Geneva 1936, 2008
A Russian diplomatic landmine exploded international talks on the future of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia last week in Geneva.
Moscow’s plan was simple: insist that the world accept what it refuses to accept—treatment of the two Georgian territories as independent—and thereby bust the conference. Constructive talk is not in Russia’s interest, and Moscow is still betting that it just may get away with its August assault on Georgia.
The European Union, United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe organized the Geneva talks pursuant to the August 12 and September 8 ceasefire agreements negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. To skirt the problem created by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries, the organizers negotiated a reasonable compromise: at the plenary session, separatist representatives would sit with the Russian delegation; at the working sessions, all delegates would participate in their individual capacities.
If people wanted to talk in goodwill, it was a skillful diplomatic solution. Otherwise, it was a landmine. To explode it, the Russians and their cronies had only to press the issue of recognition—and that is exactly what they did. Russia boycotted the plenary and the talks collapsed.
It is not in Russia’s interest—not to mention that of the separatists—to sit by the shore of beautiful Lake Geneva and negotiate away what it gained in war. But some western diplomats just refuse to believe this. Their latest dodge is to rationalize that it was the separatists, not Russia, who exploded the Geneva talks.
It was Russia’s war and its precipitate recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that created this mess. Without Moscow, the separatist regimes have a future of about 60 seconds—the chief of the Russian delegation could have solved the matter in Geneva in less time than that.
Did the earnest diplomats scurrying around the hallways of Geneva’s Palais des Nations that day fully appreciate the irony of their rationalizations in that historic place?
Just a corridor away, in the Council Chamber, a similar match of aggression and rationalized passivity doomed the League of Nations 72 years ago. The parallels—if one chooses to see them—are striking.
In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia in a geopolitical gambit to link its African holdings, but mostly to avenge Italy’s 1896 defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians. With modern arms, airplanes, chemical weapons and attacks on Red Cross medical stations, insecure Fascist Italy underscored its power. On May 5, 1936 the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa fell.
That evening, attaining the height of buffoonery, Benito Mussolini addressed a cheering throng from the balcony of Rome’s Palazzo Venezia. “The war is over! Peace has been reestablished!” He continued, “We are reacting to defend our lightning victory with the same resolve with which it was won.”
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia in a geopolitical gambit to smash the East-West corridor, but mostly to avenge the fall of the Soviet Union. With overwhelming armor, airpower, and attacks on apartment buildings, insecure Putinist Russia underscored its power.
“In connection with the success of our peace enforcement operation,” said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on August 12, “today I ordered its end.”
Then, on August 18, Medvedev debased a commemoration of the 1943 Battle of Kursk by using it to celebrate Russia’s silly foray into Georgia:
If someone thinks they can kill our citizens in impunity, kill our soldiers and officers who are peacekeepers, this is something we can never accept. Anyone who tries such a thing will meet with a crushing response.
A week after Mussolini’s Palazzo Venezia performance, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, made a dignified appeal in the Geneva Council Chamber. The League of Nations had an obligation, the Emperor said, in an unequal struggle. The Italian delegation walked out—into the same corridors in which the Russian delegation tarried last week.
Cool-headed diplomats, self-proclaimed realists, grand journalists and pettifogging academics will scoff at such parallels. They are not useful. They are imprecise.
Of course, the details conveniently will always be different. Nonetheless, philosopher George Santayana warned, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." Wisdom is not analyzing details but finding the general principles that history teaches.
Still, critics will persist, this time, the EU refrained from resuming negotiations on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia.
True. But the pressure to resume, to show positive results at the November 14 EU-Russia Summit is overwhelming. Beware.
"If you accept what the Russians have done as a fait accompli it is not the end of the trouble, it is the beginning," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told the Wall Street Journal. To recall the words of Haile Selassie 72 years ago, “it is international morality that is at stake.”
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi's major newspaper.