US Blinded by Love for Saakashvili

Can the Caucasus ever escape from the cycle of coups and violence that have beset the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Not if the rhetoric of Georgia’s new 36-year-old President Mikheil Saakashvili is anything to go by.

Before setting out on a visit to the United States last week, Saakashvili announced that he had given an order to fire on all ships – including cruise ships – that violate Georgia’s territorial waters. "I say this so that tourists who are now coming to Abkhazia will hear it," he told reporters Aug. 3.

Saakashvili’s rhetoric echoes the justifications given by Soviet officials in 1983 after a South Korean airliner was shot down for violating the Soviet Union’s "sacred, sovereign airspace," as Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov put it at the time. More than 200 civilians were killed. But Georgia today is run by a team of thirty-something post-Soviets educated in the West. Shouldn’t it behave in a very different way?

Sadly, Saakashvili’s approach to asserting Georgian sovereignty contains more than echoes of Soviet practice. More recent blood-soaked disasters in his country’s history seem to set a precedent. On Aug. 14, 1992, the Georgian government’s conflict with Abkhazia escalated from words to armed combat when Tbilisi sent its motley army into the coastal region to assert Georgian sovereignty. The orgy of murder, plunder and rape that followed engendered a bitter Abkhazian backlash. One year later, the Georgian army had fled and a third of a million Georgian-speaking civilians followed the defeated rabble out of Abkhazia.

Despite his bloodthirsty rhetoric directed at Georgia’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili enjoys bipartisan support in Washington. Even at the height of a bitter domestic election campaign, the supporters of both U.S. President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry have nothing but praise for the Columbia Law School alumnus. George Soros may have pledged millions to oust Bush, but he has boasted that his money helped to install Saakashvili in power last November. The Open Society Institute helped train the protesters who toppled Eduard Shevardnadze to the applause of the Bush White House.

Yet support on both sides of the aisle for a Georgian president with a tough approach to separatism is nothing new.

Twelve years ago, when Shevardnadze stormed back to power in the ex-Soviet republic he had led as Communist Party boss until 1985, the Washington consensus backed the first President Bush’s endorsement of the new Georgian president even though he had toppled an elected predecessor. In 1992, the State Department and international observers accepted Shevardnadze’s claim to have received over 90 percent of the vote. Last January, neither the State Department nor international observers saw anything suspicious in official results showing that 97 percent of Georgians voted for Saakashvili.

There is an almost Orwellian aspect to the way in which the U.S. establishment has erased its love affair with Shevardnadze from the pages of history while it carries on in exactly the same fashion with his successor. After all, then-Secretary of State James Baker went to Georgia in 1992 to praise Shevardnadze’s anti-corruption drive and democratization efforts, even finding time for a photo-op with the notorious mafioso Dzhaba Ioseliani.

In 1999, James Baker presided over the ceremony awarding Shevardnadze the Enron Prize for Distinguished Public Service. Then in 2003 the same James Baker returned to Georgia and blasted the Shevardnadze regime for corruption and election fraud.

Baker’s message was clear: Washington’s love affair with Shevardnadze was over.

Now Washington embraces Saakashvili with the same ardor. Watching Saakashvili’s tirades against separatists and his enthusiastic reception in the United States is like witnessing a crazy rerun of Georgia’s smash-up in 1992.

Saakashvili may have ousted Shevardnadze with only a few broken skulls – what the media call a "bloodless revolution" – but Abkhazia and South Ossetia may be tougher nuts to crack. Shevardnadze’s police and army could be bought off to serve a new master. But the rebels have no obvious way of reintegrating themselves into a Georgian force.

Don’t be taken in by the carefully staged photos of Georgian troops in U.S.-style uniforms under banners reading "USA-Georgia, United We Stand" arranged for the benefit of Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld. The hundred-plus U.S. soldiers training Georgia’s new army complain that different men show up for training every day, rendering the exercise pointless.

Maybe Georgia’s army is better dressed than Shevardnadze’s ragtag paramilitaries in 1992, but uniforms do not make soldiers. Whether Saakashvili’s forces will prove any better disciplined on the battlefield than their predecessors remains to be seen. Let’s hope it is still not too late for the president to back away from putting them to the test.

It is true that, apart from a few beatings, Saakashvili recovered control of Adzharia in May without serious bloodshed. But Adzharia is very different from the two breakaway regions that Saakashvili is provoking now.

Adzharians are Georgians and would have seen violence with Saakashvili’s forces as a civil war. Adzharia lacked an army. Abkhazians and Ossetians have no fellow feeling with Georgians. They speak different languages. More importantly, they suffered from the ravages of Shevardnadze’s paramilitaries in the early 1990s and they know that many of Saakashvili’s hard-line supporters were among the gangs that looted Sukhumi in August 1992 under the guise of "restoring national unity." Abkhazians and Ossetians have soldiers who fought in the past against Georgian invaders and routed them.

Is it worth risking another bloody conflict? Another round of ethnic cleansing would be the result if Saakashvili won. If you were an Abkhazian or Ossetian listening to his daily rants threatening retribution, would you trust the new Georgia to treat you and your family any better than the discredited Georgia of Shevardnadze?

Like Iraq or Sudan, Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus are awash with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. A Caucasian tinderbox may be about to catch fire. If it does, Americans in the region could carry the can for Washington’s failure to rein in Saakashvili’s aggressive tendencies.

People there know he studied at Columbia. They cite Soros’ backing for him, including his payment of many ministers’ salaries. When told that Soros’ Open Society Institute has nothing to do with the Bush White House because it is a nongovernmental organization, Georgians just laugh. So when people across that unstable region hear Saakashvili threatening to sink tourist boats, an invisible logo flashes through people’s minds: "Made in America."

Neither candidate in the U.S. presidential race may be thinking much about ex-Soviet Georgia this summer. Electoral college votes in the South are probably uppermost in their minds. But if the United States stands by and lets Saakashvili invade Abkhazia or South Ossetia, the president’s enemies will regard him as Washington’s proxy.

Resistance to any rash attack by Georgia could easily spawn terrorism. The pipeline that Washington has promoted to carry oil across Georgia from the Caspian Sea could prove as vulnerable to sabotage as any in Iraq. American personnel operating in Georgia could also be targets if Abkhazians, Ossetians and their friends decide to target the people they see as Saakashvili’s sponsors.

As the United States’ attention is locked on its own presidential battle, real conflict is looming in the Caucasus, and Americans there could pay the price for repeating the mistakes of 12 years ago. Certainly, ordinary people there on both sides of the tattered cease-fire line have little cause for optimism.

Reprinted from the Moscow Times