Georgia in Russia's bear hug

EUROPEAN UNION foreign ministers meeting in emergency session today to discuss the situation in Georgia should begin by asking why it took the outbreak of war to focus their attention. They had no cause to be surprised.

By David Clark

Published: Tue 12 Aug 2008, 9:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

The warning signs had been apparent for at least a year, and the Georgian government had made strenuous efforts to raise the alarm. This time last summer a Russian jet violated Georgian airspace and dropped a missile north of Tbilisi in what appeared to be a botched attack on a Georgian radar installation. Russia denied involvement, but two separate independent investigations found otherwise.

Despite this, Georgia's plea for diplomatic support fell almost entirely on deaf ears.

Whether or not the incident was planned in order to test international reactions to an escalation of Russian military action in Georgia, Moscow clearly took encouragement from the absence of a response. With western governments preoccupied elsewhere - not least with Iran, where they need Russian support for a negotiated solution on the nuclear issue -- Russian strategists evidently concluded that they enjoyed a free hand in their "near abroad".

In April, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would be strengthening official links with Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including opening formal relations with their political bodies and strengthening trade ties.

This only confirmed what had been apparent for several years -- that Russia is actively supporting secessionist forces instead of respecting its mandate and behaving as an honest broker. But it ripped away the final pretence that its role in Georgia is one of peacekeeping.

Other steps of escalation quickly followed. Russia moved 400 troops into Abkhazia under the pretext of working on a railway project. Russian planes started shooting down Georgian aerial drones. There was an increase in armed attacks by Russian-backed forces in South Ossetia, including a roadside bomb that injured six Georgian policemen and an attempt to assassinate the head of the pro-Tbilisi provisional administration of South Ossetia.

None of these incidents received much coverage outside the region, so the impression has been created that Georgia initiated the current fighting with an unprovoked assault on South Ossetia. This is quite false. It has surely been a big misjudgment on Georgia's part, but resort to offensive operations came at the end of a long period of rising tension in which Russia had done everything it could to stir up trouble and provoke a reaction.

The history behind Georgia's "frozen conflicts" is long and complex, and there is certainly fault to be found on all sides. The wars that followed Georgia's independence were brutal affairs in which members of all communities were to be found among the victims and perpetrators. It is therefore understandable that Abkhazians and South Ossetians are suspicious of Tbilisi and want guarantees about their security. It is also true that Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has turned out to be something less than the model democrat he first seemed. Many former admirers have been shocked at his increasingly authoritarian leanings.

But complexity is no excuse for abdicating moral judgment in situations of this importance. If responsibility for the conflict is not a black and white matter, the picture is not uniformly grey either. By any reasonable measure, the impact of Russian policy has been uniquely destructive in generating instability and political division in the Caucasus.

The events of the early 1990s notwithstanding, Georgia's treatment of minorities that have remained under its rule has been generally good. Whatever his faults, Saakashvili is no Milosevic - and wild Russian allegations of genocide have no independent support. Under approp-riate international supervision, it would be perfectly possible to turn his offer of autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia into a workable constitutional settlement that guaranteed the security and fundamental rights of people living those territories.

The problem is that considerations of this nature form no part of Russia's vision for the region. It talks about defending the people of South Ossetia, but the Kremlin's aims are geopolitical rather than humanitarian. It seeks to restore the sphere of influence it regards as Russia's birthright, which it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union (a "major geopolitical disaster", according to Putin).

There is no place for an independent Georgia (or Ukraine or Moldova) in this mental picture. When Russian leaders talk about the benefits of "sovereign democracy", they are talking exclusively about their own sovereignty and not at all about democracy. The countries on their borders have no right to foreign policies of their own if they conflict with Russia's. This is especially true of energy supplies, where Georgia's role in maintaining the only east-west pipeline route free of Russia's monopolistic grip causes double offence. This is about the Kremlin's attitude to us, too.

So how should western countries respond? The question arises most immediately in relation to Nato, where Georgia hopes to take a step closer to joining by securing a membership action plan. Sceptics within Nato, like Germany, will see the conflict as evidence that Georgia is an unreliable partner best kept at arm's length. This is entirely the wrong way of looking at it. Georgia's security concerns are real, and Russia is the cause. The onus should therefore be on Russia to reduce the security fears that drive the desire for Nato membership by withdrawing unwanted troops and becoming part of a political solution to the frozen conflicts. If it will not do this, it has to accept the consequences.

Beyond this, everything depends on what happens next. There are troubling signs in some of the victory statements coming out of Moscow yesterday that Russia may feel emboldened to impose a punitive settlement, perhaps by annexing territory. This is not something that the EU and its allies should be prepared to tolerate. As so often with bullies, the Russian government's behaviour disguises deep insecurity and a craving for respect. This makes it more susceptible to our opinions than we often think. Further aggressive steps against Georgia would certainly be a reason to reconsider whether Russia should continue to enjoy the prestige that comes with membership of the G8.

Another possible response ties in nicely with our current Olympic obsession. Russia is due to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 at Sochi and hopes to use the event, like the Chinese, as an expression of its power on the world stage. There would be very good grounds for asking the International Olympic Committee to consider whether a country that was actively working to dismember a neighbour only a few kilometres from Sochi was an adequate standard-bearer for the Olympic ideal.

Too often European governments succumb to the fatalism of believing that Russia is beyond influence. That is perhaps the real reason why they chose to ignore the warning signs in Georgia until it was too late.

David Clark is a former government adviser and is chairman of the Russia Foundation in the UK © Guardian News Service

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