by Mark Almond - Eurasia Critic
To judge from much of the over-heated commentary in the Anglo-American media, the brief war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August lay somewhere between Brezhnev’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 in terms of gratuitous aggression. While happily declaring a New Cold War between the West and Russia, many analysts overlooked that US support for post-Soviet states like Georgia was a continuation of the old rivalry between Washington and Moscow even if the Kremlin had hoped for a more cooperative relationship.
The very fact that during the Cold War decades Westerners routinely called their rivals “Russians”, ignoring the multi-national nature of the Communist state, has silently facilitated the current equation of post-Communist Russia with the old USSR. Much is made of Vladimir Putin’s junior post in the KGB, but the service in the Soviet border guards of both Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenkio and Georgias’s Mikheil Saakashvili is almost never mentioned. Only Russians have a tarnished Communist past in the black-and-white world of post-Communism.
Ironically, at first it seems the Putin group in charge of the Kremlin from 2000 saw Saakashvili as a post-Communist figure like themselves. In age and education, though not in personal style, Russia’s new English-speaking president Dmitri Medvedev and his Georgian counterpart might seem to share a lot in common. Looking back to Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in November, 2003, it is clear that far from trying to block Mikheil Saakashvili’s coming to power, the Kremlin actively promoted change.
Few today remember that President Putin twice sent his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, to defuse political crises in Georgia and strikingly to persuade the leader of the apparently more pro-Russian side to back down: he was instrumental in securing Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation as Georgian president in November, 2003, and six months later eased Aslan Abashidze out of his fiefdom as leader of autonomous Adjara. Soon afterwards Russia withdrew its remaining troops from bases in Georgia, keeping only small peace-keeping contingents in the buffer zones between Georgia proper and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia’s military retreat combined with its facilitation of Mikheil Saakashvili’s control in Georgia itself won the Kremlin no gratitude from the government in Tbilisi – or its backers in Washington.
It may be that in politics, as Stalin used to say, gratitude is a disease of dogs, but Putin’s resentment that East-West relations were a one-way traffic with concessions and assistance coming only from his side was bound to come to a sticky end. It is one thing for Moscow to listen to lectures from Washington but quite another to bear the same from Tbilisi. Despite American endorsement of his democratic credentials, soon Georgia’s prisons were overflowing with “economic criminals and other opponents of the new regime. Saakashvili’s boasts of an economic boom sounded more plausible in the West than at home. Local disenchantment with unemployment and corruption became threatening in November, 2007, and was crushed by the lavishly-funded security services.
While President Saakashvili felt the need for a foreign policy success to bolster his regime at home and made a grotesque over-estimation of his forces’ capacity to overrun Russian-protected zones, Russia’s new assertiveness reflected a real growth in economic power and military competence since the humiliations of the Yeltsin years. Saakashvili provoked his own debacle, but the West’s response will be decisive if a local spat in the Caucasus is not to spiral downwards, dragging Russia and its economic partners in the EU as well as its old sparing partner America into worse dangers.
Whereas Washington, loyally followed by a regime in London almost as shaky as Georgia’s own, has taken a hard line rhetorically, President Sarkozy has tried to calm nerves. France is more realistic about Saakashvili because it has real sources of information on Georgia rather than relying on American public relations firms retained by the Georgian government at the expense of foreign aid donors. Saakashvili’s disillusioned ex-foreign minister, Salome Zurabishvili was French ambassador before switching passports. Waiting in the wings in exile in Paris, too, is Saakashvili’s erstwhile Defence Minister, Irakli Okruashvili. France has still cards to play.
By calling a conference to discuss the wider issues of unrecognised states, President Sarkozy and the EU presidency risk opening many cans of worms, but they also have a chance to settle the nagging problem of refugees in Georgia which did not begin in August, 2008.
