Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Georgia on your mind? October 9, 2006.

Has Georgia been on your mind lately? Maybe not. It hasn't exactly been an obsession on The National even though the threat of war between Georgia and Russia, its large neighbour to the north, has passed. We could all give thanks and breathe a sigh of relief--if only we had known to be holding our breath at all.

It began a week before last Wednesday when Georgian authorities jailed four senior Russian military officers and 12 Georgians, accusing them of plotting a coup on behalf of Russia. Georgian Interior Ministry forces surrounded Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi demanding the handover of another two Russians.

Moscow responded by recalling its ambassador, evacuating 84 diplomats and their families and calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. By Sunday, General Andrei Popov, commander of Russian military forces in Georgia had put his troops on high alert and ordered that they shoot to kill in defence of their bases.

The Russian political establishment, including MPs, government ministers, leaders of major political parties, and Kremlin-connected political analysts, discussed the possibility of war between the two former Soviet Republics. Although it was barely mentioned here, the story was page one news in Moscow.

Georgia's UN envoy Irakli Alasania told a news conference, "It is crystal clear that the Russian peacekeeping force is not an impartial, nor international contingency."

The province of Abkhazia won effective independence from Georgia in a 1992-1993 war. Moscow pays pensions in the province, issuies Russian passports and stations peacekeepers there.

Georgia accuses Russia of backing Abkhaz separatists, which Moscow denies. A UN peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia, was established, redefined, extended and supplemented by UNSC 858, 881, 973, 1077 and 1494. Part of its mandate is to maintain contact with and observe the operation of the CIS peacekeeping force in relation to a Ceasefire and Separation of Forces Agreement between Georgian and separatist Abkhazian authorities.

Ambassador Alasania said the peace process between Georgia and its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia needed to be overhauled but did not explain why arresting most of the political opposition was the best way to do this.

Outside a joint meeting with NATO defense ministers, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov told a news briefing in Slovenia on Friday quote

"We should not forget that 90% of the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian citizens. They were never citizens of Georgia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the local population in the region, which was then holding Soviet passports individually, sought formal Russian citizenship. And we issued passports [Ivanov said] and granted citizenship rights not only to the citizens of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic but also to the residents in all other former Soviet republics.

"Millions of people opted for Russian citizenship. That was their right and prerogative." endquote

Georgian "Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said the Russian military intelligence officers ...[and] the dozen Georgian citizens who were detained, quote 'showed a particular interest in Georgia's defense capability, its programs of integration into NATO, energy security, political parties and organizations' endquote as well as information about the nation's military forces and infrastructure. Merabishvili called their intentions a quote 'serious provocation.'"

He did not mention that some of the alleged coup plotters were also leaders of Georgian opposition organizations and parties. That information came from Igor Giorgadze, head of the bloc of Georgian opposition political parties, writing in the Japan Times.

Giorgadze went on to say that his colleagues had been quote "jailed on unfair accusations" endquote and to speak of a quote "wave of political repression [that] merely reflects President Mikhail Saakashvili's desperate effort to cling to power." endquote

Giorgadze also observed that quote "the people rounded up in the latest raid against the opposition were originally imprisoned by Eduard Shevarnadze's government, which Saakashvili helped depose in Georgia's supposedly democratic 'rose revolution' in 2003." endquote

While articles in the Western press regularly mentioned the "rose revolution" and some even recalled that it had been inspired by the US, it took Justin Raimondo (Sep 29), editor of the website, to note that the net effect of Bush's democracy crusade in Georgia has only replaced one oppressive autocrat with another.

During this crisis, the Anglo-American media have cast Russia as a villain of the backpages, bullying its smaller neighbour. The Wall Street Journal characterized Russian foreign policy under Putin as "paranoid and bullying." The Boston Globe referred to Putin's "temper tantrum" and his "meltdown." The BBC found medieval torture imagery appropriate, saying that "Russia turns the screws on Georgians" endquote. Obligatory quotations from Russian officials were used to re-inforce the point, but there was no trace or hint in the Anglosphere that there might be a Russian version of events.

MK Bhadrakumar, a former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, writing this time for Asia Times filled in that gaping emptiness.

Russian commentators uniformly believed that Saakashvili acted with Washington's prior knowledge and approval. They saw a pattern in the sequence of events during the past three months following Saakashvili's visit to Washington.

During this period, Georgia deployed its troops in the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, apparently taking one step further toward seeking a "military solution" to the political separatism in the breakaway province; Saakashvili ordered a crackdown on opposition political figures who were mounting an increasingly effective campaign against the power structure in Tbilisi, allegedly for their "pro-Russia" stance; Tbilisi commenced a process of "intensive dialogue" between Georgia and NATO (which is a stipulated prerequisite as per the NATO charter for new members' accession); and last but not least, Saakashvili precipitated with great deliberation a totally unnecessary crisis by detaining the Russian military officers.

Thus, Russian commentators saw last week's developments as falling within the overall context of Russian-American rivalry for influence on the territories of the former Soviet republics. They visualized that the US geopolitical objective was to force Russia out of the Caucasus as part of Washington's agenda of effecting the Atlantic integration of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, and, specifically, of replacing all traces of Russian military presence in any corner of the region through which the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and a future trans-Caspian pipeline run.

Bhadrakumar believes that Moscow is also attempting to foil the Anglo-American gameplan on NATO expansion by emphasizing the precedent-setting nature of the referendum in Kosovo (and Montenegro) recently held with EU endorsement and US support on the province's separation from Serbia. (Similar also to East Timor.) Moscow has argued that what the West considers acceptable in Kosovo (or Montenegro), namely, the right of self-determination, should be equally acceptable to Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

In the end, the tensions were so grave that international mediators intervened and the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht of Belgium, flew to Georgia's capital on Monday to preside over the release of the Russian officers. But not before Russia announced on Monday (Oct 2) that it would suspend air, rail, sea and automobile transportation as well as postal service between the two countries.

Saakashvili said “We cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of emerging empire.”

Georgian opposition leader Giorgadze sums up:
The latest events clearly indicate that a czarist mentality survived the revolution, reflected in a Byzantine model of political power -- an emperor and his court -- that has as its main vehicle largely unconstrained presidential authority.

[Note: The same criticism is made of Bush. Projecting power means projecting the weaknesses that go with it. -jlt]

Before the security forces targeted the opposition bloc that I represent, supporters of educational reforms were prosecuted, while most of the press came under the influence of the government.

Saakashvili claims that the opposition forces that I represent oppose Western values. But we advocate parliamentarism -- genuine separation of executive and legislative power -- in Georgia. And, in supporting the Western model of parliamentarism, we are on the side of Georgia, not Russia. It is strange that Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School, fails to see the disparity between his own democratic rhetoric and autocratic actions.


The unfortunate paradox in Georgia [Giorgadze continues] -- and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world -- is that self-serving pro-Western rhetoric has often led democratic values to be sacrificed in favor of a new dictatorship. When the West actively supports popular revolutions, as in Georgia and Ukraine, the newly established power relies on democratic slogans, not democratic behavior.

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