Can the Caucasus ever escape from the cycle of
coups and violence that have beset the region since the collapse of the Soviet
Union? Not if the rhetoric of Georgia's new 36-year-old President Mikheil
Saakashvili is anything to go by.
Before setting out on a visit to the United States last week, Saakashvili announced
that he had given an order to fire on all ships including cruise ships
that violate Georgia's territorial waters. "I say this so that tourists
who are now coming to Abkhazia will hear it," he told reporters Aug. 3.
Saakashvili's rhetoric echoes the justifications given by Soviet officials
in 1983 after a South Korean airliner was shot down for violating the Soviet
Union's "sacred, sovereign airspace," as Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov put
it at the time. More than 200 civilians were killed. But Georgia today is run
by a team of thirty-something post-Soviets educated in the West. Shouldn't it
behave in a very different way?
Sadly, Saakashvili's approach to asserting Georgian sovereignty contains more
than echoes of Soviet practice. More recent blood-soaked disasters in his country's
history seem to set a precedent. On Aug. 14, 1992, the Georgian government's
conflict with Abkhazia escalated from words to armed combat when Tbilisi sent
its motley army into the coastal region to assert Georgian sovereignty. The
orgy of murder, plunder and rape that followed engendered a bitter Abkhazian
backlash. One year later, the Georgian army had fled and a third of a million
Georgian-speaking civilians followed the defeated rabble out of Abkhazia.
Despite his bloodthirsty rhetoric directed at Georgia's two breakaway regions,
South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.
Even at the height of a bitter domestic election campaign, the supporters of
both U.S. President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry have nothing but
praise for the Columbia Law School alumnus. George
Soros may have pledged millions to oust Bush, but he has boasted that his
money helped to install Saakashvili in power last November. The Open Society
Institute helped train the protesters who toppled Eduard Shevardnadze to the
applause of the Bush White House.
Yet support on both sides of the aisle for a Georgian president with a tough
approach to separatism is nothing new.
Twelve years ago, when Shevardnadze stormed back to power in the ex-Soviet
republic he had led as Communist Party boss until 1985, the Washington consensus
backed the first President Bush's endorsement of the new Georgian president
even though he had toppled an elected predecessor. In 1992, the State Department
and international observers accepted Shevardnadze's claim to have received over
90 percent of the vote. Last January, neither the State Department nor international
observers saw anything suspicious in official results showing that 97 percent
of Georgians voted for Saakashvili.
There is an almost Orwellian aspect to the way in which the U.S. establishment
has erased its love affair with Shevardnadze from the pages of history while
it carries on in exactly the same fashion with his successor. After all, then-Secretary
of State James Baker went to Georgia in 1992 to praise Shevardnadze's anti-corruption
drive and democratization efforts, even finding time for a photo-op with the
notorious mafioso Dzhaba Ioseliani.
In 1999, James Baker presided over the ceremony awarding Shevardnadze the Enron
Prize for Distinguished Public Service. Then in 2003 the same James Baker returned
to Georgia and blasted the Shevardnadze regime for corruption and election fraud.
Baker's message was clear: Washington's love affair with Shevardnadze was over.
Now Washington embraces Saakashvili with the same ardor. Watching Saakashvili's
tirades against separatists and his enthusiastic reception in the United States
is like witnessing a crazy rerun of Georgia's smash-up in 1992.
Saakashvili may have ousted Shevardnadze with only a few broken skulls
what the media call a "bloodless revolution" but Abkhazia and
South Ossetia may be tougher nuts to crack. Shevardnadze's police and army could
be bought off to serve a new master. But the rebels have no obvious way of reintegrating
themselves into a Georgian force.
Don't be taken in by the carefully staged photos of Georgian troops in U.S.-style
uniforms under banners reading "USA-Georgia, United We Stand" arranged
for the benefit of Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld. The hundred-plus U.S. soldiers
training Georgia's new army complain that different men show up for training
every day, rendering the exercise pointless.
Maybe Georgia's army is better dressed than Shevardnadze's ragtag paramilitaries
in 1992, but uniforms do not make soldiers. Whether Saakashvili's forces will
prove any better disciplined on the battlefield than their predecessors remains
to be seen. Let's hope it is still not too late for the president to back away
from putting them to the test.
It is true that, apart from a few beatings, Saakashvili recovered control of
Adzharia in May without serious bloodshed. But Adzharia is very different from
the two breakaway regions that Saakashvili is provoking now.
Adzharians are Georgians and would have seen violence with Saakashvili's forces
as a civil war. Adzharia lacked an army. Abkhazians and Ossetians have no fellow
feeling with Georgians. They speak different languages. More importantly, they
suffered from the ravages of Shevardnadze's paramilitaries in the early 1990s
and they know that many of Saakashvili's hard-line supporters were among the
gangs that looted Sukhumi in August 1992 under the guise of "restoring
national unity." Abkhazians and Ossetians have soldiers who fought in the
past against Georgian invaders and routed them.
Is it worth risking another bloody conflict? Another round of ethnic cleansing
would be the result if Saakashvili won. If you were an Abkhazian or Ossetian
listening to his daily rants threatening retribution, would you trust the new
Georgia to treat you and your family any better than the discredited Georgia
Like Iraq or Sudan, Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus are awash with Kalashnikovs
and rocket launchers. A Caucasian tinderbox may be about to catch fire. If it
does, Americans in the region could carry the can for Washington's failure to
rein in Saakashvili's aggressive tendencies.
People there know he studied at Columbia. They cite Soros' backing for him,
including his payment of many ministers' salaries. When told that Soros' Open
Society Institute has nothing to do with the Bush White House because it is
a nongovernmental organization, Georgians just laugh. So when people across
that unstable region hear Saakashvili threatening to sink tourist boats, an
invisible logo flashes through people's minds: "Made in America."
Neither candidate in the U.S. presidential race may be thinking much about
ex-Soviet Georgia this summer. Electoral college votes in the South are probably
uppermost in their minds. But if the United States stands by and lets Saakashvili
invade Abkhazia or South Ossetia, the president's enemies will regard him as
Resistance to any rash attack by Georgia could easily spawn terrorism. The
pipeline that Washington has promoted to carry oil across Georgia from the Caspian
Sea could prove as vulnerable to sabotage as any in Iraq. American personnel
operating in Georgia could also be targets if Abkhazians, Ossetians and their
friends decide to target the people they see as Saakashvili's sponsors.
As the United States' attention is locked on its own presidential battle, real
conflict is looming in the Caucasus, and Americans there could pay the price
for repeating the mistakes of 12 years ago. Certainly, ordinary people there
on both sides of the tattered cease-fire line have little cause for optimism.
Reprinted from the Moscow Times