Thursday, October 05, 2006

KAVKAZ CRISIS: GEORGIA v RUSSIA OR THE ‘PIG WAR’ REVIDIVUS?


“The term ‘Pig War’ is used to refer to an economic conflict [1906-1909] in which the Habsburg Empire imposed a customs blockade on Serbia. Serbia at the beginning of the Twentieth century was (economically at least) little more than a satellite of the Habsburg Empire, its major export being pork, most of which was bought by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Serbia started trying to evade economic and political control by the Habsburgs, and build links with other countries, particularly Bulgaria and France, Vienna decided to punish the Serbs with economic sanctions. These failed, and Serbia found other markets for its pork. The importance of this conflict lies in that (sic) fact that It was a crucial stage running up to the decision of the Habsburg Empire to finally (unsuccessfully) strike at Serbia militarily in 1914, and wipe her from the map. It is therefore has a place in the build-up to the First World War”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/pig_w_(Serbia)
See also: A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1815-1918, pp. 258-262.

Gentle reader, history can be very very deceptive indeed! Notwithstanding certain similarities, the commonality between the aforementioned historical event, and today’s diplomatic crisis in the Kavkaz [Caucasus] can be quite deceptive as we shall see. It is not so much that there is only a limited resemblance between Freiherr Alexa von Aehrenthal (Austrian Foreign Minister, 1906-1912) and Sergei Lavrov (besides the fact that both are consummate, and cosmopolitan, career diplomats). Whereas Aehrenthal can no doubt be regarded as instigator of the ‘Pig War’, and the single most important actor, on the Austrian side, no one, truly regards Lavrov, as being much more than the projector of ‘his master’s voice', aka Vladimir Putin. Nor, is the comparison between the Austrian Empire & Serbia and present day Russia & Georgia, an entirely exact, except for the fact that in both situations, a smaller, formerly client state, confronts head-on, a larger, more powerful state. So while some of the symptoms are similar, the overall diagnosis, is different. So, what one may ask, is this diplomatic dispute about in essence? And, why is it different than the ‘Pig War’?

Essentially, the diplomatic and political conflict between Georgia and Russia, is an old-fashioned, nay almost 19th century, diplomatic spat, involving irredentism, national re-unification, territorial boundaries, prestige, and notions of national honor. The background to the dispute is as follows: in the early 1990’s, with the breakup of Sovietskaya Vlast, two northern, border regions of the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia with large minority populations (Abkhazia & South Ossetia), revolted against what they regarded as discriminatory Georgian rule. An endeavor in which they were assisted, by Russian forces, who, de facto amalgamated the two regions, with Russia, proper. Many of the remaining minority populations, being granted, Russian citizenship. With the large Georgian population, being expelled, en masse during the fighting, their status, and wish to return to their homes (violently opposed by the authorities of the two breakaway regions), have formed a constant source of tension between Tbilisi and Moskva. Under the overtly corrupt, old-fashioned, and almost neo-Soviet (admittedly of a ‘late’ variety) Eduard Shevardnadze, the conflict between the two countries over the issue was somewhat muted. Especially, since Shevardnadze, was forced to rely upon Russian assistance, in remaining in power, in 1993-1995. The upshot of that episode, being that about 3,000 Russian troops, are stationed in Georgia (On the problems posed by the return of refugees, see: the following in the Brussels-based, International Crisis Group, Reports # 176 and Briefing #38, in: www.crisisgroup.org).

With the overthrow of Shevardnadze, in November 2003, in the ‘Rose Revolution’, and the coming to power of the American educated, pro-Western, Mikhail Saakashvili, tensions between Tbilisi and Moskva started to quickly increase. In particular, Moskva, was concerned by Saakashvili’s rhetoric about the future, re-unification of the two breakaway regions with Georgia proper. The fact that Saaskashvili campaigned in favor of ‘Orange Revolution’, in Ukraine the following year, only served to increase Moskva’s displeasure. As did his diplomatic campaign to gain NATO membership for the isolated country. A campaign which received some backing from the American administration, which also supplied Saakashvili with financial and military assistance, as well as extensive training of the Georgian military by American forces. Notwithstanding all these tensions, the two countries were able to sign an agreement, in May of 2005, which called for the withdrawal of all Russian forces (sans Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in the two breakaway Republics) from Georgia by 2008 (see an extensive list of informative reports covering Georgia over the past couple of years in: www.eurasianet.org).

