Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Once again, excellent analysis of Georgia conflict by Asia Times. Two articles worth reading

Saakashvili overplays his hand

By Brian Whitmore

In an effort to prod the West to Tbilisi's side in its rapidly escalating armed conflict with Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is invoking the ghosts of Cold War battles past - Moscow's suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in 1979.

The Georgian leader's strategy is clear. Tbilisi's small army is no match for the Russian military machine. Saakashvili's only chance of success in his bid to regain control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, therefore, is to globalize the conflict and turn it into a central front of a new struggle between Moscow and the West.

"What Russia has been doing against Georgia for the last two days represents an open aggression, unprecedented in modern times," Saakashvili said in a televised address on August 8. "It is a direct challenge for the whole world. If Russia is not stopped today by the whole world, tomorrow Russian tanks might reach any European capital. I think everyone has understood this by now."

So far, the West has not taken the bait. The United States and the European Union are sending envoys to Georgia to try to broker a ceasefire and Western leaders have issued predictable statements calling on both sides to show restraint.

Most European leaders, wary of antagonizing Moscow, have strived to come across as more or less balanced in the conflict. Even Georgia's closest ally in the West, the United States, has thus far offered little more than rhetorical support.

Speaking in Beijing on August 9, US President George W Bush stepped up Washington's criticism of Moscow, calling for a halt to the shelling of Georgian targets. "Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected," Bush said. "We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops. We call for an end to the Russian bombings and a return by the parties to the status quo of August 6."

Trying to move West
Since coming to power after the country's 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has relentlessly sought to move Georgia into the Western orbit and out of Moscow's sphere of influence. To do that, however, the Georgian leader needed to resolve the standoffs over the pro-Moscow regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia with Russian assistance following wars in the early 1990s.

Prior to Saakashvili's rise, Russia was the only international player in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with troops in both regions under a Commonwealth of Independent States-sanctioned "peacekeeping" mission.

"Saakashvili has been trying to internationalize the conflicts in Georgia since he has come to office," says Sabine Freizer, the Europe program director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. "It has been very much his strategy to make this an international conflict between the traditional West and Russia, speaking in language of the Cold War and saying that this is really the last frontier. He's been racking up those kind of expressions in the past few days, but this is really nothing new."

The United States has been largely receptive to Saakashvili's efforts, championing Tbilisi's attempt to join NATO, helping to train Georgia's armed forces, and offering diplomatic support on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.

Europe, on the other hand, has been largely divided. Some EU members like Germany and France, wary of antagonizing Moscow, have been reluctant to offer Georgia anything more than lukewarm support. Newer member states like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, with fresh memories of Soviet domination, have been more forceful in support of Tbilisi.

Georgia moved into South Ossetia on August 7 in a large-scale operation to regain control of the Moscow-backed separatist region, following days of clashes in which both sides exchanged gun and mortar fire. Each side accuses the other of initiating the hostilities. The offensive sparked a furious reaction from Russia, which sent troops, military aircraft, and tanks to repel Georgian forces. It was the Russian military's first offensive outside its borders since the 1991 Soviet breakup.

It came as no surprise that the strongest European condemnation of Russia's incursion into South Ossetia thus far came from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitekunas, who said Moscow crossed "red lines" and committed "aggression and an outrageous violation of international law". Poland, likewise, has called for an emergency summit on South Ossetia.

Some analysts say that with the West divided, Saakashvili may have felt the need to try to resolve the conflicts in Georgia's favor quickly, before the Bush administration - which has been a very strong supporter of Tbilisi - leaves office:

"Why precisely now? What made Saakashvili decide that this was the right moment politically? In my opinion, one of the reasons is that Mikheil Saakashvili believes the current US administration has certain obligations toward him and the next presidential administration - particularly if this is a Democratic administration - won't feel it has any of these obligations and may modify the overall stance on Georgia," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a recent interview.

If that is indeed the case, Saakashvili appears to have badly miscalculated by failing to anticipate Russia's robust response. And now that the long-simmering confrontation has escalated from a diplomatic and political clash into armed conflict, the West's options are increasingly limited.

"I really think he [Saakashvili] has taken it a step too far because if we were really going to push back the Russians, you would need something like a military intervention and that is not going to happen," Freizer says.

Analysts say the West does have some leverage over Russia. The EU, for example, could suspend negotiations over a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Moscow; the NATO-Russia Council could be dissolved; Russia could be prevented from joining the World Trade Organization, or even kicked out of the Group of Eight.

But its energy wealth, and the influence that buys, will likely prevent anything more than a mild rebuke. Moreover, the United States and the European Union badly need Russia's cooperation on issues like curbing Iran's nuclear program.

But in the end, Moscow's efforts to be viewed as a responsible global player will certainly suffer a serious blow due to the conflict.
"Russia's image is going to take a battering," Freizer says. "Russia has been trying increase its international legitimacy as a defender of international law, not only in the Caucasus but also we've been seeing this in the Balkans as well with the positions Russia has been taking on Kosovo. It is going to be more difficult for them to stand in front of the Security Council as the big defender of international law while they're bombing civilian targets and Georgian cities."

Original article posted here

Russia bids to rid Georgia of its folly

By John Helmer

MOSCOW - One word explains why the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union have obliged themselves to sit on their hands, while Russia's defends its citizens, and national interests, in the Caucasus, and liberates Georgians from the folly of their unpopular president, Mikheil Saakashvili. That word is Kosovo.

Russia sent troops into the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia to take on Georgian troops that had advanced into the territory. Four days of heavy fighting have seen thousands of casualties and the Georgian forces withdrawing. Russian troops were reported on Monday to be continuing fighting in parts of Georgia, including around the capital Tbilisi.

