Tuesday, August 26, 2008

this from Economist website today

Russia and the West

Confrontational Russia
Aug 26th 2008
From Economist.com

Russia’s diplomatic recognition of two breakaway bits of Georgia is more bad news

TO GEORGIAN fury, Western consternation and strong support at home, Russia’s government recognised two breakaway regions of Georgia as independent countries on Tuesday August 26th. The map of Europe is different, and darker, as a result.

The planned dispatch of Russian diplomats to open embassies in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, the main cities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia respectively, marks the formal dismemberment of Georgia: until very recently, Russia had at least in theory accepted its neighbour’s territorial integrity.

As long as Russia kept up its recognition of Georgian territorial integrity, it could claim that its soldiers in both places were peacekeepers operating under international mandates. Cynics, such as Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had long joked that the Russian forces should be called “piece-keepers”, whose real role was to maintain the Kremlin's influence in the former empire. Russia says that its forces are protecting the Abkhaz and Ossetians from Georgian attack.

Diplomatic historians may find that the two new countries will not make for enduring study. The next act in the drama may well be that both new countries ask to become part of the Russian Federation. That underlines Russia’s dramatic military victory against Georgia in this month’s war, giving it a permanent presence south of the Caucasus mountains, close to the vital oil and gas pipelines that bring energy from the Caspian region and Central Asia to Turkey and beyond.

Russia likes to draw parallels with Kosovo—a state carved out of Serbia as a result of Western military intervention. But the parallel is superficial. Few embassies will open in South Ossetia (which, following the ethnic cleansing of its Georgian population, has a population little bigger than that of Liechtenstein). Close Russian allies such as Belarus and Tajikistan will be keen to put on a show of support. Others may be more chary of recognising Russian puppet states as independent countries. Moldova and Azerbaijan, for example, have headaches with similar entities, Transdniestria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they are the result of ethnic flare-ups in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Russian allies farther afield, such as Venezuela and Cuba, may be tempted to join in the humiliation of the West.

Hard words are flying. Britain and America have condemned the move. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, called it “unacceptable”. She is on a hastily arranged visit to the Baltic states, which are now shivering in anticipation of what Russia’s foreign policy may hold in store for them. France, which holds the presidency of the European Union, had already called an emergency summit for September 1st to review ties with Russia. It was the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered a ceasefire on August 12th. He is furious with what he sees as Russian double-dealing.

Some of the strongest words came from Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister: “That the Russian government leadership now has chosen this route means they have chosen a policy of confrontation, not only with the rest of Europe, but also with the international community in general,” he said.

All that may be true. But for now, criticism of the Kremlin’s actions in Georgia seems to be fuelling the Russian leadership’s determination to do more of the same. Public opinion seems strongly behind the muscular new foreign policy, seeing it as a sign that Russia has recovered from the weakness of the 1990s. Russia seems not to care that Western countries are now threatening to block its membership of the World Trade Organisation.

Indeed, Russia feels it can easily withstand Western displeasure. Soaring oil and gas prices have put nearly $600 billion in its hard-currency reserves. Many Russians reckon that in the end the big European countries that matter will decide that they care more about trade ties and reliable energy supplies than they do about Georgia. On the evidence so far, that assessment may be correct.

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