Thursday, 28 August 2008

Size Matters

The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia has led onlookers to make constant references to the two countries' vastly different sizes. Tiny Tbilisi pointlessly stands up to Mighty Moscow; the enormous Russian army rolls over the top of Georgia's boutique forces.

With such comparisons commentators are unlikely to be wrong. But some of the references to size by those involved in the conflict have been very wide of the mark.

The Russians have been careful to emphasise that they intervened on behalf of the underdog, the minuscule breakaway state-let of South Ossetia. Mr Saakashvili, the Georgian President, was the bully, say the Kremlin: so power-crazed that he could not even countenance giving autonomy to a tiny piece of territory, whose people only wanted national self-determination.

True as this may be - and Georgia's initial invasion of South Ossetia, including attacks against civilians, was clearly wrong - Russian references to the separatist region's size have ignored one obvious fact. Such a tiny place is very unlikely to be feasible as an independent state. And even if it were to pull that feat off, it would be very unlikely to provide the good governance and strong institutions that its poor, helpless, jobless, and now homeless inhabitants so urgently need.

As President Medvedev signed the decree acknowledging South Ossetia's independence earlier this week, there was no mention of its size. On 8 August, when current hostilities began, there were only 70,000 people in South Ossetia. At its largest, in 1989, there were just 90,000: the same number as were taking their seats in the Bird's Nest stadium for the Olympic Opening Ceremony just as rockets were starting to rain down in Tskhinvali.

If it were really to become a country, it would be Europe's smallest, barring Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Vatican City. Perhaps its leadership might consider turning the place into a haven for rich tax exiles (other financial shenanigans - laundering and the like - have been alleged for many years).

Even little Kosovo, whose declaration of independence from Serbia this year was interpreted as a provocation by Moscow, has a population of over 2 million. Bosnia has almost 4 million people. In the world outside Europe, an irredentist South Ossetia could be gazundered only by 6 other states: Dominica, the Marshall Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Palau, Tuvalu and Nauru. And that assumes that all of the displaced people are willing to come back home in the absence of an infrastructure or a functioning economy.

Would a request to join the Russian Federation be long in coming? Surely not. But the saddest thing for South Ossetians is that they are unlikely to prosper on their own or in union with either of their two neighbours.

As it has underlined South Ossetia's diminutive stature, so the Kremlin has sought to highlight the enormity of Georgia's crimes. This reached new heights of exaggeration in the perspective-less (many would say tasteless) remarks of Dmitrii Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO . He is quoted in yesterday's International Herald Tribune comparing Saakashvili's attack on Tskhinvali with the destruction of New York's World Trade Centre in 2001.

"There are two dates that have changed the world in recent years: September 11, 2001, and August 8, 2008. They are basically identical in terms of significance. September 11 motivated the United States to behave really differently in the world. That is to say, Americans realized that even in their homes, they could not feel safe. They had to protect their interests, outside the boundaries of the U.S. For Russia, it is the same thing. We were sitting in our homes, the national discussion was internal. Now this Georgian attack is perceived as aggression, and made us realize that we cannot stay home. We have to go outside our homes to protect ourselves on new frontiers."

One violent death is too many and Georgia should be held to account for those of around 100 civilians in South Ossetia - according to estimates by Human Rights Watch and others. However, this is far from the 2,100 toll laid at Tbilisi's door by the Russian Government in irresponsible acts of propaganda.

Russia was closer to the mark when it compared its own worst terrorist atrocity - the Beslan School Siege of 2004 - to the Twin Towers disaster. But it did far less to investigate that crime and hold to account all those responsible for the high death toll there, than it has shown itself eager to do in South Ossetia.

Small wonder!

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