Eight hundred years of Caucasian history explain why Saakashvili has brought such destruction and ignominy on his countrymen over the past few days. Queen Tamar, the greatest of the Georgian sovereigns (1184-1213), is responsible for the habit Georgian rulers have displayed for the past millennium of treating neighboring Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ossetia and the Black Sea coast of Turkey as protectorates. But as Tamar also taught her countrymen, Georgian ambition always runs out of gas when the neighbors prove to be just as ambitious, richer or tougher.

The number 300 explains what tougher means - that's the count of Russian artillery pieces that have been deployed to South Ossetia alone, once Saakashvili dispatched his United States and Israel-trained troops into action at Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. That push, according to Russian military thinking, was not intended to hold Tskhinvali for Georgia, but to destroy it, and withdraw swiftly back into Georgia - ending the South Ossetian secession by liquidating its people.

Just how tough Russia's war aims are now - as distinct from the methods - remains to be seen. According to Georgian sources, there is no safe haven for the attackers in Georgia itself, as Russian artillery pounds Georgian military units within range; the Russian air force bombs every military unit and depot on Georgian territory; and the Russian Black Sea fleet counter-fires against Georgian naval vessels off Ochamchire, the Abkhazian regional port.

For all Russians, not only those with relatives in Ossetia, the near-total destruction by Georgian guns of Tskhinvali is a war crime. The deaths of about 2,000 civilians in the Georgian attack, and the forced flight of about 35,000 survivors from the town - the last census of Tskhinvali's population reported 30,000 - has been described by Russian leaders, and is understood by Russian public opinion, as a form of genocide. Ninety percent of the town's population are Russian citizens.

To Russians, the Georgian attack of August 8 looks like the very same "ethnic cleansing", which the US and European powers have treated as a crime against humanity, when committed on the former territory of federal Yugoslavia.

But Russians view the international war that broke up Yugoslavia as a practice run for breaking up the Russian Caucasus, first by arming the Chechen secessionist Dzhokar Dudayev; then by financing anti-Russian terrorism in the Russian provinces of Chechnya and Ingushetia; and now by the Georgian military thrust against South Ossetia.

Since the US and the European Union have so recently compelled Serbia to accept the Albanian takeover of Serbia's Kosovo province, the overwhelming Russian view is that this will not be allowed to happen again. "Ossetia is not Kosovo" is a widespread refrain in Moscow today.

"If [former Yugoslav president] Slobodan Milosevic should be put on trial, the opinion here is - so too should Saakashvili," says a leading Moscow analyst.

But is it now a Russian war aim to drive Saakashvili from power? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the weekend that Saakashvili "must go". Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, on a mediation mission on Monday between the Georgian and Russian capitals, will hear the same view in Moscow.

The Russian argument is that, since coming to power in 2003, Saakashvili has militarized his country with US, NATO and Israeli arms, military training and money, for no purpose except to threaten Russia, and the minority nationalities of the region, who seek the protection of Moscow - the Abkhazians and the Ossetians.

Saakashvili, the Russian argument runs, has initiated military escalation over the past year because his political base has cracked and his domestic support is dwindling. The Georgian political opposition at home, and in exile abroad, agrees. They charge the president and his family, including the powerful Timur Alasaniya, Saakashvili's uncle, of growing corruptly rich off the arms trade and of seizing the country's resource, port and trading concessions for themselves and their supporters. Alasaniya, brother to Saakashvili's mother, holds the official position of Georgian representative to a United Nations Commission on Disarmament in New York (no relation to Irakly Alasaniya, Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations).

The leaders of the Georgian opposition nearly succeeded in toppling Saakashvili last autumn. The president was forced to impose military rule in Tbilisi, while his former defense minister, Irakly Okruashvili, publicly accused him of murder and corruption. Okruashvili is currently in Paris, where he has been granted political asylum by the French government. In June, a French court rejected Saakashvili's warrant for the arrest and extradition of his former friend and now bitterest critic. Okruashvili is uncompromised by early career links to Moscow, unlike a number of political party leaders in Tbilisi. Okruashvili is a likely candidate to replace Saakashvili, if and when Georgian public opinion turns against the president.

But this cannot happen while Russian military operations continue against Georgian targets. Leading opposition figures inside the country, like Shalva Natelashvili, head of the Georgian Labor Party, believe they must remain silent for the time being. According to Irakly Kakabadze, an independent opposition organizer based in New York, "Once the bombing stops, I believe Saakashvili will not survive." In the spring, Kakabadze was arrested and imprisoned in Tbilisi by Saakashvili security men trying to disrupt a street protest against the president's regime.

Public opinion in Georgia already pins the blame on Saakashvili for the folly and loss of the Ossetian adventure. Even before it began last week, opposition leaders were calling for an end to the militarization of the country. However, as one opposition leader said on Monday, the bombing has to stop, "Otherwise, the Russians are making Saakashvili the victim."

The problem for Russians is that halting the military campaign doesn't put a stop to Saakashvili's menaces. Nor is there any confidence in Moscow, on either side of the Kremlin wall, that Rice and Kouchner can be trusted to control Saakashvili, even if they promise to do so.

If a ceasefire is agreed this week, Georgians and Russians might then be able to agree that Saakashvili bears personal responsibility for the war that began on August 8. However, neither Saakashvili's domestic critics, nor the Russian government, expect the Americans to abandon their man now - let alone escort him to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

With the Georgian presidential alternative Okruashvili under their wing in Paris, what the French do next may bridge the gap which Saakashvili's artillery tore apart last Friday.

John Helmer has been a Moscow-based correspondent since 1989, specializing in the coverage of Russian business.

Original article posted here.

No comments: