Looting and ethnic cleansing in comparative perspective

Aug 15, 2008

This morning the New York Times provides an interesting report on the Russian army and the lawlessness breaking out in the territory they control:

The identities of the attackers vary, but a pattern of violence by ethnic Ossetians against ethnic Georgians is emerging and has been confirmed by some Russian authorities. “Now Ossetians are running around and killing poor Georgians in their enclaves,” said Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Nikolaevich Borisov, the commander in charge of the city of Gori, occupied by the Russians.

A lieutenant from an armored transport division that was previously in Chechnya said: “We have to be honest. The Ossetians are marauding.”

The hostilities between Russia and Georgia started last week when the Georgian military marched into the disputed territory of South Ossetia, and the Russians responded by sending troops into the pro-Russia, separatist enclave and then into Georgia proper.

Dozens of houses were on fire on Tuesday in the northern suburbs of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Reporters saw armed men moving on the streets, carting away electronics and other household items. It was not clear who the men were. They did not appear to be part of the Russian forces, but the Russians were not stopping them.

We’re not a police force, we’re a military force,” said a Russian lieutenant colonel in response to a reporter’s question. “It’s not our job to do police work.”

Still, there was some evidence that the Russian military might be making efforts in some places to stop the rampaging. A column of 12 men with their hands on their heads, several wearing uniforms, were marched into the Russian military base in Gori on Thursday afternoon. The identities of the men were unclear.

Kommersant, for its part, reports that the South Ossetians are now shooting “maurauders.”

As an emailer reminds me, it might be wise to compare the Russian lieutenant colonel’s comments (underlined above) to those of US officials after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. First, Donald Rumsfeld:

Declaring that freedom is “untidy,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday the looting in Iraq was a result of “pent-up feelings” of oppression and that it would subside as Iraqis adjusted to life without Saddam Hussein.

He also asserted the looting was not as bad as some television and newspaper reports have indicated and said there was no major crisis in Baghdad, the capital city, which lacks a central governing authority. The looting, he suggested, was “part of the price” for what the United States and Britain have called the liberation of Iraq.

“Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” Rumsfeld said. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

But much spookier are the quotations from a BBC report from back in May 2003:

Ali Thowani, 27, a pharmacist and former student of the institute, also tried reasoning with the Americans in English.

“I spoke to the Americans and they refused to protect the institution. ‘We’re not police and that’s not our job,’ they said.”

[…]

In a statement to BBC News Online, Centcom, the United States Central Command in Doha, Qatar, refused to accept responsibility for the event.

“The fact that the looting is happening in Nasiriya is a sad event. However, coalition forces are not a police force. Coalition forces have no orders to protect universities. They have orders to protect places of interest such as hospitals, museums and banks.

“Iraqis need to protect their own cities; coalition forces will help the Iraqi people police themselves. For example, in Al Kut – where people are cooperating with coalition forces – they have stood up a city police force. The coalition has even provided arms for the local police force. Iraqis will run Iraq and they will govern themselves.”

Now, none of this excuses the Russian if they’ve been actively supporting ethnic cleansing; nor does it mean that they don’t have a moral responsibility to stop acts of terror and violence perpetrated in areas they claim to be patrolling to “enforce” the peace treaty. In fact, what the US did or didn’t do in Iraq is pretty much irrelevant to whatever ethnic, legal, and moral obligations apply to Russian forces.

Still, anyone in the United States demanding an instant return to peacetime levels of security for individuals and their property should keep the US experience in Iraq in mind.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.