Georgia and Russia
Gather round the gorge
From The Economist print edition
The outside world can help deter both Russian bullying and Georgian vote-rigging
IF YOU have not heard of the Kodori Gorge, you may soon. A Georgian-controlled sliver of territory in the breakaway enclave of Abkhazia, it looks nastily like the flashpoint for a new hot war in the Caucasus. Russia, which protects the Abkhaz regime, insists that Georgia is planning to use Kodori to attack Abkhazia. That is unlikely. Georgia's modern but small army is no match for the Russian behemoth. Steep terrain with only one tiny road divides Kodori from the rest of Abkhazia. And starting a war would ruin Georgia's hopes of joining NATO.
A more plausible explanation of Russia's propaganda offensive and increase in the numbers of both regular and irregular forces in Abkhazia is not fear of a Georgian attack, but plans for the opposite: an attempt to retake the Kodori Gorge. This would humiliate, perhaps topple, Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Russia would see it as giving a firm response to the deplorable precedent of Western recognition of Kosovo's independence. If you use your muscle to separate Kosovo from Serbia, the Kremlin would grunt, then just watch what we can do to a would-be ally of yours.
Tensions are still growing ahead of Georgia's parliamentary elections on May 21st. A war would splinter Georgia's fragile democracy, destabilise the whole Caucasus and embolden Russian hawks to cause bother elsewhere. That is trouble worth avoiding.
If Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev (see article), wants to be taken seriously as more than a puppet of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, he could start by cooling the row with Georgia. Menacing the country mocks his talk of the rule of law. Others can also help. Some European Union countries are joining Lithuania's hitherto lonely protests on Georgia's behalf. This week five foreign ministers went to Georgia to bemoan Russia's knout-rattling. A mission of foreign military and political observers to the Kodori Gorge itself would be a useful follow-up. It would give the lie to Russia's claims that Georgia is preparing for war. And it could deter Russia from an attack. Killing Georgian soldiers is one thing for Russia; killing officials from EU and NATO countries is another.
Meanwhile Georgia could help itself by bolstering its democratic credentials. The heavy-handed dispersal of street protests in November and allegations of ballot-rigging in January's presidential election have sullied its reputation. That helped NATO's summit in April decide that putting Georgia on a clear track to membership was premature.
Georgia's friends might rally more enthusiastically behind it if the parliamentary elections were not just clean, but seen to be beyond reproach. Mr Saakashvili's supporters say that the opposition is intransigent and maybe even outright treacherous. Bits of it may well be. But that is no excuse for dodgy election practices.
It is sadly too late to settle some controversies, such as the composition of the election commission. But video recordings of the numbers entering polling booths should be comprehensive and freely available to help allay suspicions of ballot-stuffing. Complaints need to be followed up seriously. Otherwise the impression given is one of arrogance at best, and at worst a willingness to conceal dirty deeds. Outside monitors should offer to look into any complaints that the Georgian authorities fail to investigate properly.
Demonstratively coupling its prosperity with freedom and legality will win Georgia moral high ground, and wider backing, in its war of words with Russia. And it might one day even help win back Abkhazia too.