From that apparent hiatus, Russo-Georgian relations have progressively worsen throughout the past eleven months. Beginning with a severe power outage in the Winter, which effectively cut off, all of Georgian electric and gas supplies, which Saakashvili blamed on Russia, tensions between the two countries have constantly increased in 2006. In February of this year, the Georgian Parliament, voted to oust, Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia. A move which Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, at the time denounced, as being an attempt by Tbilisi to blame the deadlock on talks with the two breakaway Republics, on Moskva. No doubt in retaliation, Moskva commenced an embargo of Georgian wines into Russia, in March. Later extended to Georgian mineral water as well. Also in March, Ossetian leaders floated the idea of ‘reunifying’ South Ossetia, with the North Ossetia republic belonging to the Russian Federation. In seemingly tit for tat fashion, Tbilisi in turn raised both the idea of quitting the Commonwealth of Independent States, which Russia had pressured Shevardnadze into joining over ten years previously, and, increasing efforts to join NATO. Notwithstanding the fact that any invitation to join in 2006, as Saakashvili predicted would occur, is less than realistic in light of the many problems, that Georgia faces: human rights violations, problems with electoral laws, and of course the likelihood of conflict with the two breakaway Republics. And, of course the biggest obstacle of all: Russia. Which is adamantly opposed to Georgia joining. Indeed, it seems unlikely that all 26 NATO members would agree to cross Russia by accepting Georgia for membership. Particularly since, Ukraine itself, is no longer as committed to joining NATO, under its new premier, Viktor Yanukovych (see: www.moscowtimes.com/2006/10/05 & Dmitry Babich’s 22 September article in www.russianprofile.org). In sum, the arrest of the four (originally five) Russian soldiers, on the charge of espionage, by Tbilisi, was the last in a long line of moves and counter-moves by both countries (see www.Lefigaro.fr/International/2006929).

Regardless, drawing Russia into a serious diplomatic confrontation, one in which Georgia, can be seen as being bullied by its larger neighbor, has many pluses for Saakashvili, and it would appear that it is due to these positive variables that he has chosen to throw the diplomatic dice as it were. First, is that with his political popularity in less than stellar shape prior to the arrests, with elections coming up this month, as well as charges by the opposition, that he is engaging in dictatorial behavior, Saaskashvili, by playing the anti-Russian card, has both regained immense popularity, and forced the opposition to rally to his side (see: Alexi Makarkin’s article in Novosti in: http://en.rian/analysis20061002). In addition, with the possibility that Moskva, might, use the example of Kosovo being granted, independence by the UN Security Council, over Serbia’s objections, as a precedent for a something similar occurring in South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, in the very near future, Saakashvili might have seen the need to act, in an attempt to draw the West into his conflict with Moskva before it was too late (see: Jen Alic’s article in www.res.ethz.ch/news). And, indeed, with the arrests, Moskva, did indeed jump to the bait. These include as we all know, withdrawal of much of the Russian embassy from Tbilisi, second, several harsh statements by both Lavrov and Putin, with the former stating that:
“The actions of the Georgian leadership have unquestionable become consistently anti-Russian….the officers [case] is not even the culmination, but a reflection of the policy conducted by the Georgian leadership, which is looking to attract attention to Russia interfering with Georgian affairs”.

And, the latter stating that:
“I would not recommend anyone use the language of provocation and blackmail against Russia”. (For both statements see RIA).

And, of course their statements were followed or were following in the footsteps of actions by the Russian authorities, to make Tbilisi realize the errors of its ways, including: cutting off of all transport, mail links between the two countries, as well as putting police pressure, especially in Moksva, on the resident 300,000+ (almost 7.5% of the entire Georgian population) Georgian community in Russia. With money transfers now cut off, perhaps upwards of ten percent (10%) of Georgia’s national income might be lost. And, with Putin raising the possibility that mass expulsions from Russia of the Georgian community might follow, it may be wondered if Saakashvili now realizes that he has overplayed his hand? (see: Moscow Times & www.Lemonde.fr). No doubt with this in mind, Saakashvili, released the four soldiers on Monday, in the hope that it would lower the diplomatic temperature, and forestall Moskva taking any drastic steps. In fact of course it appear that the opposite has now occurred, with almost all the Russian actions, occurring or being reaffirmed, after the release. This raises the issue of course, of what does Russia want? Ideally, of course, Moskva may like to engineer a policy of ‘overthrow’, and oust Saakashvili and his regime, tutti quanti. That would certainly be the underlying meaning of Lavrov’s statement’s and to a lesser extent Putin’s of the last few days. What seems unlikely though, it that Moskva would directly attempt to oust Saakashvili, id est, `a la the Americans in Iraq in 2003. The costs both in terms of occupying the country, and the potential International backlash, would be more expensive, than the gains to be derived by getting rid of Saaskashvili. Much more likely, is the idea that Moskva will put as much pressure as possible, on Georgia, and its people, in the hopes that the population, will turn against the current government. In addition, with South Ossetia, readying for a referendum on de jure independence in November, it is more than likely, that one or both breakaway territories, will be declared legally independent, and supported in their claim by Moskva, in a few months time. More evidence to the Georgian population that rather than bringing the re-unification closer, its leader’s policies are having the opposite effect. And, of course, if Tbilisi were to attempt to use force to stop any moves towards independence by the breakaway regions, than there is the possibility that Moskva might use any such attempt to overthrow Saakashvili once and for all (on the idea that Moskva’s policy is in fact one of ‘regime change’ see Pavel Felgenhaur’s 4 October article in the Eurasia Daily monitor: www.jamestown.org).

