Vienna, August 15 – In an interview published in today’s “Kommersant,” South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said that his people and Russian forces behind them had driven the ethnic Georgians who had been living there out and would not allow them to return, although he said his government would investigate and punish cases of burning and looting.
Kokoity’s words are a rare public acknowledgement by an official that he and the forces under his command or with whom he is working are engaging in what can only be called ethnic cleansing, a form of genocide (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?fromsearch=ef093ba1-b275-41da-8576-5d73596075da&docsid=1011783).
Arguing that in most of what had been “Russian enclaves” in South Ossetia, there were no ethnic Georgians left by the time of the conflict, Kokoity said that “where they still remained, we, unlike the forces of Georgia offered them a corridor and gave the peaceful population the chance to leave.”
But however that might be, he added, “we do not intend to allow” them back because there are “more than 18,000 Ossetian refugees from Georgia” in North Ossetia. We need them to return to South Ossetia,” and apparently, to the places left vacant by the more than 23,000 ethnic Georgians who have been driven out of that region.
“Kommersant” added that there is evidence that “under the pretext” of fighting burning and looting, Kokoity is not only driving out ethnic Georgians but also persecuting his political opponents in the republic and anyone from the outside including some of Ingushetia that he believes constitute a threat (www.ingushetiya.ru/news/15166.html).
Not surprisingly, the Georgians who have been forced to flee South Ossetia are furious, in the first instance at Tbilisi and then at the United States. On Wednesday night, some of the 23,000 who have fled to Tbilisi staged a demonstration to demand that Georgian and American officials pay attention to their problems (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1227239.html).
Among the placards they carried in front of the country’s parliament building -- pictures of which have been posted on the Georgian media website www.pressa.ge -- was one which asked in despair “We were supposed to hope for the United States to do something? No? Our soldiers were in Iraq. Where is America now, where?”
Beyond the human tragedy the actions of Kokoity and his Russian military allies have inflicted on ethnic Georgians, his admission on will make it extremely difficult for Moscow to level genocide charges against Georgia, although it is possible that if both sides make that charge, some will tragically see them as cancelling each other out.
Already on Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev directed the procuracy in Moscow to collect evidence of acts of genocide by Georgians in South Ossetia, and the investigative committee of that body has now assembled evidence about the murder of Russian citizens there (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=16035).
In addition, Russian cultural officials said that Georgia should be charged with genocide because of what Moscow says are its destruction of cultural monuments of the Ossetian people in the past and during the current conflict, “Kommersant” reported in a roundup article yesterday
But Russia faces other problems as well if it continues to pursue this line of attack. First of all, much of the “evidence” Moscow has put forward to date has been shown to be false or at least highly exaggerated, something that raises broader questions about what Moscow is claiming about the Georgians.
Second, raising this issue will lead international human rights activists to ask, as Helsinki Group’s Aslambek Apayev has, why Moscow should get away with “double standards” because “because “before talking about genocide in Georgia and South Ossetia, the powers that be in Russia ought to remember Chechnya” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1227258.html).
“If Moscow considers that [Georgian President Mihkiel] Saakashvili should stand before the Hague tribunal, then let it first send [to that court] Putin and his generals who are guilty in the mass murder of peaceful residents on the territory of the Chechen Republic. This does not mean that I justify the actions of the Georgian leadership … I am simply stating facts.”
“When the Russian media speak about South Ossetia, they constantly use terms like ‘genocide,’ ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘mass murder.’ But weren’t there similar and even worse actions in Chechnya? Why did not Russian investigators establish and turn over to the courts” those responsible for that?
And third, any such discussions will prompt many people in the North Caucasus itself to raise questions about Russian actions there that can be characterized as genocide, a possibility that will only add to interethnic tensions there and make that region even more ungovernable from Moscow’s point of view.
Activists in Ingushetiya yesterday indicated that that they were prepared to do just that, especially given what they say is Moscow’s “PR” campaign about “genocide” in South Ossetia. And they said they would support calls for investigating such crimes in all such conflicts since 1991 (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-08-14/#22232).behind).
Consequently, while raising such charges may play well for Moscow in the Russian and international media, there is every chance that if the Russian authorities follow through they are likely to find them boomeranging on them in ways that may cause the Kremlin far more difficulties than leaving this issue alone.