Forget about the smog in Beijing, it’s more interesting to discuss the huge cloud of humbug stirred up by events in the Caucasus. And this is surely proof if proof were needed of the terminal dopiness of ideas of an ethical foreign policy. As any tyro in IR can tell you, a moral conscience is not an ontological attribute of the state. Realpolitik and the pursuit of interests reign supreme. Like Lenin said, you look for the person who benefits.
First off, we need to get past the idea that Georgia is an actual functioning country – the “beautiful democracy” that the egregious Jim Murphy has been slabbering about – rather than what it really is, a loose patchwork of fiefdoms under an alleged government that bears more resemblance to an organised crime syndicate. Which is pretty much the story of Georgia since the twelfth century. And it’s also worth recalling that not very long ago, Mikheil Saakashvili rigged his re-election and clubbed the opposition off the streets. All that really distinguishes Misha from Robert Mugabe is that he hasn’t lived long enough to have accumulated Uncle Bob’s enviable rap sheet.
A particularly large effusion of humbug has come from Emperor George, who has been holding forth on the need to respect the boundaries of sovereign states. Let’s ignore Iraq and Afghanistan for the sake of argument. Is it irrelevant that US-EU diplomacy has recently carved out and supported the mafia-run statelets of Kosovo and Montenegro? Is it unutterably cynical to mention that Washington is currently sponsoring no less than three separatist movements in South America – Guayas in Ecuador, Zulia in Venezuela and the white ranchers in eastern Bolivia – against governments it finds uncongenial? Would it be totally beside the point to ask the Colombian population about how Panama was created in 1903, for the purpose of giving the Yanks a more pliant government in charge of the Canal?
As far as the Kremlin is concerned, well, we don’t need to impute humanitarian motives or to resort to conspiracy theories. The Tbilisi regime has been putting in a lot of effort to get up the Russians’ collective nose, of which more below. And for many years the Russians have been seriously annoyed about Chechen jihadis operating out of Pankisi with the full knowledge and connivance of the Georgian government. But really, it’s sufficient to see the Georgians opening fire on the Russian army as a clear case of peeing on the Dude’s rug.
I actually have quite a bit of time for the Ossetes and the Abkhaz, who seem to have been obscured in all this. These are people who were never part of an independent Georgian state, and certainly never asked to be in Georgia, but who wound up incorporated into the Georgian SSR in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the imaginative nationalities policy of Stalin, Beria and Orjonikidze. (And isn’t it wonderful how our present-day Cold Warriors are so devoted to Stalin’s borders?) Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, they figured, not unreasonably, that everything was on the table and there was no reason why Abkhazia shouldn’t go for independence, or South Ossetia join up with North Ossetia. Maybe, back in 1991, things could have been negotiated amicably. But first the extreme chauvinism of the Gamsakhurdia government, then Kitovani’s fascist paramilitaries trying to “liberate” the rebel republics, sans population if necessary, polarised things intensely, and the Yeltsin-Shevardnadze agreement under which Russia was the guarantor of the ceasefires only froze things without resolving them.
Now, although Georgia is certainly a US client state, I don’t buy the idea that this is a proxy war being waged from Washington. There are enough reasonable explanations internal to Georgia. First you have to consider that Saakashvili came to power in one of these “colour revolutions”, and just like the other governments to have so arisen, his government has turned out to be just as useless, corrupt and repressive as its predecessor. Not terribly popular at home, it’s no surprise he’s been beating the nationalist drum.
When Shevy was in power, he would make the odd speech about the lost territories, but never tried to launch a military offensive to take them. And while Shevy would sometimes make noises about Georgian membership of Nato, that was mostly to annoy the Russians and he never made a serious bid. Misha is not as devious. Where Shevy used to go to Moscow and treat with the Kremlin on a regular basis, Misha has cranked up the anti-Russian rhetoric to a hysterical pitch. Misha has actually tried to get into Nato, and come close to doing so. (It’s sobering to realise that, if the Germans hadn’t put up resistance to that bright idea, Nato would now be legally committed to war with Russia.) Misha has asked the Yanks to station troops in Georgia, and has gone so far as to send Georgian troops to join in the occupation of Iraq.
On a diplomatic level, this paid off. Misha has always been treated royally when he’s been in Washington. He even got John McCain to lead a high-powered congressional delegation to Georgia, during which McCain proclaimed that South Ossetia must be under Georgian rule indefinitely, and never mind what the South Ossetians had to say on the matter. But did Misha really go to war on a punt? Did he think the Yanks had given him a nod and a wink? Could he really be gormless enough to pitch his tiny army against Russia and think he wouldn’t get his ass kicked?
It seems so. In fact, from Saakashvili’s frequent TV appearances over the last few days, the man appears to be in an advanced state of paranoia. When he starts making dramatic claims that are then contradicted by his own government, that’s not a good sign. I think Misha’s calculation was that he could take Tskhinval in a short blitzkrieg, and by the time the Russians started to regroup his American friends would protect him. Well, so much for that cunning plan.
This is not, one fears, going to end well for Saakashvili. Even before his gamble he was at the bottom of Tsar Vladimir’s Christmas card list, and there can be no doubt that the Russians would love to be rid of him. But it’s probably not necessary, whatever Bush says, for the Russian army actually to go into Tbilisi and overthrow the government. It’s just as likely that the warlords and gangsters who wield the real power in Georgia will decide that little Misha is now a liability.
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