For decades most Americans weren’t aware that there was a Georgia other than the southern state. Today most Americans probably still aren’t aware that there is another Georgia.
Yet U.S. officials are breathing fire at Russia for confronting the country of Georgia, a former Soviet Socialist Republic, which won its independence from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991. At issue: the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two territories within Georgia that have declared their independence in turn.
The normal reaction of any normal American who learned about the controversy would be, who cares? Surely an arcane territorial dispute between two former parts of the Soviet Union over the disposition of two even smaller parts doesn’t concern the United States. But one should never underestimate Washington’s determination to micro-manage global affairs. The Bible says that God cares about a sparrow falling from the sky. If the sparrow were flying in a foreign country, the U.S. State Department would demand to know who shot it down.
Throughout its history Georgia was a target of foreign invasion by competing empires, including the Mongols, Ottomans, and Persians. Georgia turned to Russia for assistance and found itself forced into the Russian empire in 1801. Georgia achieved a brief independence after the Russian Revolution, before being forcibly incorporated into the Soviet empire in 1921.
Another revolution, the collapse of communist rule in the Soviet Union, led to Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1991. The path to democracy was not easy, however. The first democratically elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was ousted by a coup later in the year. He was replaced by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who in turn was forced to resign in 2003 by massive street demonstrations protesting his government’s rigging of parliamentary elections.
Mikheil Saakashvili rode the so-called Rose Revolution to power in 2004, but he has demonstrated his own authoritarian tendencies. Jonathan Wheatley of the Swiss AARAU Center for Democracy argues that Georgia is one of several former Soviet republics stuck "halfway between authoritarianism and democracy." He explains that Saakashvili prefers "to impose change by decree in time-honored Soviet style," forcing debate and conflict to be "played out on the streets rather than in parliament."
This all may have been interesting political theater for foreign observers, but it was of little concern to America and Europe. After all, freeing Georgia was never a U.S. objective during the Cold War. European capitals spent no time worrying about Georgia’s role in Soviet planning. When the U.S.S.R. came apart, Georgia’s independence was a happy afterthought to Ukraine’s departure, which materially weakened the Soviet giant.
However, one consistent Georgian policy has been to seek U.S. and European support in resisting Russian encroachments. Tbilisi wants to join the West, and who can blame it? America and Europe offer bountiful markets, potential foreign aid, and possible military protection from Russia. As a result, Georgia, a one-time constituent part of the Soviet Union far from Europe, let alone America, wants to join NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization would become the North Atlantic-Asia/Caucasus Treaty Organization, or NAACTO.
The idea is nutty on its face. Georgia is irrelevant to allied security and brings no military assets to the table. It has put a few troops into Iraq, but while the burden on Tbilisi might be real, the value to the U.S. is minimal. Most importantly, including Georgia in NATO would force the alliance to take Georgia’s side against Russia in any territorial disputes.
Such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Abkhazian separatism led to conflict in 1992-93 and was concluded after a severe defeat of the Georgian forces, followed by a cease-fire monitored by the Commonwealth of Independent States, namely Russia. Fighting in South Ossetia ran from 1991 to 1992, when Georgia accepted a cease-fire under Russian pressure. The peacekeeping force there too is dominated by Moscow. Russia cites American and European support for Kosovo’s declaration of independence as a reason to consider accepting similar Abkhazian and South Ossetian claims. De facto absorption by Moscow is a possibility.
Tensions, which never fully abated between Georgia and its secessionist territories, have recently flared anew. Russia has upgraded its diplomatic ties to the territories while both Tbilisi and Moscow have enhanced their troop presence around the disputed areas. Georgia claims that Russia shot down a Georgian unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, a charge Moscow unpersuasively denied.
Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly lobbied NATO not to begin membership talks with Georgia at the alliance’s summit last month. Georgia retaliated by breaking off talks with Russia over the latter’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Moscow has increased its pressure, and Georgian President Saakashvili has called on NATO to respond in this "moment of truth" since "This is not just an attack on a piece of Georgian territory" but "on what some politicians in Moscow regard as the dangerous virus of democracy and freedom spreading in Russia’s neighborhood."
