Georgia: What Happened?
James Traub in the Times gives the historical perspective.
For years, the Russians have claimed that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been preparing to retake the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and have warned that they would use force to block such a bid. Mr. Saakashvili, for his part, describes today’s Russia as a belligerent power ruthlessly pressing at its borders, implacably hostile to democratic neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine.
Georgia is a strugging Democracy, but wants to make sure it has South Ossetia and Abkhazia in its fold, even if its indigenous inhabitants don’t agree. Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, wants and expects the West to stand up for his country, which he fervently hopes can join NATO, something Russia opposes. Georgia is pro-American, so much so that the road to the airport is named “George W. Bush Street.” But NATO is an issue for Russia:
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has threatened that Georgia’s ambition to join NATO “will lead to renewed bloodshed,” adding, as if that weren’t enough, “we will do anything not to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.”
And then there’s the oil angle.
The combination of Vladimir Putin’s reforms and the dizzying rise in the price of oil and gas have rapidly restored Russia to the status of world power. And Mr. Putin has harnessed that power in the service of aggressive nationalism.
One thing Putin wants to avoid is a natural gas pipeline through Georgia that would skirt Russia. If Georgia is unstable, investors will stay away and that suits Putin just fine. The seed of present hostilities began in late 2005, early 2006…
…when Russia imposed an embargo on Georgia’s agricultural products, then on wine and mineral water – virtually Georgia’s entire export market. After Georgia very publicly and dramatically expelled Russian diplomats accused of espionage, Mr. Putin cut off all land, sea, air and rail links to Georgia, as well as postal service. And then, for good measure, he cut off natural gas supplies in the dead of winter.
Skirmishes continued over the next couple of years until the lid blew off the pot.
On July 8, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about to visit Georgia, Russia sent fighter jets over South Ossetia. Georgian Interior Ministry forces squared off against civilians in South Ossetia. The pot was boiling. And then, last week, the lid blew in South Ossetia, for reasons that remain unclear. Diplomats are now laboring mightily to prevent the war from spreading, though hostilities may serve too many different interests to be easily contained.
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Russia threatens Georgia, but Georgia threatens Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia looks like a crocodile to Georgia, but Georgia looks to Russia like the cats’ paw of the West. One party has all the hard power it could want, the other all the soft. And now, while the world was looking elsewhere, the frozen conflict between them has thawed and cracked. It will take a great deal of care and attention even to put things back to where they were before.
Copyright 2008 Liberaland