Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tbilisi's time of trial

Popessa’s right, the Georgian situation is a tough nut. I'm sorry about it, because Georgia is a breathtakingly beautiful country with a lot of upside, even if it does consider itself proud to be the birthplace of Joseph Stalin(I'm now wondering if Russian troops destroyed the Stalin museum when they took Gori, Stalin's home town...) One thing’s for sure, it’s not as simple as Candidate McCain would have us believe, i.e. rotten old Russia trying to re-establish the Tsarist Russian empire. There have been NO troop movements or sabre-rattling diatribes in the direction of Finland or Alaska that I know of…
Here are some things that we DO know at this point:

a) The Georgian/Abkhazian/Ossetian dispute has been a reality since before the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians and (south)Ossetians, who now live under direct Georgian rule, have been agitating for change in their relationship with Georgia for a long while, whether in the direction of autonomy or separation altogether. There is nothing unusual or surprising about this, since the Caucasian borders were drawn by the Bolsheviks in order to divide and conquer restive minorities there. Mikhail Gorbachev noted in a recent op-ed that prior to the breakup of the USSR, he had urged the creation of a Caucasian federation, a federal relationship between Georgia, Abkhazia and south Ossetia as an alternative to separatism/fragmentation. The Georgians apparently rejected this proposal, reflecting a preference for zero-sum relations with these minorities.

b) The Russian leadership today has a Cold War approach to its periphery, of all the territories it once ruled either as the Tsarist or Soviet empire. That is, any government that calls itself a democracy, or seeks ties to the western world, is viewed with suspicion and enmity, as a fifth column for western expansionists. Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian President, is a Harvard School of Government graduate and a close ally of the Bush administration. He came to power riding a kind of popular movement and wants EU and NATO membership, which are all anathema to the Russian government. I think you could say that the Russian government would like to see him gone and has the means and opportunity now to make that happen.

c) There has been a lot of hostility between these two states in the past couple of years. The Russian government cut off all economic contacts for a time, forbidding the import of Georgian wines, harassing Georgian businesses, even closing up some popular Georgian restaurants in the Moscow(a REAL tragedy, since Georgian food is to die for). There is also plenty of evidence that they have been playing ball with disgruntled Ossetians--they have Ossetians, north Ossetians, within their borders)-- giving them Russian passports so that they would have a rationale for sending troops there in case of “trouble.” For his part, Saakashvili has told everyone who would listen that he planned to rein in “troublemakers” in these regions. That seems to have been his intent was when he sent troops into south Ossetia a few days ago.

So it would seem, in a nutshell, that Saakashvili wanted to follow through on promises to crack down on what he viewed as Moscow-funded separatists/troublemakers, and Moscow saw a perfect opportunity to slap him down and perhaps even remove him from office. They have Ossetians across the border in Russia, thus they just HAD to assist the south Ossetians against the evil Georgians...

As to what we can do about it, it seems to me the answer is: not so much. First, this is a regional dispute—it really does not concern us except insofar as we are committed to “democracy promotion” there. We can express our displeasure, but everyone knows we cannot and will not force the Russians out of Georgia even if they do take down Saakashvili. Even expressions of displeasure or outrage are problematic, since we've done some regime changing of our own recently, and not even on our borders(!). Second, Russia has many cards to play here…it has Europe by the throat, providing them with most of their natural gas and a lot of oil, too, and they’ve shown a willingness to use that leverage to get what they want. We have NO cards to play because we can’t step in and provide those things to our allies. Third, well, see points one and two. Russia has invaded Georgia, whose leader stupidly provoked a crisis, and as Popessa says below, here we all are standing around again. It gets clearer and clearer that the 20th century was our century…certainly the balance of power has shifted dramatically east in the 21st, with oil and gas being the currency of the realm.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Counter
hit Counter