Russia and Georgia rattle sabres
Apr 30th 2008
Tension grows over the breakaway region of Abkhazia
GEORGIA and Russia agree upon one thing: the situation in the breakaway province of Abkhazia is bad and getting worse. Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic with close links to America, says that Russia is illegally putting more troops in the region. Last week it produced video footage of what looks like a Russian warplane shooting down an unmanned Georgian surveillance drone. Russia retorts that its troops are deployed legally as peacekeepers. And the Kremlin says that it is the Georgian authorities who have been acting provocatively, by increasing their military presence in the Kodori Gorge, a small bit of Abkhazia still controlled by the central government in Tbilisi.
The most pessimistic interpretation is that the Kremlin, having decided that the West is too divided and distracted to care about Georgia, is increasing the pressure in order to destabilise its small neighbour and perhaps replace the current rulers with a more pro-Russian lot.
If so, one should fear serious bloodshed. The latest shenanigans started shortly after a NATO summit in Bucharest, in early April, where Germany and others blocked an American attempt to give Georgia, as well as Ukraine, a clear path towards membership of the Western military alliance. Georgia is threatening to block Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation.
The outside world so far has taken neither the Georgian nor the Russian version of events at face value. Georgia has something of a reputation for crying wolf about Russian intentions. The Kremlin has in the past made groundless claims about Georgian misbehaviour.
Either side could be increasing tension for its own domestic political reasons. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is facing a strident opposition that regards him as a corrupt and eccentric autocrat. A strong statesmanlike stance against Russia may help him to keep them at bay in the parliamentary elections on May 21st. And a confrontation with Russia may help to distract his foreign critics, who care a lot about democracy but even more about defending Georgia from Russian mischief-making.
More conspiratorially, it could be that hardliners in Moscow would welcome confrontation with Georgia to set the tone for the new presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, a man they regard as a poor substitute for the hawkish Vladimir Putin. Mr Medvedev takes office next week.
Yet even if either side (or both) is overstating the case, the Caucasus is too flammable a place to be ignored. Georgia is an important link in the energy corridor that connects the oil-rich Caspian region with the outside world. Europe would like that to become a route for gas exports too.
NATO said on Wednesday April 30th that it is watching Russia's troop build-up “with concern”. Both the alliance and the European Union have blamed the Kremlin for raising tensions. NATO ambassadors met David Bakradze, a senior Georgian politician, in Brussels on Monday.
But to Georgia’s backers at least, Western support looks pretty limp. The only practical move that NATO could agree upon was to send representatives to visit Georgia—by the end of the year. As a foreign minister from another ex-communist country notes, “Georgia is not formally an ally” of the West. The minister is privately sympathetic to the Georgians’ plight, but is pessimistic about their prospects.
It is hard to see an easy way out. Georgia recently offered Abkhazia a deal that included full autonomy, a veto on legislation and constitutional changes and a guaranteed position as vice-president. But that has probably come too late.
The big question is how far Russia will push. It has stopped short of formal diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and another smaller breakaway statelet called South Ossetia. But on April 16th a presidential decree established formal legal ties with both places. That may have been merely a symbolic reaction to the West’s recognition of Kosovo, which Russia saw as a gross breach of the territorial integrity of its ally, Serbia. Or it may prove a prelude to the de facto annexation of both territories, as Georgia claims.
If Russia overplays its hand, it could find that the outside world sharply questions the legitimacy of its peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia. Critics have long referred to them as “piece-keepers”. That may prove to have been a prescient bit of mockery.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Russia and Georgia rattle sabres