3 September 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 September 2008

There’s a lot that is simply depressing about the Georgian crisis of the past month. There’s the extraordinary stupidity of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in thinking he could retake the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force without the Kremlin using it as the pretext for rolling in the tanks already waiting to go in.

Then there’s the type of force the Georgian military apparently used: an artillery barrage against a small town, which, although small-scale by Russian standards in Chechnya and a long way short of “genocide”, presented Moscow with a better excuse for moving in than it could ever have imagined.

But most of all there’s the premeditated Russian invasion itself – prepared over years by issuing Russian passports to South Ossetians and over months by amassing a serious invasion force – and its aftermath of brutal ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and beyond, mainly by irregular paramilitaries. As I write, the Russians are still occupying swathes of territory they promised to vacate and have recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, quite obviously with the intention of absorbing both into the Russian Federation in the not-too-distant future.

It should not have come to this, and that it has speaks volumes both of the sick state of Russian politics and of the failure of the western democracies to support Georgia.

Why did Russia invade? Forget the cant about protecting ethnic minorities and defending the right to national self-determination: this has been an exercise in blatant power projection aimed at showing Georgia who is boss. A large part of the Russian elite – backed by public opinion – cannot stand the humiliation of having been rejected by Georgia in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been spoiling for a fight ever since.

But the Kremlin would probably not have pushed it as far were it not for the incompetence of western policy on Georgia, particularly in the past six months.

Georgia is not an easy country to deal with. Its democracy is new and flawed. Corruption, endemic five years ago, is still widespread, and its record on human rights is patchy. South Ossetians and Abkhazians are so few in number they could never form viable independent states, but they have genuine cause to fear Georgian “territorial integrity” since the vicious civil wars of the early 1990s (though many more Georgians found themselves forced from their homes then than anyone else). And of course there is the role of Russia, backing the secessionist enclaves and professing outrage about western interference in its near-abroad – just as the west’s reliance upon Russian energy supplies has become critical.

Yet none of this can excuse the way the west has messed up. The first decade of Georgian independence – under the presidencies first, briefly, of the chauvinist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, then the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian former Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze – made it abundantly clear that Georgia still had a long way to go before it could be considered properly democratic.

Rightly, western governments and non-governmental organisations, particularly those funded by the financier George Soros, gave support to Georgians attempting to open up civil society and institute a real democracy – and as such played an important though hardly determining role in the protest movement against rigged elections that became the “rose revolution” of 2003, which led to Shevardnadze’s resignation and new elections in 2004 that Saakashvili won convincingly.

Saakashvili as president deserved western support, but not the wholly uncritical sort he got from the Bush administration. It should not have been beyond the EU and the US to negotiate a plan for Georgian accession to the EU after cleaning up Georgia’s human rights record and negotiating substantial autonomy for South Ossetia and Abkhazia – with possible Nato membership much later. Instead, stupidly, Georgian membership of Nato became the big immediate issue, on Georgian and American insistence, and as soon as it became clear earlier this year that France and Germany would not sanction it, Moscow knew it had the perfect opportunity to teach both Tblisi and Washington a lesson if it could provoke Saakashvili to act against its secessionist clients.

What next? Gordon Brown and David Miliband are surely right to argue that the world should not acquiesce in Russia’s aggression, but it is difficult to see how Moscow can be persuaded to return even to the status quo ante of the beginning of August. It’s a matter of making the best of a bad job, making clear in small ways that the democratic world disapproves of Russia’s actions while giving Georgia serious material and political support – say by offering it EU membership in five years and Nato membership in 10. Would that set off a new cold war? Probably not, but if it did the prime responsibility would lie with the irredentists in the Kremlin.

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