The occupation of Gori
Gori Travel Blog› entry 20 of 30 › view all entries
We caught the train down from Bakuriani to Gori, to visit the Stalin Museum. As the birthplace of Stalin, the city abounds with Stalin’s presence -the main street is Stalin Street, the Stalin Museum is almost the only tourist site and until 24 hours before we arrived a giant statue of Stalin stood in front of the town hall. This statue, one of the few giant Stalin statues that survived Krushchev’s de-Stalinsation program, was taken down in secret in the early hours of the morning, to prevent the outcry that occurred when the newly independent Georgia tried to pull it down in 1991. The Stalin Museum is really one of memorabilia, rather than an objective look at the man who turned rural poverty-stricken Russia into an industrial powerhouse and murdered millions of people in designed famines and the Gulags.
Gori is not only famous for producing one of the largest mass-murderers of all time, paranoid Stalin, but also as an epicentre of the recent South Ossetian War between Georgia and Russia. Despite the reflexively anti-Russian assumptions of the Western media, the situation in South Ossetia does not paint Georgia in a good light. Before the break-up of the USSR, South Ossetia operated as the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, an autonomous region within the Georgian SSR. Despite different ethnicities, cultures and languages, Georgians and Ossetians lived rather peacefully side-by-side during Soviet times, with a high rate of interactions and intermarriages (interestingly, the same can be said of most large empires, where a shared nationality blurs the boundaries of ethnicity).
This situation was maintained for the best part of twenty years. In 2006, South Ossetians had a referendum on independence, where 99% of voters supported full independence from Georgia. More than 85% of South Ossetians acquired Russian citizenship, allowing closer ties with North Ossetia in Russia, and Russian became the predominant second language of the region, far ahead of Georgian.
Everything changed on the night of the 7th of August 2008, when Georgia launched a large-scale military attack against South Ossetia. It still isn’t clear why President Saakashvili decided to try to reclaim territory long-lost, but perhaps he was emboldened by his success in facing down the President of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, when Russia did not intervene.
Predictably, the Georgian military were outclassed, and the Russian troops defeated the attack and countered on the 8th of August, occupying Gori and destroyed a substantial proportion of the Georgian military’s offensive hardware. Just as predictably, the response of Western media and government was superficial. Saakashvili, skilled at media manipulation, presented himself as David battling Goliath, even though he was the aggressor in the war and anti-democratic at home - during Saakashvili’s rule, Freedom House downgraded Georgia’s democracy ranking.
The effect of that ill-advised venture can be seen across Georgia today. On the road between Tbilisi and Kutaisi we passed the refugee village from Georgians who fled Gori and the border region. Row upon row of identical small houses laid out on a grid pattern, covering a vast area. No roads, shops or employment opportunities, not a real city, just a holding area for displaced people. And yet, while many Georgian people can see the stupidity of Saakashvili in attacking South Ossetia, they do not see a resolution of the war, insisting that South Ossetia should be part of Georgia. I really can’t stand to see historical claims to be used as justification for war. Yes, for a period of time a few hundred years ago, people in Georgia ruled over people in South Ossetia.
Since the South Ossetian War, only a handful of countries have recognised the independence of South Ossetia. The blockade against recognition makes practical sense, in that most states uphold the grounds of territorial integrity, where only the state has the right to allow division rather than the right of self-determination existing for each people. Morocco doesn't want Western Sahara to be allowed to declare unilateral independence, Spain doesn't want Catalan to be allowed to declare unilateral independence, China doesn't want Tibet to be allowed to declare unilateral independence - and these countries consistently apply the same principle to other nations. Less understandable are those countries that treat Kosovo and South Ossetia as somehow different circumstances.
As I have been thinking about self-determination theory today, there is one strongly detrimental theory that jumps out to me. Self-determination promotes the fragmentation of countries into every smaller packages of humanity, divided by ethnicity, language and religion. Obviously the case can (and, I think, should) be made that this is the right of a community, but having a right does not always mean that using that right is a positive move. One of the striking features of large multi-ethnic countries is the high rate of interactions, internal migrations and intermarriages. When you look at countries such as the USSR, the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia, the Indian Empire and so forth, one notable feature is the relatively high rates of interactions and intermarriages across language and ethnic barriers.
Today there are 192 members of the United Nations. Of these, 109 countries became sovereign only within the last 50 years, by splitting off from larger entities. In the same period there have been only a handful of unifications - Germany, Yemen, Vietnam, Tanzania and the UAE. A large part of my admiration for the European Union comes from the solution it poses to the conflict between self-determination and diversity. By reducing the isolating impact of national borders, the EU encourages migration, diversity and interaction, while at the same time allowing political self-determination. If Flanders split off from Belgium or Catalonia split off from Spain within the umbrella of the EU, it would not really be such a big deal in practical terms. Self-determination would not necessarily result in homogenisation. The EU allows individuals to have multiple non-overlapping identities, making the "us" vs "them" dichotomy difficult to maintain.