These are nasty little conflicts to be sure, but of no consequence to the West. First, neither side is obviously right. As the U.S. and leading European nations acknowledge regarding Kosovo and other parts of the old Yugoslavia, including Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia secession can be a valid demand. If yes for Albanian-Kosovars, then why not for Abkhazians and South Ossetians?
Second, Russian support for secession might offend Georgia, but outside involvement in otherwise internal struggles is a constant of international relations. Indeed, given Georgia’s proximity to Russia, right next door, Moscow has a lot more at stake in the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia than Washington had in Kosovo, which it "liberated" through direct military intervention. The West’s sudden concern for proper international protocol when it comes to dismembering Georgia warrants at most a horselaugh from Russia in response.
Yet American and European officials and pundits are treating the Georgia-Russia confrontation as if it involved someone, anyone in America or Europe.
London’s Independent denounces Russia for acting like a "colonial bully." Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation calls Russia a "bully." NATO spokesman James Appathurai complains that Russia has "undermined Georgia’s territorial integrity." State Department spokesman Sean McCormack accuses Russia of engaging in "political mischief." Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, argue that "Russian actions require a timely, robust and intensive diplomatic response from Washington" and NATO. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain insists that "We must not allow Russia to believe it has a free hand to engage in policies that undermine Georgian sovereignty."
Let us stipulate that Moscow should avoid NATO’s Balkan precedent and America’s Iraq precedent and stay out of Georgia’s internal affairs. "Do as I say and not as I do" seems to apply to countries as well as parents.
But Russia views territorial conflict on its border as a matter of its national interest, rather like the U.S. perspective regarding Mexico and the rest of Central America, as well as the Caribbean. Over the last 15 years Washington has twice forcibly removed governments of Haiti. Washington had its reasons and wouldn’t have reacted well to a condemnatory lecture from Russia or most anyone else.
Still, assume Moscow to be in the wrong. The U.S. and Europeans should tell Russia so and move on. Put bluntly, Georgia doesn’t matter.
Biden and Lugar call Georgia "an important friend," but by that standard there is no country on earth that is not an "important friend." So is Chad. So is Fiji. So is Nepal. So is Paraguay. So many "important friends," so little time and money. Georgians are a fine people and many thirst for real liberty. But their country is of no particular interest to the U.S. or Europeans.
Tbilisi doesn’t matter to Western security. Georgia is an imperfect democracy at best. And control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia isn’t even critical to Georgia, let alone the West. Their combined population is less than 300,000, compared to Georgia’s 4.6 million inhabitants.
In contrast, America and Europe have much at stake with Russia. It remains a nuclear-armed power with significant, if much weakened, conventional forces. As in Georgia, Moscow is capable of intimidating other countries, some NATO members, along its borders. Russian energy resources give it a strong card to play in Europe.
Moscow’s veto on the UN Security Council matters to Washington, since controversies involving Iran, Iraq, and Kosovo all come before that body. Russia also has a role to play in Asia, including in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. Moreover, mutual antagonism toward U.S. dominance and arrogance is the lifeblood of improved Chinese-Russian relations. So far, other nations have been more inclined to balk when pushed by the U.S., rather than to coalesce against Washington. But that could change.
In short, nothing going on in Georgia is worth a confrontation with Moscow. Certainly nothing concerning Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The United States is the globe’s sole superpower. Washington really doesn’t have to worry about everything that goes on everywhere. If a sparrow falls to the ground somewhere else, it really doesn’t matter to America who shot it down.
Does that mean that small states stuck in a "bad neighborhood," such as Georgia, might face unpleasant pressure at times? Sure. But it is not America’s duty to right every wrong, especially when doing so interferes with Washington’s ability to achieve more important objectives elsewhere. The principle duty of the U.S. government is to protect America its people, liberties, constitutional system, and territory. It’s time America’s leaders focused on the interests of their own political community rather than planned crusades, always expensive and often bloody, on behalf of other countries to slay imagined monsters around the globe.