Carrying Voda

by Nathan Hamm on 8/10/2004 · 2 comments

I had originally intended to leave this anti-Georgia tirade alone when I saw it yesterday, but after Laurence emailed it to me and I reconsidered.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasingly vocal choir of intellectuals, activists, and pundits who decry the right of democracies to assert themselves on the global stage. While I doubt that said choir truly opposes asserting democratic values and the rights of democracies to protect themselves and their territories, I cannot help but still say that the objective result of the message is one of defeat and passivity. I have also noticed a strong bias towards the status quo in foreign policy on pretty much all sides of the debate. I have heard some describe this, and the fetishistic attachment to currently recognized national borders, as a particularly American characteristic. I’m not so sure though.

In the case of Russian behavior in Georgia (and Transdniester), I think I’m pretty open about finding Russian behavior to be more of a problem than a solution. I entirely recognize that Georgia takes a pretty belligerent tone, and I know this inflames the passions of Russians and their government. I don’t care though. Russia’s creeping annexation of its neighbors’ territory is reprehensible. Coming up with excuses to keep troops in unwilling countries (a violation of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty) is reprehensible. But perhaps even worse is carrying water for the Russian government and pointing the finger at the US and Georgia.

Can the Caucasus ever escape from the cycle of coups and violence that have beset the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Not if the rhetoric of Georgia’s new 36-year-old President Mikheil Saakashvili is anything to go by.

Well, I suppose that is true if you accept that Russia is doing nothing wrong in the region. One should ask if the presence of Russian troops and their backing of unrepresentative puppets will ever allow the Caucasus to be peaceful.

Saakashvili’s rhetoric [threatening to sink tourist ships] echoes the justifications given by Soviet officials in 1983 after a South Korean airliner was shot down for violating the Soviet Union’s “sacred, sovereign airspace,” as Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov put it at the time. More than 200 civilians were killed. But Georgia today is run by a team of thirty-something post-Soviets educated in the West. Shouldn’t it behave in a very different way?

Not necessarily. I’m sure some of you could provide examples of responsible democracies asserting their territorial rights in a similar fashion. I highly doubt that Saakashvili intends to sink a single ship. Act like he will? Sure. Turn them back? Of course. Scare Russian tourists? That’s the point. He has a point. Abkhazia and Georgia have not reached a settlement. Russia accepts that the territory is Georgia’s. Georgia has every right to demand permission from vessels wishing to dock at its ports.

I read this act as being directed to economically starving the Abhkazian government and force them to the table.

Sadly, Saakashvili’s approach to asserting Georgian sovereignty contains more than echoes of Soviet practice. More recent blood-soaked disasters in his country’s history seem to set a precedent. On Aug. 14, 1992, the Georgian government’s conflict with Abkhazia escalated from words to armed combat when Tbilisi sent its motley army into the coastal region to assert Georgian sovereignty. The orgy of murder, plunder and rape that followed engendered a bitter Abkhazian backlash. One year later, the Georgian army had fled and a third of a million Georgian-speaking civilians followed the defeated rabble out of Abkhazia.

I’ll be honest in saying I know little about the civil war. I do know that Saakashvili wasn’t in charge at the time and that he’s not cut from the same cloth that the rest of the former Soviet Union’s ruling elite is. There is a high burden of proof needed to make the assertion that a Georgian re-entry into Abkhazia would have the same result.

Despite his bloodthirsty rhetoric directed at Georgia’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.

I dispute the characterization, but nevertheless, he deserves our support. He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s a marked improvement over what the rest of the region has. And while we’re on the topic of bloodthirsty, those made by Russia are perhaps a little more subtle, but equally threatening.

Even at the height of a bitter domestic election campaign, the supporters of both U.S. President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry have nothing but praise for the Columbia Law School alumnus.

Good. It’s not our job to take an on-balance well-behaved (I hate saying that, but you know what I mean) and faithful ally out behind the woodshed every time they offend someone’s delicate sensibilities.

George Soros may have pledged millions to oust Bush, but he has boasted that his money helped to install Saakashvili in power last November. The Open Society Institute helped train the protesters who toppled Eduard Shevardnadze to the applause of the Bush White House.

One wonders if Mr. Almond shed a tear for Shevardnadze. I’ll echo Bush’s applause for OSI’s success. There’s no crime in cheering the demise of an autocrat.

Twelve years ago, when Shevardnadze stormed back to power in the ex-Soviet republic he had led as Communist Party boss until 1985, the Washington consensus backed the first President Bush’s endorsement of the new Georgian president even though he had toppled an elected predecessor. In 1992, the State Department and international observers accepted Shevardnadze’s claim to have received over 90 percent of the vote. Last January, neither the State Department nor international observers saw anything suspicious in official results showing that 97 percent of Georgians voted for Saakashvili.

Maybe they were watching the process and not the results. And regarding that process, observers noticed both problems and dramatic improvements. 97% is a suspicious result. The short period between the fall of Shevardnadze and the election make it difficult for me to believe though that Saakashvili could have easily set up the infrastructure to fix the outcome. At the same time, the short interval almost guaranteed that the country would be in the grips of its post-authoritarian love affair with their new leader. If the election were held today, I’m sure his numbers would be much lower. Lech Walesa won a suspiciously large majority (though not close to the 97% range) in 1990 while the Communists won by a landslide in 1995. New democracies are fickle.

