It was simply a matter of time before the tensions between Georgia and Russia escalated into a full-scale war.
The conflict between the two neighbours dates back decades, to the formative years of the Soviet Union when in 1921 Ossetia was effectively divided in half, with Russia gaining the north and Georgia the south.
After the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991, ethnic cleansing of Georgians and a civil war erupted in South Ossetia that was only stopped by Russian peacekeepers. Since winning the Georgian presidential elections in 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili set a fast-track course for his country’s integration into the West by seeking both membership of Nato and the European Union. Due to various factors, not least Russian anger at Nato, the Georgian request has been frozen.
Mr Saakashvili won his second election earlier this year amid widespread complaints from the opposition party, whose television station he had shutdown. The elections were demanded after protests in which he ordered the army to use tear gas and rubber bullets against civilians. He later told the BBC that he “took a huge political risk and gamble” in holding them. Perhaps the elections results, as well as his earlier triumph in restoring Adjaria, a southern breakaway region to Georgian control, encouraged President Saakashvili to pacify South Ossetia.
Tragically, his latest gamble of launching a military offensive effectively against Russian troops failed to take into consideration the fact that Russia’s army is 20 times bigger than his own. In the war of words that ensued, the current Russian leaders were compared to Joseph Stalin. The irony is that Stalin was in fact a Georgian himself, born in Gori, and was General Secretary of the communist party when South Ossetia was gifted to his homeland Georgia. One may jest that the biggest trick Georgia played is to convince the world that Stalin was Russian.
Before leading the so-called “rose revolution”, Mr Saakashvili had been a minister in the corrupt Georgian administration of Edouard Shevardnaze – it taking him only six years to realise that it was “immoral” for him to be in that government despite the fact that Georgia then ranked below countries such as Zimbabwe, Albania and even Belarus in Transparency International’s Corruption Index. It may very well be that Mr. Saakashvili planned to stay in the Georgian government until he felt he had enough support to propel himself to power.
While promising the Georgians that he would spare no effort in maintaining the geographical integrity of his country, Mr. Saakashvili was too naive to understand that neither the current US president would go to war for him – not least against his “soulmate” Vladimir Putin – nor would the Europeans, who are heavily dependent on Russia for their energy needs. Instead, allies such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are all rallying behind Mr. Saakashvili; the Georgians must be counting their blessings.
Russia had already been antagonised by Western encroachment, with Nato expanding ever closer to its borders, and proposals for a US missile system being stationed in the Czech Republic and Poland, even before the reckless and irresponsible war Mr. Saakashvili launched. His very own vice-prime minister admitted that his country “won’t win a military confrontation” against Russia, a revelation that came too late for the dead Georgian soldiers Mr. Saakashvili sent to the front.
Fortunately for the world, Georgia is not part of Nato, nor is it part of the EU, no matter how many of their flags are prematurely draped behind Mr. Saakashvili during his press conferences. If Georgia had actually been admitted to Nato under such a reckless president, its member states – including the US – would have been obliged to come to its aid militarily, raising the nightmare prospect of fighting nuclear Russia for the first time.
By Nato’s own admittance, Mr. Saakashvili has now damaged the chances of Georgia’s potential entry into the alliance; additionally, after the bombing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan gas pipeline, it is unlikely that the West would seek another energy route via Georgia.
The Russians will obviously not be intimidated nor will they back off, not after Kosovo and Iraq. The best chance Georgia has of keeping South Ossetia and Abkhazia (as well as sparing us all the possibility of igniting a Third World War) would be by Mr. Saakashvili resigning, giving the Russians a symbolic victory, and his replacement by a leader less prone to emotional outbursts, confrontational speeches and major gambles. Mr. Saakashvili should have followed the example of the UAE’s leadership, who have insisted on resolving the Iranian-occupied Tunb Islands issue patiently through diplomatic means.
Rather than bringing prosperity to his people, Mr. Saakashvili has brought war and destruction. It wasn’t above Suharto, Richard Nixon nor Joseph Estrada to resign after their blunders; pray that it isn’t above Mr. Saakashvili to do the same.
This article was originally published in The National on August 17, 2008.