South Ossetia - Some Semi-Invited Thoughts

One of our Directors pinged me on Friday about penning some thoughts on the South Ossetia situation – due to my considerable (and ongoing) eastern European business experience, including one visit (two years ago) to the Caucasus region. I can’t claim any insider knowledge, but having seen quite a bit, I’ll just note that contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s expectations, history is once again asserting itself.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll just mention three things….

1. Ottoman Hangover. Three of the world’s biggest trouble spots in recent years have been the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. It never seems to be noted that all three of these regions have one thing in common – they were all edge-regions of the Ottoman Empire. Particularly in its latter couple of centuries, the Ottoman Empire was beyond being a complete mess – it was a crazy quilt of local autonomies of various incoherent sorts. Think a kindergarten with no teachers and you’ll probably get the idea; after a few centuries of this sort of thing, it’s no surprise that chaos is the normal order of business even to this day.

2. Too many “ethnicities” in too little space. The fission of “Yugoslavia” (which may not be finished yet) is a good example of this. In the Caucasus, the present border between Russia and the Caucasian states is defined by the crest of the Caucasus Mountains; to the south of the crest, the nation-states are now defined by the old (imposed) “SSR” boundaries – giving us Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. But the number of (at least claimed) ethnicities is much larger. “Ossetia” straddles the range, while there are fragments on both sides. This is probably an intractable problem – on BOTH sides of the crest. Russian trouble-making in the South Caucasus could boomerang into the (Russian-controlled) North Caucasus.

3. The “nation-state” system is in deep trouble. This problem is evident in this crisis, and it may be the most important problem we face today – one that supersedes even “Islamic terrorism” since they’ve been so effective at exploiting this problem to get it to swing both ways for them. The present (very effective) system dates to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – with a chief benefit being that “nation-states” were given privileges, but also responsibilities. Basically, when there was a problem somewhere, you knew who to go to. That’s obviously a problem in the South Caucasus; both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are “holes in the map” – supposedly in the territory of one state (Georgia) but actually not under the control of any recognized state. When you get murk like this, with no real effective responsibility, all sorts of weeds grow – for example, apparently one of South Ossetia’s largest contemporary “industries” is the production of counterfeit $100 bills. The Transdneistr (a non-part part of Moldova) is another hole in the map that has become a center for uncontrollable murky activities. And for the time being we need not discuss the Hezbollah non-part of Lebanon, or the Waziristan non-part part of Pakistan. But you get the drift – the situation with these vaporous non-entity entities will have to be resolved soon, or the entire international system will collapse catastrophically.