Romantic nationalism has been a curse in many countries in the past century, notably in 1990s Serbia. Now, Georgia pays the price.
Most commentaries on the South Ossetia conflict describe this dispute as starting in 1992, with the Russian-imposed no-war, no-peace status quo destroyed by the recent fighting. This is comparable to discussing the Cyprus problem only from the 1974 Turkish invasion. History matters, and nowhere more so than in ethnic disputes.
The key period for both South Ossetia and Abkhazia was during the Soviet breakup and subsequent emergence of an independent Georgia under the leadership of an extreme romantic nationalist, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Gamsakhurdia was a distinguished Georgian writer and a noteworthy anti-Soviet dissident. A genuine human-rights figure, he was imprisoned by then-Georgian Communist Party boss Eduard Shevardnadze. Gamsakhurdia led nationalist forces in a drive for independence during the Gorbachev years. He became Georgian-parliament chairman in 1990 and was overwhelmingly elected president in May 1991, before the Soviet collapse.
Unfortunately, Gamsakhurdia's commitment to democracy and rule of law was not as strong as his romantic Georgian nationalism, which encouraged chauvinist and intolerant tendencies among his fellow Georgians. Not only did he favor ethnic-Georgian dominance in a population composed of nearly one-third non-Georgians, he dreamed of Georgia as a regional great power, a kind of Caucasian fulcrum between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Tensions increased with all the country's minorities (including Armenians, Mengrelians and Azeris), but with real ferocity in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There had been serious interethnic violence in both regions starting in 1989, which led to South Ossetia's secession in 1990.
In parallel, a civil war erupted among Georgians, turning the center of Tbilisi into a battlefield. Gamsakhurdia was deposed in early 1992 in favor of an unelected Shevardnadze. Gamsakhurdia went into exile but repeatedly tried to return to power. In response, Shevardnadze sent forces into Abkhazia in September 1992 to root out support for his rival, leading to the brutal Georgian-Abkhaz war of the following year. Both Chechen insurgents and the Russian military (soon to be at each other's throats) gave strong support to the Abkhaz.
Gamsakhurdia died at the end of 1993 under disputed circumstances, but was officially rehabilitated in 2004 by Shevardnadze's successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. The young Georgian president is also a romantic nationalist-and more or less oblivious to the enduring legacy of Gamsakhurdia's nationalism in the alienation of Abkhaz and Ossets from Georgian rule.
Although ignored in the West, the first instances of what later was called "ethnic cleansing" did not take place in Yugoslavia, but in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and were perpetrated by radical Georgian nationalists under the slogan "Georgia for the Georgians." Historically, Abkhaz hate Russia (justifiably), but contemporary Abkhaz fear Georgians even more. As "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Abkhazia turned to Russia as its sole source of security against revanchist Georgian nationalism (downplaying the cleansing of ethnic Georgians from the region).
While Abkhazia was almost certainly lost to Georgia in the 1990s, the same was not true of South Ossetia, where ethnic tensions competed with ethnic cooperation. Many observers believed that with patience, time and wisdom, Tbilisi might have restored its authority in South Ossetia by peaceful means. Now we shall never know. President Saakashvili's almost-inexplicable decision to unleash a massive artillery bombardment of Ossetian civilians and then attempt a swift reconquest of the region has permanently altered the political landscape.
There was never any doubt Russia would respond disproportionately to Georgian use of force. Moscow had made that clear many times, and indeed welcomed a reckoning with Saakashvili on terms it could only win. So far, Saakashvili has not explained his reasons for this reckless adventure, if he understands them himself. The consequences are disastrous for a Georgia in no position to engage in a shooting war with Russia, and with no allies to call upon for military support.
It is now inconceivable that any living Ossetian or Abkhaz would willingly return to Georgian sovereignty. The swift resort to the sword has doomed the slow efforts of international mediation. Memories in the Caucasus are long, and the events of recent days will poison interpersonal as well as interethnic relations for generations.
War often teaches the wrong lessons, but one that should emerge from defeat is this: while patriotism is a virtue, nationalism is a pernicious guide. Romantic-nationalist dreams glitter, but can turn overnight into nightmares. Better for Georgia to wake up and deal with the world as it is.
E. Wayne Merry is a former State Department and Pentagon official and now a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.