So goes the Russian proverb about governing the Caucasus. The entire Caucasus region seems to be one of those areas hell-bent on proving right those of us who believe that not every culture and people is ready for prime-time democracy.
This area (and the proverb) first came to my attention in Russian class back in 1988, reading Pravda articles for second-year Russian reading comprehension tests on the deteriorating situation in Nagorno-Karabakh . This was the first strong indication to me that Soviet control over its own territory might be less iron curtain than rust curtain.
As events rolled on, I was a bit surprised at Shevarnadze’s decision to leave the Russian government to return to his native land. I’m sure the prospect of losing the looming political battles in Moscow had some influence on the decision, but being a giant fish in a little pond probably appealed as well.
At its end, Shevardnadze’s career provided the backdrop for the first of the “color revolutions”, while showing that the Georgians were less inclined than many of their neighbors, including Russia, to accept political corruption. The Rose Revolution brought the young lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili to power on an anti-corruption campaign that has failed to live up to its promises in his second term.
In recent months the always-volatile Saakashvili has been adding anti-Russian vitriol to his campaign to enroll Georgia in NATO. The vitriol stems from a long-standing Russian use of Ossetia as an ally against the Ingusetians and Chechens in the region. In the 20s, North Ossetia was granted Autonomous Republic status, and a South Ossetian region was carved out of the Georgian Republic. Although the moves were probably for reasons of political expediency only, in a state of affairs that is depressingly familiar to historians of the Balkans and Caucasus, ethnic hatreds were stoked by rumors alleging that the Ossetians received favorable treatment due to the remote Ossetian ancestry of Stalin’s father.
Despite this alleged preferential treatment, Stalin was content to allow South Ossetia to stay under the control of the Georgians. However, in the post-USSR world, Russia has seen South Ossetia as an outpost into the increasingly unfriendly territory to its south, especially as a lever to keep Georgia from leaning farther West. In fact, Russia has issued Russian passports to a majority of the 70,000 people living in the republic, and its “peacekeeping” troops regularly supply intelligence and arms to Eduard Kokoity’s separatist regime.
Into this background comes the Russian maneuverings around Chechnya and the American hunger for airbases close enough to strike at Iran and Afghanistan. Saakashvili has been, with the backing of new member Estonia, petitioning for membership in NATO. NATO has wisely taken a slower approach than the Georgians would like.
Yesterday, August 7, Saakashvili sent his troops against Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, in a move that brought Russian “peacekeepers” under fire as well. The response in the Russian press was predictable: “Georgia is de-facto waging war on Russian Peacekeepers”. Russian Ministry of Defense response was also predictable, and armored. Russian Tanks are now defending Russian interests in South Ossetia, and Russian planes have attacked Georgian targets. The latest from Russia is that hundreds of “volunteers” from North Ossetia are pouring into the disputed territory, giving Moscow plausible deniability if her puppets push the conflict past any ceasefires brokered by the EU or NATO.
It is hard to pick sides, either from a moral or realpolitik standpoint. The Georgian leadership is a mess, the Russians are playing on ethnic hatreds to secure more influence in the region. If Saakashvili had counted on NATO or US support due to Georgia’s perceived status as an indispensable ally in the GWOT, he was sadly mistaken. Georgia is far too unstable an ally in which to pour resources. And even if Georgia wins, the territory of Ossetia holds few resources while administering the region will be an economic drain. I have no idea how long the fighting will continue, but this seems for certain to have scuttled Georgia’s bid for NATO membership. One wonders what hubris or miscalculation led Saakashvili to fire upon Tskhinvali yesterday.
The “Kosovo factor” also matters.
Even before the Serbian province unilaterally declared independence, there was a strong body of thought in the Russian political and diplomatic worlds, that believed Russian recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence would be morally and politically justified.
This has become much stronger since many Western countries ignored furious Russian objections and recognised Kosovo’s independence.
Update: Perhaps this is what Saakashvili was hoping for:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone conversation today that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “must go,” meaning he should be ousted from office, Khalilzad said.
This is unacceptable, and it makes Saakashvili a hero in Georgia, obviating some of his domestic troubles. I do not think that the US has any choice but to support him now. He needs to be tossed in the trash heap when this is all over, however.