Why the West needs to stand by Georgia
If Russia is allowed to continue bullying its neighbour, its neo-imperialist appetite will spread to our front door
“A FARAWAY COUNTRY of which we know nothing.” Neville Chamberlain may have been unfair to Czechoslovakia when he dismissed it so casually in 1938. But it is all too true of the countries on the fringe of Europe that now find themselves the front lines in the new cold war: Georgia and Moldova.
Not for them the stag parties that now infest the old centres of Prague and Riga; not for them the eager amateur property speculators who are buying up derelict cottages in Bulgaria and Bohemia. These countries really are off the beaten track; they are not waving but drowning — and if they go down, the security of the rest of Europe will be affected hugely.
It is a measure of how far our expectations of Russia have dropped that the timing and extent of sanctions imposed against Georgia last week have gone largely unremarked. It is worth remembering that Russian spies have been trying to plot a coup in Georgia for more than a year. Several such attempts have been foiled, and Georgia’s Western-trained spycatchers have in the past quietly made them personae non gratae.
The Georgian Government has asked the Kremlin politely and repeatedly to stop its mischiefmaking, to no avail. Finally, Georgia arrested a bunch of spies, officers in Russia’s fearsome military intelligence service, and deported them publicly. That provoked Russia into a hysterical denunciation of its pint-sized southern neighbour — and the cutting of air, land and banking links, even after the spooks had been released to go home.
Oddly, the Russian criticism of Georgia, though taken straight out of the Soviet agitprop textbook, has found sympathetic echoes in the West. How dare a small country on Russia’s borders dream of freedom, democracy and security? John Humphrys, in a remarkably abrasive Today programme interview, lambasted Mr Saakashvili for wanting to leave Russia’s geopolitical orbit, as if this was an act of pure caprice.
The disinformation war is raging in a way not seen since Soviet times. The Kremlin has hired top Western PR companies to get its message across. Strange websites have sprouted, purporting to be neutral Western thinktanks, but with a clear pro-Kremlin agenda, and a mystifying lack of real-world credentials.
All that may be a nuisance for small countries on Russia’s fringe, but why should we worry in Britain? The first reason is that small defeats now mean bigger ones later. Russia’s petrocrats are determined to stem and reverse their country’s geopolitical retreat. If they can derail Mr Saakashvili, it sends a powerful signal elsewhere. If Georgia falls, then others will be next. Russia’s hold over Ukraine will strengthen. Moldova, the weakest country in Europe, will buckle too. Then the shadow will stretch over the poorly governed and demoralised ex-communists of Central Europe and the Baltics. That will bring Russian neo-imperialism to our front door.
Secondly, Georgia is the only way of bringing the oil and gas riches of Central Asia to world markets that does not go through Russia. A pioneering oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan on the southern Turkish coast goes through Georgia. There is — literally — no other way to break the stranglehold that Russia has on our energy supplies.
The battle for energy security has been raging for some time, largely unnoticed in Western Europe. Russia has been winning. The European Union’s dream of a common energy policy, in which its 25 members would bargain together with suppliers to get lower prices and better terms, is in tatters. First the big countries — Germany and Italy — struck bilateral deals with Russia. Now the small ones, such as Hungary and Austria, are doing the same.
Sometimes they have no choice: Russian companies have such big stakes in their energy supply and distribution companies that an independent policy is impossible.
Such business ties are an easy way to inject vulnerable political systems with large dollops of Russian cash, through donations to political parties, lucrative directorships and generous sponsorship of events. It can be even more blatant. “We wanted to set up a working group to discuss energy security,” a senior official from a small East European country told me recently. “We invited our national gas company but they said they couldn’t come, because the ‘eastern shareholder’ would not like it.”
Georgia is an easy target. It is poor, and has a history of spectacular ill-government. Two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are controlled by pro-Moscow separatists, a legacy of Georgia’s bungled and authoritarian ethnic policies of the early 1990s. But now it is changing. The economy is booming; Western advisers are awestruck by the speed and vigour of the Georgian Government’s reform drive.
The crunch will come later this year, when the West will reluctantly recognise that Kosovo is no longer a province of Serbia, as it once was, but a more or less independent country. That will infuriate not only Serbia, but also its patron, Russia. And Russia will argue, forcefully and with some logic, that if a discontented ethnic minority in Kosovo is allowed to break away and gain independence from Serbia, why should not other breakaway regions follow suit? Like a malevolent Blue Peter presenter, it will say “and here are three that I made earlier”, producing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Transdniestria in Moldova, as candidates for “independence” (meaning further incorporation into Russia).
Names like Abkhazia may sound unfamiliar, but the Sudetenland, and before that Sarajevo, once sounded preposterously far away and unimportant to Western ears.
It is not too late to stop the slide to disaster. The West must stand by Georgia, while emphasising the need for continued reform, good government and a peaceable solution to the problems of separatism. It must say that the door to the European Union, and Nato, is open to any country that meets the necessary standards of reform and military competence. And it must make clear to Russia that our support for Georgia is not just geopolitical arm wrestling, but a response to the clearly expressed choice of a country that wants the security and freedom that Russia, in the democratic years of the 1990s, once wanted too.
Edward Lucas is Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist
Friday, October 13, 2006
Why the West needs to stand by Georgia