful behaviour of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky against the opposition of the Georgian Communists' to their plans for the Federation. As Ted Grant explained:
"After the Revolution, Lenin hoped that there could be a voluntary and fraternal union of the peoples of the former Tsarist empire in the form of a Soviet Federation. To this end, he demanded that the nationalities be treated with extreme sensitivity. Every manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism was to be rooted out. As a matter of fact, for some time after October, the word ‘Russia' disappeared altogether from official documents. The official name of the homeland of October was simply ‘the Workers' State'."
Lenin's approach is the key to finding a way out from this nightmare. In the Caucasus and in the rest of the former Soviet Union.
For a new October
The class struggle in all these countries, beginning with Russia, is now poisoned by the national question. Russian workers will not gain anything from the war in Georgia except an emboldened Putin and the mushrooming of neo-Nazi organisations, which will engage in violence against workers and youth from the Caucasus, and against Russian workers and their organisations in the future. Only the Marxists can provide a programme and a perspective for resolving the scars of the national question, which is dependent on the struggle of the working class and the establishment of a socialist federation of states in the former Soviet Union and internationally.
The socialist alternative may seem far-off and difficult. But the foundations for it were already laid in the past in practice by the October Revolution. This is an inspiration for the struggle against capitalism, imperialism and nationalism today. Otherwise, the capitalist present is horror without end.
Today the enemy of the Russian working class are their new capitalist masters. This is already visible in the powerful class hatred against the capitalists. The mood amongst workers is not different in other former Soviet republics, including Georgia, where there is a sharp class polarisation in society and oligarchs of the likes of Kakha Benkuidze, who made billions in the metal industry in the Urals during the privatisations and subsequently became a minister in Saakashvili's government, and famously promised "to privatise everything except his conscience."
Yet in Georgia there has recently been a reaction against Georgian oligarchs, with mass protests in Tblisi towards the end of last year, which were violently crushed by the Georgian state. At the moment in Georgia there will be confusion and shock at the war, and bitterness against Russia. But the class struggle will break through the hysteria. The nationalist demagogy of Saakashvili is a sign of his weakness. Without it he does not have a stable base of support. All bourgeois politicians and policies in Georgia are empty. The workers have no option but to fight back.
In fact, the rash of wars that scar the planet are not only a sign of reaction. These wars are also a sign of the crisis of the system on a global scale. Globalisation means not only imperialism as an economic and military fact, but also the globalised crisis of capitalism and the potential for the workers to fight back against the ills of capitalism in every country. If Lenin was speaking to workers today, he would begin by hammering home the world crisis of capitalism, and making concrete the perspective of the world revolution, which has already begun in Latin America, and is finding an echo in North America, Europe and the Middle East.
But just as Lenin would underline that there are two Americas, the America of the capitalist and the America of the worker, he also explained at every opportunity that there are two Russias. Inequality has never reached such burning depths as at the present time. The Rublyovka district near Moscow has most billionaires per square kilometre in the world, just as the Russian Duma has more billionaires than any other parliament in the world. These fabulously rich live in effect in another country, with special police protection, like a court procession, when they travel on the roads, stopping the traffic. They have no contact with ordinary Russians, whose incomes are being eroded by inflation, or are being cut outright by the greed of the bosses. This was the case with the miners of Severouralsk.
After two decades of attacks the Russian workers are beginning to fight back. This may be temporarily cut across by the frenzy of Russia's military success. But the Kremlin's foreign policy holds nothing progressive for Russian workers, who have no choice but to fight against their capitalist masters both at home and abroad.
There is no way out for Russian and Georgian workers than to join forces together against imperialist meddling and their own exploiters. The only tradition that can unite all workers regardless of their nationality, language, colour and religion is that of Bolshevism and the tradition of October.
Long live proletarian solidarity!
For a new October!
For a socialist federation of the Caucasus and internationally!
- Georgia’s “peaceful revolution” heralds new conflicts by Alan Woods (November 24, 2003)
- Georgia's "Rose Revolution" by Bakar Berekashvili (December 25, 2003)