Something like a quarter of a million Georgians fled Abkhazia after Shevardnadze’s debacle there in October, 1993. The bulk of these people were abandoned by the Georgian government to a miserable fate, living in squalid and over-crowded conditions in requisitioned hotels, sanatoria and disused factory buildings. The only significant change in their treatment, after the fall of Shevardnadze, was that Saakashvili’s government ejected the displaced people from the prominent real estate like the Iveria Hotel on the Rustaveli Boulevard in central Tbilisi to make way for paying guests. Although the Georgian government claimed to have granted the evicted people monetary compensation so they could find their own accommodation at commercial rates, many of them dispute this and deny receiving funds. The recent publicity about the far fewer refugees from South Ossetia since 8th August, 2008, may attract Western aid to the larger pre-existing pool of displaced people from the earlier fighting in 1992-93, but the record of embezzlement and misdirection of foreign aid in Georgia does not encourage hopes that the hundreds of thousands of indigent people from the disputed regions will be the ones to benefit from foreign aid. But the EU has a track record of promoting refugee return in the war-torn Balkans which is better than US sneering at Europe’s failures in the early 1990s would suggest.
Ironically, it has been the two internationally-supervised Balkan states, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, which have been the least successful at achieving a return to their homes of erstwhile ethnically-cleansed inhabitants. It is true that almost all of Kosovo’s 800,000 Albanian refugees from the March-June, 1999 conflict have returned home, but something like a quarter of a million Serbs, Gypsies, Bosniaks, Turks, Croats and other minorities were forced out as KFOR and UNMiK arrived. Although both Bosnian government representatives and the successive High Representatives have boasted about 2 million or more refugees returning there since 1995, they too overlook that many have returned to the territory of Bosnia but not to their old homes.
Certainly the EU has little to be proud of in either Kosovo or Bosnia despite its prominent role of providing officials to oversee both BiH and Kosovo and the billions of euros pumped into them in aid. If the EU hasn’t persuaded Sarajevo or Pristina to abide fully by European values, in the case of Croatia it has had striking success..
Croatia was pressured by the EU to reintegrate Serbs who fled from Slavonia and Krajina in 1995 as a condition for admission into the EU. Even though the current Croatian premier, Dr. Ivo Sanadar, played an important role as President Franjo Tudjman’s link-man with the US and its military advisers in the period of Operation Storm in 1995, his government proved much more willing to grant Croatian passports and other civic rights to Serbs exiled a decade earlier, than the less nationalist coalition which came to power after Tudjman’s death in 1999. The carrot of EU membership seems to have induced Sanader’s government to ignore its own core supporters’ antagonism about granting Serbs a right of return – if only to sell their property – and to push through a remarkable turn-around in Croatia’s policy towards erstwhile rebels.
The EU will not have sufficient leverage over Abkhazia or South Ossetia (under Russian protection) to make them renounce independence and seek reintegration with Georgia. But what the EU might be able to achieve is to foster a climate in which both Sukhumi and Tskhinvali see it as in their own interests to facilitate the return of Georgian refugees (or least the recovery of their property or compensation) because Brussels would reward such generosity with reciprocal trade and aid benefits. It may be a long-shot but it is likely to do more to improve the position of refugees than a policy of sanctions and isolation. Abkhazians themselves will be able to benefit from an open border with Russia across which tourists and trade will now flow freely so a Western boycott will not hit them but only confirm the refugee status of the Georgian ex-residents of the region.
Georgia’s own future will not be served by swaggering insistence on re-building its military which performed so lamentably. Washington and the other backers of Saakashvili should swallow the humiliation of their contractors and not pour in good money after bad into an arms race with Russia which Georgia can never win. What Georgia needs is foreign friends who promote its geopolitical interests. Neutrality, not NATO membership is the best way for Georgia to have a chance of democracy and prosperity.
It is one unsung part of the Cold War worth reviving. Eisenhower, Eden and Khrushchev could agree to Austria’s neutrality in 1955 when the ideological chasm between East and West was much deeper and colder than today. If Washington could stop smarting at the humiliation of its reckless protégé, Saakashvili, and cease seeing NATO expansion as a zero-sum game, then it could offer Russia terms difficult to refuse.
