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South Ossetia Crisis Could Be Russia's Chance To Defeat Siloviki

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity (right) outside Tskhinvali on August 7
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity (right) outside Tskhinvali on August 7
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has handed his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, a victory over the "siloviki" in Russia. And if Medvedev is able to take advantage of the fruits of this victory, the consequences will be significant not so much for Tbilisi as for Moscow.

So, why is this a victory over the siloviki -- those in the Russian ruling elite with close ties to the state security organs? Because there is no way the regime in South Ossetia can be in any sense called "separatist." Who there is a separatist? The head of the local KGB, Anatoly Baranov, used to head the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. The head of the South Ossetian Interior Ministry, Mikhail Mindzayev, served in the Interior Ministry of Russia's North Ossetia. The South Ossetian "defense minister," Vasily Lunev, used to be military commissar in Perm Oblast, and the secretary of South Ossetia's Security Council, Anatoly Barankevich, is a former deputy military commissar of Stavropol Krai. So who exactly is a separatist in this government? South Ossetian "prime minister" Yury Morozov?

However, alas, I also cannot say this regime is "pro-Russian." On the contrary, all the recent actions of Eduard Kokoity, the leader of the breakaway South Ossetian government, have run counter to the interests of Russia in the Caucasus -- beginning with his embarrassing Russia in the eyes of the international community and ending with his ratcheting up the tensions in the very region where Russia might begin to come undone. South Ossetia is not a territory, not a country, not a regime. It is a joint venture of siloviki generals and Ossetian bandits for making money in a conflict with Georgia. For me, the most surprising thing in this entire story is the complete lack of any strategic goals on the part of the South Ossetians.

As soon as Russia tamped down the war in Abkhazia, tensions in South Ossetia started rising. South Ossetian forces start shelling Georgian villages, and as soon as Georgia returns fire, the airwaves are filled with accusations of "Georgian aggression." No one pays attention to the fact that when this happens, Kokoity is not on the front lines or visiting the injured in a hospital -- he's 1,000 kilometers away in Abkhazia, apparently offering the Russian siloviki his people as hostages, as another card to be played to inflame the situation and make a few more dollars.

Again -- nothing that is going on in South Ossetia makes any sense from the point of view of strategy. It only makes sense as a means of making money. And we aren't talking about small sums. Running a gas pipeline through the mountains from Russia -- a precaution in case Georgia decides to cut off the 70,000 residents -- cost $570 million. And then there is the secret budget Russia has allotted for the struggle -- estimated at somewhere around $800 million. And don't forget the pensions and wages for state-sector workers, who officially number some 80,000 but whose actual numbers are not more than 30,000.

'Terrorist State'

Whenever someone starts telling us about shelling in Tskhinvali, it is important to keep in mind exactly what Tskhinvali is. It is not a city somewhere in the middle of a republic that is being fired upon by saboteurs. On three sides, Tskhinvali is surrounded by Georgian villages. The edge of Tskhinvali is a military outpost. South Ossetian forces fire from there into the Georgian villages, and the Georgians respond with fire of their own. To help keep Georgian fire from hitting civilians in the city, all the South Ossetians would have to do is move their military base forward a couple hundred meters.

But, of course, it is a fundamental principle of terrorists the world over -- set up firing points in civilian areas and then when your enemy fires on you, you gleefully parade the bodies of your own children in front of the television cameras. Kokoity's terrorists are following this same principle. If South Ossetia can in any way be considered a state, it must be considered a terrorist state.

When we are told about "peaceful civilians" in South Ossetia, we must keep in mind that the situation there is similar to that in Palestinian refugee camps. South Ossetia, like the Palestinian Liberation Organization before it, is not a state or an ethos or a territory. It is a peculiar form of mutated government in which residents have been turned into militarized refugees. It is a quasi-armed force that is not allowed by the authorities to occupy itself with anything other than war -- a situation that gives the authorities absolute power and absolute control over the money at its disposal. It is a place where the hysteria of this disfigured population is the primary means of filling the authorities' personal coffers.

