Georgia gets a rocket
Beware Russian gunships that pass in the night
WAS it a stunt, a signal or a test? A month after helicopters launched a night-time rocket attack on government buildings in Georgia’s Kodori gorge, nobody knows. As so often in post-Soviet imperial politics, the big picture is clear, but the details are mysterious.
The big picture is that Georgia is trying to re-establish control over two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have claimed independence with Russian backing.
In Abkhazia, Georgia has replaced the bandits who were running the Kodori gorge, a remote upland district, with a normal (by Georgian standards) civilian administration.
In South Ossetia, the Georgian authorities have set up a local government in a village that has always been under Georgian control. This new outfit is run by prominent South Ossetian political figures who have fallen out with the imported Kremlin stooges in charge of the separatist administration.
The aim is to make Georgia a magnet, attracting back minorities repelled by the swaggering ethno-nationalism of the early 1990s. Fast growth and some institutional reform already make Georgia look pretty good, if no showcase, when measured against Russia’s troubled periphery across the Caucasus mountains. Russia's attempts at sanctions and harassment have not brought Georgia to its knees; rather, they have strengthened its self-confidence and encouraged its integration with the West.
An ambitious Abkhaz or Ossetian thus faces an interesting choice: Russia’s gas-fired crony capitalism, with all the problems of the north Caucasus neighbourhood thrown in; or Georgia, and its path of European and Atlantic integration. Neither is hugely attractive right now, but it is hard to see the Russian option getting more compelling, whereas Georgia’s future is looking increasingly bright.
So much for the big picture. Russia is losing out, with a bad grace, to an upstart former satellite. But what about the helicopters? Predictably, the Kremlin line is that Georgia attacked itself to gain sympathy. But in truth the culprits can only have been Russian. Who else in the region has the military capability to launch precision airstrikes at night?
The raid might have been a prelude to an attack aimed at regaining control over the Kodori gorge. But no ground troops followed it up. Most likely it was an attempt to provoke Mikheil Saakashvili, the volatile Georgian president, into an ill-judged retaliation. If so, it failed. Since some American-inspired arm-twisting last year, Mr Saaskashvili’s public utterances have been exemplary.
Just possibly, the attack was nothing to do with local politics, but one Kremlin faction signalling to another that it has the capability to start a war if thwarted. If so, that’s bad news for Russia’s neighbours, who have long feared such stunts in the run-up to Russia's presidential election next year. Maybe the attackers expected more impact: it was pure chance that all the buildings were unoccupied. Nobody was killed, or even hurt. Perhaps they will be, next time.
In theory, the attack should be investigated by the United Nations Observer Misson in Georgia, which tries to keep an eye on what Russia calls its “peace-keeping” force in Abkhazia (given its bias, others call it piece-keeping). The UN mission’s quadripartite fact-finding group—of Georgians, Russians and Abkhaz, under a UN chairman—has convened, but produced only a vague press release.
This week talks started in New York on the extension of the mission’s mandate. Nobody is expecting Russia to be called harshly to account. The mission will stay supine and useless, as its response to the Kodori raid shows. A Kremlin victory, then, in one sense. But the upshot is that Georgian diplomats have never had such a sympathetic hearing, nor Russia a more sceptical one.