By Paul Goble
Having been identified by a British court as involved with the murder by plutonium of Aleksandr Litvinenko, Vladimir Putin likely faces something even more devastating: In taking up the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, the International Criminal Court in the Hague seems certain to find Moscow guilty of ethnic cleansing, according to Vitaly Portnikov.
That conclusion will reveal “a completely new face of the Kremlin regime, the Ukrainian commentator says, because it is “one thing to seize other’s territories … and quite another to carry out a banal ethnic cleansing according to the recipes of Adolf Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic (grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.248138.html).
The Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Portnikov points out, involved ethnic cleansing. “Georgian villages in South Osetia were burned to the group and many of their residents destroyed. The ‘territorial integrity’ of the Republic South Osetia which was soon recognized by Moscow and Caracas was secured namely by such an inhuman price.”
In fact, “there is nothing new in this,” he continues. “The war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s was a banal act of ethnic cleansing: out of the republic then were driven a large part of its residents, in the first instance, those of Georgian origin.” But there as more recently in the Donbas, Moscow had a kind of cover as this was done by nominally local militias.
“But in South Ossetia, there is no way to conceal what was done,” Portnikov says. There, regular units of the Russian army, whose supreme commander was at the time the harmless executor Dima Medvedev carried out ethnic cleansing.” And it seems clear that the International Criminal Court will so conclude.
That this will change how people view the 2008 war is suggested by what happened to Milosevich when he shifted from using local militias to carry out ethnic cleansing to employing regular army units. The international community was willing to put up with the former, but it wasn’t with the latter.
For most of the last eight years, those talking about the Russian-Georgian war have been obsessed about who started it. But what is interesting now is that “even if Georgia began it first,” that in no way can “justify the expulsion of Georgian peasants from their native places, the burning of their homes and murder.”
When the International Court releases its findings, the world will have “a completely new picture of the Russian soldier” who is prepared to destroy someone simply because he is an ethnic Georgian and not an ethnic Osetian. And “we will receive a completely new picture of a Russian general, a new Eichman, who led this ethnic cleansing.”
Finally, Portnikov says, the world will gain “a completely new picture of the Russian president who sent his forces to commit genocide.” And even if that turns out to be “not Putin but Medvedev, this fact “will not have particular importance. In the dock of the Hague court, all these people should sit next to each other.”
Not surprisingly, Russian officialdom has reacted with alarm and anger, announcing that Moscow plans “a review of its relations” with the court given that it had expected greater consideration (ria.ru/world/20160129/1367042307.html). Translated from diplomatic language, that means the Russian authorities aren’t going to cooperate in this investigation.
But that too may not matter: if the court finds that officials engaged in the crime of ethnic cleansing, it can issue an order for their arrest and call on governments of the world to arrest at first opportunity those so charged and to dispatch them to the Hague for judgment.