As world attention is fixed on events in the Middle East, particularly the continuing meltdown of the American occupation in Iraq, another crisis brews. It is the coming showdown between the U.S. and Russia, centered in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Relations between Russia and Georgia, never good, degenerated recently when members of Georgian opposition parties were arrested, along with four Russian military officers, and charged with espionage. The Russians retaliated by ending commercial ties, deporting Georgians living in Russia, and closing the border.
To begin with, a little context: when the Soviet empire imploded, the various pieces were left to themselves, and in most cases the old Communist elite merely reasserted itself in the form of a local autocracy. Eduard Shevardnadze, the suave Soviet diplomat who served as the last Soviet foreign minister, seized power in a coup against elected Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and charmed the West into supporting his post-Soviet dictatorship. Georgia was put on a path to NATO membership and became the second largest per-capita recipient of U.S. aid after Israel, of course but Shevardnadze didn’t toe the line completely, so he had to go. "Shevvy," as U.S. officials called him, lost out, as Gwynne Dyer notes, when he defied Washington on a crucial matter:
"When Shevardnadze signed a deal last year with the Russian gas giant Gazprom, Washington went ballistic. Bush’s energy adviser Steven Mann flew in to warn Shevardnadze not to go ahead with the deal, Mikhail Saakashvili denounced it and Shevardnadze signed it anyway."
With plenty of help from George Soros, Georgia’s "Rose Revolution" gave birth to the Saakashvili regime, which, like its predecessor, has degenerated into outright repression: arrests of opposition leaders, the closing of independent media outlets, harassment of political opponents all of this culminating in a demagogic campaign against a supposed pro-Russian "fifth column" in the opposition ranks. The jails are filled with Mikheil Saakashvili’s critics, and human rights organizations confirm that the bloom is long gone from the Rose Revolution.
When a domestic crisis threatens the power of the leader at home, the age-old solution is to provoke some foreign trouble to divert attention away from the real problem and drum up support for the government. In Georgia, this tactic means vowing, once again, to retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia two autonomous regions that have declared independence. Saakashvili’s defense minister recently boasted that Georgian troops will celebrate the New Year in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital city.
In the case of South Ossetia, which recently voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in favor of independence, the ethnic Russians who make up the majority population of this region want reunification with Russia. They were forcibly prevented from doing so until South Ossetian rebel forces drove out Shevardnadze in the 1990s. Georgian efforts to bully the Ossetians are supported by the Europeans, who have discounted the referendum results in advance, and by such American bigwigs as Sen. John McCain, who visited Tskhinvali in August, and used the occasion to declare:
"Because there was not a direct response to our questions about why OSCE has been blocked from doing its job; why there has been no progress on peace initiatives from Georgia, from the UN, from the OSCE, from other organizations there has been no progress. I think that the attitude there is best described by what you see by driving in [Tskhinvali]: a very large billboard with a picture of Vladimir Putin on it, which says ‘Vladimir Putin Our President.’ I do not believe that Vladimir Putin is now, or ever should be, the president of sovereign Georgian soil."
Is it really the role of a U.S. senator to decide what is and is not "sovereign Georgian soil"? Surely there is a limit to even McCain‘s arrogance. After all, the question of exactly where the boundaries of post-Soviet states should be drawn in order to make some sense, and at the same time ensure justice, is so incredibly complex that even experts on the region come away perplexed. Yet here is McCain, sanctimoniously echoing the rabidly nationalistic rhetoric of Saakashvili and his followers as if it were undisputed fact.
The rebellion of tiny Abkhazia is even more complex: the Abkhazians seek to establish their own independent republic, and have resisted Georgian efforts to reincorporate them into Georgia proper. Ethnic Abkhazians form a distinct national minority within Georgia, with their own language, a long history Abkhazia is the ancient kingdom of Colchis, land of the Golden Fleece and, now, a functioning democracy that has clearly expressed the will of the people. Yet no country anywhere recognizes Abkhazia, not even the Russians, who are nevertheless championing their cause in a number of ways, including issuing passports to Abkhazian (and Ossetian) nationals.
A recently passed UN resolution clearly puts the onus on Georgia, which has been the most belligerent party, to put an end to the conflict. The text "once again urges the Georgian side to address seriously legitimate Abkhaz security concerns, to avoid steps which could be seen as threatening, and to refrain from militant rhetoric and provocative actions, especially in upper Kodori valley."
The Georgians have been aggressive of late, invading the disputed Kodori Gorge and using it as a base from which to attack the Abkhazians. Saakashvili and his government are clearly intent on provoking some sort of conflict, and the only question is whether they will receive U.S. backing. Recent statements by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, cited by the Moscow Times as being "adamantly opposed to a military option on the part of the Georgian government," cast doubt on the possibility, but with this administration you never know.
The anti-Russian rhetoric coming out of John McCain’s mouth, dutifully echoed by the White House, is not just talk. The playing of the "Great Game" in Central Asia involves a U.S. strategy to lock the Russians out of the oil bonanza and claim the area as an alternative source of energy, i.e., an alternative to the Middle East. This may have something to do with why the regime-changers have their sights set on the former Soviet Union, demonizing Vladimir Putin as the alleged reincarnation of Joseph Stalin and targeting Russia as a renewed threat to the West.
The Russians are using the Ossetian and Abkhazian examples as counterpoints to the recent suggestion by the Western occupiers of Kosovo that the formerly Serbian province be granted formal independence. The Kosovars are demanding it, and why, after all, did the U.S. and its European allies fight a war to "liberate" Kosovo from the former Yugoslavia, anyway? Yet if Kosovo deserves independence, then why not Abkhazia and South Ossetia? This riposte is meant to stick in the craw of the Europeans, who have made a special point of taking the Georgian side in this dispute.
Russian "peacekeepers," OSCE "observers," South Ossetian troops, and the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Georgian military are facing off along ill-defined borders, with renegade "rebel" bands supporting one side or the other running wild in the no-man’s land in between. This is a recipe for disaster, and an armed confrontation is bound to occur, with the distinct possibility of escalating into all-out warfare. The Russians would soon be drawn in, and the U.S. could not escape being dragged into this particular vortex with fateful consequences all ’round.
I can just hear McCain barnstorming the country in ‘08, denouncing "Russian imperialism" and demanding that we "stop Putin" in the Caucasus before Russian troops cross the Bering Straits.
Whether or not Abkhazia deserves independence, or South Ossetia should be part of the Russian Federation, are questions that Washington should take no position on, because no legitimate American interests are involved. We have no business meddling in Russia’s "near abroad." We should, however, recognize the de facto governments of these two breakaway regions, simply as a matter of diplomatic convenience: we can’t understand what is happening if we don’t have people on the ground. We should also use our considerable leverage with Saakashvili to get him to back off: his inflammatory rhetoric during Georgia’s recent election campaign, and the statement by his defense minister that Georgian troops would have a New Year’s party in the capital of South Ossetia, does not inspire much confidence.
What seems like a small, obscure dispute could balloon into a major crisis because of the stakes involved. The rising amount of U.S. aid to Georgia greatly aids Saakashvili’s military buildup: his belligerence begs for a stern rebuke, perhaps an aid cutoff. It’s time to rein in this would-be Napoleon-of-the-steppes and nip Georgian imperialism in the bud before it destabilizes what is, after all, a volatile region. If John McCain, George Soros, Anne Applebaum, and the usual neoconservative suspects have their way, Georgia may be the first battleground of a revived Cold War. The problem is that the conflict may turn hot with frightening swiftness.