What is the reaction of the outside world, and in particular Europe and the USA? Aside from calling on restraint by both sides, it would appear that both have a great deal of interest in not getting too much involved in the dispute, in absence of a truly unprovoked Russian military invasion of the country, and perhaps not even then. While, there are some, particularly in the United States, who feel that the United States, should not allow Moskva, to strangle an ‘emerging Democracy’, these voices appear to be in the minority (for some such voices along these lines see: CFR). But, with both the North Korean and the Persia crises about to burst open, as I write these lines, it is highly unlikely that Washington, much less the European countries, will stir themselves to intervene in an energetic fashion, diplomatically, much less offer any real assistance to Tbilisi. It would appear, that by goading, Moskva, in the way that he has, Saakashvili, has seriously overplayed his hand. As mentioned, there is little likelihood, that NATO, will accede to his request to be invited to join the organization this year (see: Molly Corso’s 27 September article in: EurasiaNet). Nor will any Western country, be able to effectively assist Saakashvili, in ousting Russia from its position in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A position which will be strengthened by the referendums occurring later this year. The upshot is that rather than effectively acting in a way to reunite his country, Saakashvili’s policies, have had the opposite effect intended. The exact opposite result that the Serbs were able to engineer, in their conflict with the Austrian Empire in the run up to the Great War. The difference being, that while the two breakaway regions are in fact, ‘unredeemed’ lands, there is no ‘unredeemed’ Georgian population inhabiting them (due to the earlier, no doubt illegal, expulsions). In the absence of which, and in the absence of an effective Great Power sponsor, to fight its battles for it, as Tsarist Russia eventually did Serbia’s, Georgia is being lead, into a diplomatic cul de sac. As the Russian language émigré, scholar, Dmitri Simes cogently argues:
“Sympathy towards Saakashvili is not a substitute for facts however….Georgia cannot gain control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without Russian acquiescence. That acquiescence becomes harder and harder to imagine as tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi continue to grow. And America’s ability to help win Russian cooperation on the issue declines the more closely Washington is identified with Saaskashvili. So, will the United States and NATO want to make the fate of Abkhazia and South Ossetia a key issue in their relationships with Moscow? Even if they do, the territories will not go back to Georgia without Russian agreement”. See: www.nationalinterest.org/BlogSE.aspx) .

Of course, it is also true, that for all the alarms and excursions, emanating in Moskva at the moment, in point of fact, its own policies vis`-a-vis Tbilisi, hardly stand up to much serious scrutiny either. Id est, Moskva wants two, incompatible goals simultaneously: one, to have Georgia completely in its sphere of influence; two, to maintain the status quo ante, in the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The fact is of course is that the second goal, makes the first completely impossible. No Georgian government, worthy of the name, will ever agree, de jure, to accept the truncation of its territorial integrity. It is precisely for this reason, as well as others, both idealistic as well as opportunistic, that Saakashvili, made turning to the West and especially the USA, a major focus of his policies in the first place. While it is difficult to say for certain, it was not entirely impossible, that if Moskva, had seriously attempted to reach some type of modus vivendi, back in early 2004 with Saakashvili, that the latter might very well, have been found agreeable. Of course, no government in Moskva, worthy of the name as well, would ever, agree to accept that Georgia, should become a member of NATO. Any more than say Ukraine. The question is whether Moskva’s policies are in its own best long term interests. While it can quite easily subvert, any aspirations that Saakashvili, or any other Georgian leader has towards reunifying the country, and perhaps even Georgia joining NATO, it is less than certain that the resulting endemic instability, serves Russian interests in the longue duree. For which one only need to look at the situation in the Northern Kavkas, e. g., Chechnya….Under the circumstances, the last thing that Russia should be looking to do, is to import more instability, into an area which is already quite unstable. The best response in retrospect, by Moskva to Saakashvili’s diplomatic pyrotechnics, is not responding to them in kind, no matter how atrocious the antics, but quietly making clear that by his behavior, Saakashvili is digging his own, and his nation’s grave. Unfortunately, things appear to have progressed way too much, for that this tack to be tried. With no doubt ill consequences for all concerned. Which would, looking at matters from a historical perspective be an utter tragedy: these are two peoples, who while hardly very similar, do have much that unites them: a shared faith, a shared history of the last two hundred plus years, shared villains (Stalin & Beria) and shared heroes (Knyiaz [Prince] Bagration of the battle of Borodino fame). In many ways, Russia and Georgia, should be natural allies, rather than fated to be enemies. It seems to this diplomatic observer, that to allow the conflicts of the last eighteen years to cloud over and perhaps destroy that shared commonality, would be a great and utter waste.

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