Aug 10, 2011

Abkhazia: A Bitter War With No Heroes

After three years since the Russian-Georgia war, noting that American support for Georgia is largely biased and misplaced, while ignoring the legitimate right to self-determination of Abkhazia.

Below is an article published by Registan:

Today [August 8, 2011] marks the third anniversary of the Russo-Georgian War. Georgia has a famously fraught relationship with its two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since before its independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia had fought with the two, even sending a militia into Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, in 1989, which was later put down by Soviet troops.

Because those two provinces have reached out to Russia for help, there is a tendency in American politics to side with the Georgians because… well, Russia is kind of bad, you see, and Mikhail Saakashvili won a revolution against that nasty old Soviet holdover Eduard Shevardnadze, and he speaks English and likes democracy and stuff. Missing from the American narrative about Georgia’s territorial integrity is any acknowledgment that before Stalin Abkhazia actually was its own country, with its own culture, language, government, and traditions, or that South Ossetia also had its own language and distinct culture before 1921. Indeed, the same arguments American politicians use to justify the independence of Kosovo from Serbia should justify the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (that is, if you believe in the right of self-determination from a distant and hostile government), but for some reason it doesn’t.

In the meantime, under Saakashvili, the government of Georgia has adopted an expensive, high-profile information operations campaign against the U.S. public and the U.S. government. They have found a receptive audience in the American Right, where Senators go on junkets to Tblisi and declare Russia the new villain America must face down.

Since most Americans over the age of 30 were raised to more or less mistrust Russia, it can be easy to fall into the old trope of hating Russia and assuming anyone who resists them is automatically good. And the Russian-Georgian rivalry certainly lends itself to that mindset: at a superficial level, Russia invaded Georgia, killed a bunch of people and destroyed a bunch of buildings, then occupied Georgian territory. That this narrative of the war is simply wrong—Georgia’s claims that Russia started it are wrong, and have been investigated by independent commissions which have concluded that Georgia actually started a war it could not possibly finish because it felt America would side with it and attack Russia—hasn’t materially affected the fever-pitch of pro-Georgia anti-Russia screaming that’s taking place in Washington these days. Russia behaved unjustifiably when it entered Georgia proper and occupied cities. There is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for Georgia’s indiscriminate shelling of Tskhinvali, either, especially because that shelling killed several Russian troops participating in a UN Peacekeeping operation.

Alas, the two sides remain at each others’ throats. Ultimately, America took Georgia’s side in its war with Russia, yet Americans act surprised when Russia treats American interests in Georgia as suspect and targets of harassment. Go figure.

So it was with great interest that I sat down with a copy of “5 Days of War,” an action movie directed by Die Hard 2′s Renny Harlin. It is about the 2008 war in Georgia, and stars Andy Garcia as President Saakashvili. Is it important that the film was co-produced by a member of the Georgian parliament, while the Georgian military provided the hardware? Actually yes.

This is a film that makes no pretense at neutrality, balance, or fairness. All of the Georgians are clean cut professional soldiers. All of the Russians are grizzly blood thirsty sociopaths who delight in butchering innocents. The opening scene, where journalists being attacked by two dozen Iraqi innocents are rescued by flawless Georgian marksmen-soldiers, sets the appropriate tone: Georgians are heroes of freedom, democracy, and truthful journalism.

Of course, when watching this we should probably ignore the Georgian government’s relentless harassment and imprisonment of the journalists who criticize Saakashvili’s government. And the news segment that presents Georgia’s plea for joining NATO (its few dozen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan), and Russia’s evil quest to rebuild the Soviet Union. Balance, this is not.

Of course, one could try to divorce a message movie from its message. But when the thrilling combat scenes are ignored, the story just isn’t there. The movie’s timeline of the start of the war is at direct odds with the OSCE and EU accounts of how the war began: Georgia is interested in diplomacy, in this movie and those horrible Russians are hiding behind civilians to launch attacks on innocent Georgian villages (the reality of South Ossetia, sadly,far more complex). There’s no mention of the Russian peacekeepers Georgia killed in South Ossetia before the official start of hostilities, which was an important milestone in Russia’s decision to move into the province.

There is some interesting rumination on how war journalists are both obsessed with and bored with war, but that’s not really a new thing, either. For example, the movie makes a big deal of how the media ignored the war, but that’s simply not true: the first day of the war was overshadowed by the start of the Olympics, but the war in Georgia dominated global news for most of August. The acting is decent—Val Kilmer’s nuanced cameraman is actually a pleasant surprise—but the story’s gross imbalance with the war distracts too much from what would have been the outlines of an engaging movie.

“5 Days of War” does have a great many things going for it: the Georgian countryside is famously beautiful, and Renny Harlin lingers over it like a long lost lover. Tblisi comes off as a cosmopolitan city composed of brilliant architecture. And the action scenes are really well done—perhaps a bit cartoonish, but that’s certainly not a bad thing in an action movie. It’s left as a subtext, but Andy Garcia’s Saakashvili has a slavic-esque drawl when he talks; yet his advisers all speak in flawless American English. It could simple be a trope of Hollywood. But it could also be a subtext: Saakashvili’s government employs scores of Americans, as advisers, trainers, and workers in its ministries (Saakashvili himself went to Columbia University and maintains a vast social network among New York City elites). It’s not clear if this is intentional or not.

So, if you can ignore the politics, and ignore that this is essentially Georgian propaganda, “5 Days of War” is an engaging take on the war, especially on the war’s third anniversary. But it not an accurate portrayal of what happened, nor is it an especially honest analysis of the issues that led up to it. Kept strictly as entertainment, it’s great. Just… ignore what it wants to say.