Cold war, hot tempers
From The Economist Global Agenda
Relations between Russia and Georgia turn frosty
IS THIS just a spat between a big prickly country and its tiresome little neighbour, or a sinister new twist in Russia’s relations with its former empire? That question is in sharp focus after Russia’s announcement on Friday October 6th that it is deporting 130 Georgians.
The news follows President Vladimir Putin’s instruction to all state agencies to tighten controls on illegal Georgian migrants and businesses. Along with the cutting of transport, banking and postal links, this is part of a strong Russian reaction to Georgia’s arrest and expulsion of four military officers who were accused of spying.
Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has become something of a hate figure in Russia. Western-educated, short-tempered and uncompromising, he is determined to move his country fast towards membership of first NATO and then the European Union. He also wants to restore Georgian control over two separatist enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both places claim to be independent states, and have close economic and political links with Russia.
Mr Saakashvili’s fear is that developments far away in the Balkans could permanently stymie his hopes of glueing his country back together again. If, as seems likely, Kosovo gains independence at the end of the year, despite the objections of Serbia (to which it nominally belongs), why should not Abkhazia and South Ossetia expect the same treatment?
The west has encouraged Mr Saakashvili’s hopes of a permanent shift for his country, by agreeing to accelerate Georgia’s progress towards NATO. It is strongly discouraging him from sabre-rattling over the breakaway enclaves. But Georgia protests that its latest move, publicly expelling spies who were (it says) flagrantly plotting against the government, was done only as a last resort. Previous expulsions and protests were quiet and diplomatic, but had no effect.
Georgians seem to back their president’s stance, at least for now. Early results from local elections showed a convincing victory over the opposition. Some outsiders worry that Mr Saakashvili’s peppery and autocratic style is not good for Georgian democracy, let alone its diplomacy. These criticisms have been stoked by vitriolic attacks from Russian media and politicians, accusing him of Stalinist tendencies. A plausible-looking and widely-circulated psychiatric analysis, ostensibly produced by leading Western mental-health institutions, pronounced him demented; this proved, unsurprisingly, to be a fake. His supporters denounce all this as Kremlin dirty tricks, and note that the government, particularly the prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli, is much less flammable.
Russia’s economic sanctions will knock up to 1.5 percentage points off Georgia’s rate of economic growth, according to the economics minister, Kakha Bendukidze. But experience in the Baltic states suggests that Russian economic sanctions against rebellious former satellites often have a perverse effect, stimulating trade with the West and underlining the dangers of dependence on the huge and tempting Russian market.
That will provide little comfort for the 1m or so Georgians who live and work in Russia, often illegally. Even those with solid legal status may be affected by the tough new stance: overlapping and contradictory laws, and a centuries-old tradition of official bloody-mindedness, mean that once a suspect is in the authorities’ sights, a crime can easily be found.
Conversely, with a well-placed friend, and the right sum of money, official displeasure is seldom as bad in practice as it may seem in theory. The likelihood is that the crackdown on Georgian traders and migrants will mean more bribes and inconvenience, rather than wholesale deportation.
The biggest victim of the spat may be Russia. Georgia, a member of the World Trade Organisation, has said that it will block Russia’s application until economic sanctions are dropped. Having tried to polish its international reputation during its presidency of the G8, Russia is now losing it, particularly where being neighbourly, lawful and level-headed are concerned. And the vitriolic, near-racist tone of the public discussion of Georgian migrant workers does little to assuage fears about Russia’s future political direction.