Friday, November 09, 2007

Georgia in the Russian cross hairs

The last few days have been difficult, even in the context of the tumultuous recent history of Georgia. Riots, and government demonstrations in Tbilisi, the declaration of a state of emergency. A familiar tale of instability in the Caucasus, would be most observers diagnosis.

Except it is not.

Georgia is a country of absolutely critical geo-strategic significance. Put simply the Baku-Tbilisi corridor is the only way that oil can get to the global markets from the vast fields of Kazakhstan and the Caspian without passing through Russia.

For the West Georgia is a vital part of global energy security: for Russia Georgia poses a defiant challenge to Russian hegemony over the central Asian energy reserves.

Constantly Russia has harried and harassed the Western oriented government of Mikheil Saakashvili- it illegally expelled thousands of Georgian traders and business people in 2006- a policy condemned by Human Rights Watch . In August of this year the repeated illegal over flights of Georgia by the Russian Air force even included a missile attack.

The constant open pressure by Russia has not caused Georgia to fold, but there is also a more secretive aspect to the Russian policy. The mysterious death of the previous Prime Minister, Zurab Zhavania has been linked to the Russian secret service. Last October, Russia sealed the border after Georgia uncovered a series of Russian officials and soldiers in the country illegally with plans to either take hostage or kill several Georgian officials: the soldiers involved were handed over to the OSCE .

In the context of the constant pressure from Russia, the latest unrest in Georgia begins to assume a far more sinister shape. The extraordinary allegations made against the government by the former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, are so extreme that they carry eerie echos of the kind of brainwashing that former GRU agent Viktor Suvorov alleges took place under the Soviet Union.

In the face of the protests that these extraordinary allegations provoked, President Saakashvili has done the right thing: brought forward elections which he hopes will confirm that he has a mandate to continue the open market, democratic policies that have led the country into dramatic economic growth and a close relationship with the West.

It looks as though this move has defused the protests- but it has also revealed that the regime, far from being the dictatorship of Russian imagination, is firmly rooted in a democratic outlook. In fact the economy minister, Kakha Bedukidze, Is an openly avowed libertarian, who has pursued a complete transformation in the Georgian economy by massive deregulation and by a radical privatisation programme. These are not generally policies consistent with dictatorship.

The Russian propaganda machine continues to launch attacks against Georgia, while the West has been more tepid in its support for a critical ally. Georgia may be "a faraway country of which we know nothing", but as in 1938 Czechoslovakia, the fall of Georgia into the Russian sphere would dramatically weaken the strategic position of the West.

It is a game of high stakes. The Russians need to be told that their meddling must cease- now.


Chris K said...

While Russia has misbehaved towards Georgia for many years, that doesn't mean they are specifically fomenting any unrest now.

The Georgian opposition seems to be even more nationalist than Saakashvili - Irakli Okruashvili, for instance, was a 'hawk' in the Saakashvili cabinet.

And while Saakashvili has brought forward elections, he has not done what the opposition was calling for. The original issue (a few weeks ago) was the date of the Parliamentary polls: should they happen in the spring, on schedule, or should they be delayed until autumn to coincide with the Presidential elections as Saakashvili wanted.

Saakashvili was starting to act a bit like a teapot dictator and I suspect it is this which has got the opposition, and the populace, riled.

Blaming Russia yet again could be little more than predictable spin from Saakashvili.

Peter Bancroft said...

Good post, but I think that on balance I also agree with Chris.

The National Movement in Georgia is not as easily attributed to freedom and democracy as we sometimes hear.

The best description I've heard is that it's a party of "the night" and of "the day" (and Saakashvili exhibits both) - with some really good democratic instincts and some horrendous populist behaviour. After all, some of the regime's main muscle men simply switched parties when Shevardnadze's movement fell apart.

The National Movement occasionally makes overtones towards moving to a fully multi-party system (and some of its MPs would like that to happen), but the Conservative and Republican parties have both found it difficult to operate in environments where the National Movement is such a strong user of administrative resource (another trick learned from the Shevardnadze/Soviet years).

I think we'll hear more from Georgia over the coming months.

Anonymous said...

The things your learn here! So Zhvania was murdered by the Russians. I guess they were also behind 911, since Litvinenko said so.

Anonymous said...

You'll have to be more clear as to how the Conservative Party is an ally of Putin for me to respond fairly to your point Cicero. Regarding this I see you dodge my two points. Yes Misha has done the right thing in calling Elections, but why were Rubber bullets used a favourite of strong arm regimes everywhere and why the raid and taking off the air of the TV station. Yes they may well be biased against him but if that were a good reason for taking TV stations off air Britain would be blacked out! All they were doing apparently was broadcasting footage of the trouble. This is not by the way to whitewash Russian behaviour merely to point out that your anti Putin passion is perhaps blinding you to some worrryingly authoritarian tendencies in Saaakshvili himself as President


Cicero said...

By being allied to United Russia in the PACE the Conservatives are formally allied to Putin. The also receive money for their work on PACE via the chairman of the ED group, whose head is a Russian member of PACE. That makes the Conservatives formally aliied to Putin: when are you guys going to do something about this? Furthermore this is not an idle alliance_ several leading Conservatives are involved with companies whose main earnings stream is Russian- and these same people spak in support of giving Putin the benefir of the doubt. I have met several members of the gerogian government, including Bedukidze, and I have no doubts where the fault lies in this.

Cicero said...

Anon 1- The KGB had form in this- so it can not be dismissed as mere paranoia.

Anonymous said...

So does the CIA.