Even more surprising is the fact that the leaders of this region -- despite all their talk -- apparently have done very little to prepare for war and have turned out to be absolutely helpless. At the first sign of trouble, the general director of this joint venture hightailed it out of Tskhinvali. I was amazed to get news overnight that Russian journalists were hunkered down in the main government building and there wasn't even a bomb shelter there. What does that mean? That all the money Moscow allocated for our joint venture never made it outside the Moscow ring road? They were all shouting "Wolf, wolf!" but they didn't even manage to build a barn for the sheep?

Georgia, I think, will win in this conflict for the simple reason that it has a clear strategic goal. The Russian siloviki do not. Moreover, it turns out that these people -- who are pretty good at bankrupting factories and terrorizing companies -- ran without looking back when faced with a real army and all they are capable of doing is complaining to the United Nations.

War Of Lies

It would seem that the siloviki really thought that there is nothing more to war than lying. Lying about "unprovoked shelling" and about wounded "civilians" who are shown on television wearing camouflage. They are still using this tactic: What are we to make of their claims during the night that Georgian airplanes had bombed a column of humanitarian aid coming out of the Roki Tunnel between North and South Ossetia? I'd like to know who was the Russian general who -- on the very night when Saakashvili had been issued a moratorium and tanks and heavy equipment were moving from Russia to Tskhinvali -- decided to clog up the only road with a humanitarian convoy. If there is such an idiot, he should, at the least, be demoted to the ranks. The siloviki supposed that the war would be won by the side that lied the most. Saakashvili knew that the war would be won by the one who won the war.

The latest events prove that Russia does not control what Kokoity does. Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian minister for reintegration, arrived recently in Tskhinvali for talks and the Russian Foreign Ministry did everything it could to facilitate them. But Kokoity simply left the city. Saakashvili announced a unilateral cease-fire and in response, to show that the joint venture needs more money, South Ossetians opened fire on the villages of Tamarasheni and Prisi. We can only hope that Georgia sees that at least some in the Kremlin do not intend to support Kokoity. You can support an ally. You can prop up a puppet. But you cannot support a joint venture that is just pumping money out of the Russian budget by means of inflaming the Caucasus.

So, I repeat -- Saakashvili has bankrupted the joint venture of the Lubyanka chekisty and the Ossetian bandits. Russia, as a country, has no interest in this enterprise. And the joint venture only had one interest in Russia -- the same interest that a cancerous tumor has on its host body. We can only thank Saakashvili for the chemotherapy.

The main question in the current situation is what will Russia do now. There are two choices. One would be to get entangled in a full-scale war, which is what the siloviki have been trying to force Moscow to do for the last few months. It doesn't matter to them who wins that war or how many victims there are. The mere fact of a war will mean that the siloviki will maintain their control over Russia. In fact, a defeat for Russia would be even better for the siloviki than a victory; there would be shouts, recriminations, hysterics, and -- in the end -- more money.

The second scenario is that this is a chance for Medvedev and for Russia. If Russia stays out of the fighting, that would be a defeat for the siloviki. And, maybe, the complete bankruptcy not just of their branch office in South Ossetia, but of the home office on Lubyanka as well.

Yulia Latynina is a columnist for "Novaya gazeta" and a host on Ekho Moskvy. This comment was originally published by "Yezhednevny zhurnal." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Factbox -- South Ossetia

Factbox: South Ossetia

Status: The region broke away from Georgia in a 1991-92 war. A peacekeeping force with 500 peacekeepers each from Russia, Georgia, and North Ossetia monitors a 1992 truce.

Population: Approximately 70,000 (according to the 1989 census, about two-thirds Ossetian, one-third Georgian)

Capital: Tskhinvali

Languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian

Religion: Orthodox Christianity

South Ossetia: Timeline Of A Crisis