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PRAIRIE VOICES: UND specialist offers explanation of conflict between Russia, Georgia

Paul Sum, UND associate professor, political science and public administration Paul Sum specializes in comparative politics, which tries to understand similarities, differences and outcomes in different political systems and why they occur. His a...

Paul Sum, UND associate professor, political science and public administration

Paul Sum specializes in comparative politics, which tries to understand similarities, differences and outcomes in different political systems and why they occur. His area of expertise includes Eastern Europe and the post-communist states. He worked in Kosovo, Albania and Bulgaria for various international groups.

Sum came to UND from Tulane University in New Orleans, where he was a visiting professor. From 1996 to 1998, he was a lecturer and fellow at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

From 1991 to 1994, he was an instructor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

He lives in Grand Forks.


Sum spoke with Herald staff writer Dorreen Yellow Bird.

Q. Tell us what's really going on in the relationship between Russia and Georgia. It seems that Russia, in keeping with its image as a bear, has taken a swipe at the Georgian people -- but that Georgia earlier had poked the bear in the eye. Is that a fair assessment?

A. That's a fair assessment. This is not a clear black-and-white situation. The events from Thursday are spectacular, sensational and have reached all the newspapers, but this is a long-standing conflict that goes back to the 18th century.

More recently, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Georgia was a republic in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a federal republic. It had a centralized party, but its administration was federal, meaning that each of its republics had constitutional rights and duties.

Q. Like the U.S.?

A. Like the U.S. and a lot of other federal republics -- Canada, Germany, Brazil and Mexico, for example. You can have an undemocratic state that is federal. That's important because it was the Soviets who designed the states -- the Soviet republics -- and Georgia was one of those. Their policies were to draw administrative borders in ways that recognized certain ethnic groups while making it hard to shut them (Russia) out completely.

In other words, the Soviets drew those lines in a way that included substantial minorities, in order to create difficulties for the majority in those republics to easily gain control.

In the case of Georgia, which declared independence in 1991, you have these substantial minorities -- in Ossetia and Abkhazia -- who don't necessarily trust the Georgians to look after their best interest.


Q. What does ethnicity mean in Georgia -- a different language, color or race?

A. Racial distinctions are not as recognizable. Language is important, as is the people's ethnic understanding.

Remember, the Caucasus region is very mountainous. Some of these communities have evolved in relative isolation over a long period of time.

The point is, you have these substantial minorities in Georgia. So when the Communist Party in the Soviet Union fell apart, these republics were left with these constitutional rules that hadn't had much meaning because of the authoritarian rule before.

Since these republics had their own police force, institutions and parliaments, it was easy for them to declare independence based on the administrative territories that were pre-existing.

So, Georgia -- like all the other republics -- became independent. This means that today, if you look at a republic such as Ukraine, it is what the Soviets designed, not what the Ukrainians designed. And this creates all sorts of problems in Ukraine because there is a big divide between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians.

Likewise, the Republic of Georgia has had a hard time trying to deal with its minorities. It held a referendum in 1991. A vast majority of Georgians approved it; the Ossetians and Abkhazians absolutely refused. They said, Frankly, we like the Russians.

They were too small to be independent, so they settled for protection from Russia. The minorities kept their Russian passports, so they are Russian citizens.


They declared their independence. There was some fighting with Georgian forces coming from the capital and trying to subdue them. They were unable to do this because of Russia's support for the rebels, and there has been a stalemate ever since.

In effect, these are autonomous zones inside of Georgia supported by Russia. Russia didn't cross a border; it already had troops in those places, but brought more in. They call themselves "peacekeepers," which means they are maintaining a presence and are a warning to Georgia that shouldn't they trying to subdue these people; they (the Russian soldiers) are defending them.

They consider the Georgians in Ossetia to be Russian citizens and will protect them.