Russia can live with an independent Georgia. What it cannot abide is Georgia as a launching pad for an undeclared war against its own territory. Mean it or not, some influential American policy-makers and commentators give the impression that that is just what they want. Dark talk in the US media about reviving the Chechen insurrection via the Pankisi Gorge or setting the North Caucasus ablaze – with the restive Ingush who have no love for their old rivals, the Ossetes, in the vanguard – is taken seriously in Moscow.
What America and its allies need to do to reassure Russia while simultaneously blocking the path to any potential revived Russian expansionism south of the Caucasus is to offer mutual guarantees of the neutral status of the countries lying between NATO and Russia’s rim. If countries from Ukraine via Georgia to Azerbaijan had international security guarantees of their statehood and independence conditional only on their neutrality, they would get the perceived benefits of NATO membership without the provocative risks and heavy financial costs involved in joining the US-led alliance. Equally Russia’s interests in keeping American hyper-power from the gates of Moscow would be met.
Of course the politicians and their cronies who have built their careers or wealth on sponsorship by the advocates of never-ending NATO enlargement would lose out – as would the military contracting companies and arms manufacturers in America – but their loss would be a public benefit not least to the impoverished Georgians who have lived without reliable public services or utilities while 70% of the state budget went on armaments which were destroyed within 48 hours in August!
Both Russia and Turkey would benefit from a neutral Georgia. NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union itself alarms Russia without enhancing Turkey’s security. Quite to the contrary, Russian perceptions of Turkey as an ally of their Georgian irritant worsens relations between Moscow and Ankara.
NATO expansion has become the disease of which it pretended to be the cure. Far from securing democracy and sovereignty in states like Georgia, it has become an excuse for subordinating freedom to “national security” and for creating a grotesquely bloated and incompetent security sector. From the point of view of Western energy security, the prospect of NATO expansion has encouraged Russia to treat the pipelines from Central Asia and Azerbaijan as part of its security sphere. The Baku to Ceyhan route would not be under threat had it not been routinely hailed as a blow against Russia. It is time for Western energy links to the Caspian basin to be treated on their economic and logistical merits and not as a weapon in an economic geopolitical struggle against Russia – which the West will lose for obvious geographical reasons.
Neutrality would be good for ordinary people south of the Caucasus and in much of the post-Soviet Union space as well. Foreign patrons would not be competing to pick local champions, whose democratic credentials seem more dependent on their relations with Washington or Moscow than the local ballot box. Genuine democracy might have a chance in societies whose politics could return to bread-and-butter social and economic issues rather than the current gesture politics of nationalism combined with the craven allegiance to a great power patron.
In the run up to the US Presidential elections both main candidates and their key supporters have indulged in a competition to see who could stoke up Cold War animosity towards Russia. Whoever wins will have to deal with the Kremlin. The question is whether John McCain or Barrack Obama has the statesmanlike qualities of a Nixon and will eat his campaign trail words once in the White House.
Without some American recognition of the limits of US power while reminding Russia of her own limitations too, the kind of East-West spat set off by Georgia’s attempted re-occupation of South Ossetia could easily be repeated – but maybe somewhere the stakes will be higher and the balance of forces less one-sided. The EU’s diplomacy has not been perfect, but at least Paris and Berlin acted wisely to defuse the crisis while juvenile voices in London echoed Saakashvili’s American-style neo-conservative rhetoric as though sound bites make history even in the Caucasus.
A cooling of the rhetoric which has become ugly on all sides should open the way for a serious attempt in Geneva in mid-October by the USA, Russia and the EU to chart a mutually-acceptable policy of neutralisation in the Caucasus and other flashpoints. The age of “either with us or against us” should give way to “neither on your side nor mine”. That will be bad news for the defence contractors and armchair Cold Warriors, but the best news yet for the suffering peoples south of the Caucasus. It won’t be bad for Russians, Turks, Central Asians and the wide region jolted by the August war.
Mark Almond is Lecturer in History at Oriel College, Oxford, and a Visiting Professor in the International Relations Department at Bilkent University, Ankara. He is a frequent visitor to the Caucasus.