Monday, August 11, 2008

Putin's pique

Russia has been teaching Georgia a bloody lesson on the consequences of crossing the Kremlin. Having reportedly forced Georgian forces out of contested Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will Moscow now accept an EU cease-fire proposal?

Moscow may also have wanted to teach Europe and the US a lesson about the limits of their influence in Russia¹s ³near abroad² ­ the Caucasus included. For instance, it may be signaling the futility of circumventing Russia by using Georgia to pipe natural gas and oil originating in Central Asia and bound for Europe.

It may also be teaching the world a lesson about the consequences of forcing its ally Serbia to acquiesce in Kosovo¹s independence. Finally, by making an example of Georgia, Moscow may be sending this not-so-subtle message to Poland and the Czech Republic: Don¹t let the US install an anti-missile shield on your soil.

How the fighting in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia was ignited isn¹t easy to determine; nor is it, at this stage, of paramount importance. Maybe President Mikhail Saakashvili was keeping his promise to impose Georgian rule on the separatist areas, and Russia acted only after its peacekeepers in South Ossetia were attacked. Maybe, by responding to alleged provocations in those areas, Saakashvili was, foolishly and impetuously, giving Vladimir Putin a pretext to invade.

THE AREA¹S intricate and complex history suggests that today¹s political conundrums are deeply rooted and intractable. Long under Persian and Turkish domination, (Christian) Georgia was grateful, in 1801, to be incorporated into Czarist Russia. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgia became independent, but was forcibly annexed by Russia in 1921.

It was during the Soviet period that the stage was probably set for the ethnic and national tensions now playing themselves out. The old Soviet Union encompassed 53 administrative and territorial subdivisions reflecting the complexity of its ethnic and national mishmash. The Communist Party gerrymandered Georgia¹s borders to include the autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ­ Stalin¹s way of playing off various ethnic groups against each other to protect the center¹s power.
The Abkhaz always wanted to be part of Russia. The Georgians, fighting to preserve their own culture and language, saw them as tools of Moscow. In order to diminish the influence of the Abkhaz within their autonomous area, Georgia settled its people there. Paradoxically, the Abkhaz are also worried about being smothered by Russia¹s embrace.

Ossetia¹s story is similar. Stalin divided the Ossetians into two regions and placed South Ossetia inside the borders of Georgia.

Thus was created a situation in which the Georgians constantly worried that the minorities in their midst were a fifth column, while those minorities found themselves under unwanted Georgian jurisdiction.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the autonomous areas sought to join Russia. Bloody conflicts were waged in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia during the early 1990s. Ultimately, Russia brokered a cease-fire that was policed by its forces acting under the rubric of the Commonwealth Independent States.

That left the situation, as James Traub, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine put it, with Russia threatening Georgia, and Georgia threatening both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

THE DISQUIETING question of the day is: What will now satiate Putin? Not only have his forces defeated Georgia in the separatist areas; by taking the war into Georgia proper, the Russian leader seems intent on humiliating Saakashvili and perhaps driving him from office.

Though Georgia is a US ally, Putin must be taking with a grain of salt Dick Cheney¹s admonition that Russian ³aggression² will not go unanswered. No one imagines that the US would go to war with Russia over Georgia ­ even if America were not tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan and also worriedly focused on Iran.

Putin may have set out to make an example of Georgia. Yet in the process he has also brought relations with the US to a post-Cold War nadir and provided useful instruction to, among others, Europe and the Ukraine that a resurgent Russia will not hesitate to use disproportionate force to achieve its political objectives.

These lessons may yet come back to haunt him.

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