Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Far away places

Seventy years ago, Chamberlain could talk meaningfully of Czechoslovakia as a "far away place of which we know little". It is hard to say that about any part of the world these days, given the immediacy of telecommunications. However, even if places seem a lot less far away, that doesn't necessarily mean that we know much more about them; and it doesn't help when the news media 'simplify' the story for us, let alone when coverage is slanted.

Georgia is a classic example. The story seems to be about plucky little Georgia subjected to attack from a brutal Russian neighbour. But the situation is a good deal more complicated than that - and it was, after all, Georgia which started the war, even if it wasn't Russia itself that they attacked.

Politics and ethnicity in the Caucasus are extremely complex, with a long history of rivalries and conflict, and it's not at all easy to decide which side are the 'goodies' and which are the 'baddies'. Unlike the old cowboy films, it's not as easy as looking at the colour of their hats.

It certainly isn't as easy as simply supporting the rights of Georgia against Russian intervention. Georgia has a history of insisting on what it calls its 'territorial integrity', meaning that it regards boundaries which have been set on a pretty arbitrary basis over the centuries – largely as a result of previous conflicts - as being sacrosanct. It has shown itself remarkably unwilling to recognise the rights of small nations contained wholly or partly within its borders – nations with their own languages and history – to exercise their right to self-determination. Georgia has even decreed that Georgian is the official language throughout the whole of what it considers to be its territory.

Nor is it as easy as supporting the rights of the 'secessionist' movements within Georgia (although whether they actually want secession or simply transfer to Russia isn't entirely clear either). And surely no-one can support the ethnic cleansing which has been happening in those areas.

Clearly, the reaction of Russia, in invading Georgia, was contrary to international law, but the US and UK are hardly in a position to start spouting the law books after the illegal adventure in Iraq. The bellicose nature of some Western responses is of enormous concern. David Cameron jumping on a plane to go off and support Georgia might play well in the domestic newspapers, but his solution - getting Georgia into NATO asap – is downright dangerous. Giving a pledge of mutual military support ("an attack on one is an attack on all") to a man who starts an invasion of a client of Moscow seems more than a little reckless to me.

As with all human conflicts, what we need in the Caucasus is dialogue and discussion, not sabre-rattling and invasions. And it would be nice to think that at least some of those trotting off to support Preisdent Saakashvili might, at the same time, drop a few words in his shell-like about the folly of attacking Russia's clients.

7 comments:

alanindyfed said...

I think e need clear-cut criteria about what constitutes a nation and any dialogue and discussion should take into account present day realities and not arbitrary
19th century boundary divisions.

John Dixon said...

Alan,

Nice idea, but I don't think it's possible. 'Nationality' is, I think, ultimately something very subjective. Things like common territory / history / language / experience can help to shape that subjective feeling, but defining criteria in terms of the extent to which any of them have to be present in order to define the existence of a nation looks to me to be a tall order.

Wales is a nation because, and to the extent that, the people of Wales feel it to be so.

alanindyfed said...

So what do we do about the Basques and the Kurds?

John Dixon said...

Sorry, Alan, but I'm afraid that I don't understand the question. Anything special or different about those two nations which leads you to single them out?

When I wrote that "Wales is a nation because, and to the extent that, the people of Wales feel it to be so.", I thought that I could have substituted any other nation for Wales and made the same statement.

alanindyfed said...

I was harking back to the border issue with these nations -
that the people feel themselves to be a nation, but the Basques have no legitimate borders (being partly in France), and the Kurds have no borders at all (being located in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria). Hence the random bombing incidents.
Yes, you can substitute any of these nations for Wales, and borders define the territory of the nation.

John Dixon said...

Alan,

I really don't see how the lack of co-terminosity between the area occupied by a people identifying themselves as a nation on the one hand and recognised international boundaries on the other leads to or justifies random bombing incidents.

There are many, many nations in the world who find their territory crossing recognised boundaries rather than matching them. It's part of the reason why I disagree with your earlier suggestion that there could be 'clear-cut' criteria.

alanindyfed said...

Nothing justifies bombing in my view (or setting fire to airfields)
but clear delineation of borders is impractical I know and agreement may never be reached, unless under world government!