On Aug. 7, Georgian forces from the capital moved in and started firing on what they believed to be rebel positions, and that is what brought the Russian response. Russia said Georgia does not have the right to go in there and that these people still don't recognize Georgia as their sovereign entity. These people either want their independence or to reunite with Russia.

Q. What is former President Vladimir Putin's role? Does he want Russia to be a major power like the Soviet Union once was?

A. We were talking about the micro part of the conflict and how Russia identified Georgia as the aggressor. In its rhetoric, Russia said it was defending its allies or their citizens.

But when you look in the larger context, Georgia clearly has been a thorn in the side of the Russians. Putin, who was president of Russia and is now prime minster, clearly has wanted to reassert hegemony in the region.

Georgia is a fledgling democratic state, so its had election; they've had more or less peaceful transfer of power, more or less a free media. I wouldn't say they are the ideal example of a successful transition, but they've made a lot of progress, in part from funding from the United States and other Western countries. We have been funding Georgia for quite a long time, and we have made overtures to Georgia that they might become a NATO member in the future.


Putin and the Russians in general see this as a large encroachment on historical territory that they believe should be their "sphere of influence." It's that proximity. They believe we are posing a threat.

Part of Russia's re-emergence includes reasserting its control over the region, and Georgia in particular has been a state that has defied Russian authority -- has done things that are irritating to Russia.

Q. What do the other former Soviet states now think about their relationship with Russia? Will they stand their ground?

A. The most important state is Ukraine. In Ukraine, like Georgia or maybe even more so, you have a divided electorate and divided citizenry. You have a strong presence of ethnic Russians: In the east that borders Belarus and Russia, there are citizens who are pro-Russian. I don't think they want to become part of a larger Russia, but they want to be under the umbrella of influence of Russia. They see that as positive -- as security. They also see that as being able to have additional power domestically.

On the other hand, the ethnic Ukrainians tend to be anti-Russian. They tend to much more pro-Western.

They would like to join NATO. They would like to join the European Union eventually. They see themselves as part of Europe. Ukraine is divided almost down the middle.

So, what happens if pro-Ukrainian politicians start "moving westward"? What Russia is saying in Georgia is: We might take a stand.

Ukraine is a much more important state that Georgia in terms of size, influence, resources and so on.


Q. How important are Georgia's pipelines in the current fighting?

A. There is an awful lot of oil in the Caspian Sea. Multinational oil companies have built pipelines through Georgia that go to the Black Sea; then, from the Black Sea, they can go through Turkey, Romania or sometimes Bulgaria and feed the European Unions demand for oil.

So, this is the larger geopolitical context. What is Russia really up to? This the first time in a long time that Russia has asserted itself so aggressively. Some people feel that this is the Cold War enemy, and here we go again. It demands some sort of response. We can't allow Russia to dictate the terms, and so on.

The optimistic side says, well, Russia had every right to move in, and it's going to move back to a status quo of pre-Aug. 7, and everything can be normal again.

The pessimistic side says this is the first of many moves Russia will make that will encroach upon a lot of different Western interests in terms of oil and natural gas, European stability and primarily U.S. interests in how to deal with a large state such as Russia. Do we have the capacity to balance a force such as Russia with our military in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do we have the capacity to stand up to Russia in a way that Russia will pay attention to?

As you mentioned when you first sat down, Russia is considered to be the bear. Many smart foreign policy analysts say you have to deal harshly with them. They only understand force. You don't cuddle up to a bear. You slap that bear in the nose and if that doesn't do it, you shoot it in the gut.

What is the appropriate response?

All of this also raises questions about U.S. foreign policy with Russia over the past eight years -- over the past 12 or 16 years, for that matter.


Let's not just put it all on the Bush administration. What was the Clinton administration's policy toward Russia as well? It suggests that we wanted to write Russia off, that we could just push Russia around, that they were weak, and we could move ahead to encroach on what they historically felt was their territory.

We were optimistic that they were going to become democratized, then they would become part of us, and we would have a great new friend in the world.

Was our foreign policy designed to achieve this or did we assume it?

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