There is an almost Orwellian aspect to the way in which the U.S. establishment has erased its love affair with Shevardnadze from the pages of history while it carries on in exactly the same fashion with his successor.

Now it’s time for me to pull the “human rights NGO card.” Mark Almond has worked for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. I have not given their reports the reading they deserve, but they seem to go beyond the unwitting apologies that many human rights NGOs offer to active and committed support of undemocratic forces.

I especially loathe the intellectual well that the “Orwellian” accusation is drawn from. Where’s the substantive proof that the US is trying to erase its past with Shevardnadze? Is it the responsibility of the State Department to talk about past mistakes or to try to create present and future successes? Take the current flap over Vietnam in the presidential campaign. Am I engaging in Orwellian erasure of the past when I say it shouldn’t be part of the public discussion? Or, could it be I’m questioning the relevance of that past to the issues at hand? The degree to which human rights groups engage in self-flagellating guilt over the past rather is of equally questionable value to the issues we face.

In Georgia, we had high hopes for Shevardnadze and we were wrong. The same thing may happen in Saakashvili’s case, but should we throw up our hands and not work for a better outcome?

Don’t be taken in by the carefully staged photos of Georgian troops in U.S.-style uniforms under banners reading “USA-Georgia, United We Stand” arranged for the benefit of Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld. The hundred-plus U.S. soldiers training Georgia’s new army complain that different men show up for training every day, rendering the exercise pointless.

Source? Almond has been to Georgia 10 times since 1992 under BHHRG auspices. I doubt he conducted interviews with US troops in the GTEP program. I have read that Georgian GTEP troops receive different pay than the rest, suggesting that the group is somewhat distinct and higher valued. And, contrary to Almond’s claim, here’s what one Marine said about GTEP:

“Although they have never worked together or been assigned to a mission like this, they have rapidly formed into a solid team,” said Campbell. “The strength of this group is the wide variety of experiences and skills that they bring to the unit.”

If you want more stories, here they are.

Is it worth risking another bloody conflict? Another round of ethnic cleansing would be the result if Saakashvili won. If you were an Abkhazian or Ossetian listening to his daily rants threatening retribution, would you trust the new Georgia to treat you and your family any better than the discredited Georgia of Shevardnadze?

Well, if he didn’t just call Saakashvili a junior Milosevic… I can understand that some Abkhazians and Ossetians are wary and they have reason to be. At the same time, the status quo is unacceptable. Both regions have atrocious governments and Russia, rather than working towards resolution, is working to make each territory de facto Russian provinces. Why Russia should be rewarded for its behavior is beyond me.

As if that isn’t bothersome enough, Russian troops are reportedly unconcerned with stopping smugglers and “bandits” moving into Georgia through these regions. Is Saakashvili using that as a pretext for regaining control? Sure. It’s still a valid concern. And, given the way that Russian troops have a way of running drugs and criminals across borders (see Tajikistan), I’d want them out too.

Like Iraq or Sudan, Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus are awash with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. A Caucasian tinderbox may be about to catch fire. If it does, Americans in the region could carry the can for Washington’s failure to rein in Saakashvili’s aggressive tendencies.

And you can carry Russia’s.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. The US is working to defuse tensions. I think we’ll succeed because Georgian bellicosity is, I think, a spur to get Russia to act, and Russian rhetoric is coming from the mouths of underlings, not Putin. Over the past year, Saakashvili has made noise, freaked out Russia, gotten Russia to try to protect its interests, brought in US and high-level Russian officials, and ended up getting his way.

People there know he studied at Columbia. They cite Soros’ backing for him, including his payment of many ministers’ salaries. When told that Soros’ Open Society Institute has nothing to do with the Bush White House because it is a nongovernmental organization, Georgians just laugh. So when people across that unstable region hear Saakashvili threatening to sink tourist boats, an invisible logo flashes through people’s minds: “Made in America.”

Give me a freaking break. I lived in Uzbekistan and I wouldn’t even dare to pretend to be able to read their minds. I can only tell you what they told me. How Almond gained mind-reading powers, I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that Georgians think about their government in terms of Georgia, not the US. Concern with imagined US ownership of one’s government seems to be a primarily European obsession.

Neither candidate in the U.S. presidential race may be thinking much about ex-Soviet Georgia this summer. Electoral college votes in the South are probably uppermost in their minds. But if the United States stands by and lets Saakashvili invade Abkhazia or South Ossetia, the president’s enemies will regard him as Washington’s proxy.

Don’t they already? I’ve noticed a tendency in this part of the world to view everything as a big American conspiracy, so this doesn’t really bother me. The fact that Saakashvili’s foes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian proxies seems not to concern Almond.

Resistance to any rash attack by Georgia could easily spawn terrorism. The pipeline that Washington has promoted to carry oil across Georgia from the Caspian Sea could prove as vulnerable to sabotage as any in Iraq. American personnel operating in Georgia could also be targets if Abkhazians, Ossetians and their friends decide to target the people they see as Saakashvili’s sponsors.

There are a lot of things that could happen. The question is whether or not they are likely to happen. Something tells me the small US and UK contingents in Georgia won’t end up as targets. I also find the prospect of widespread terrorism as a response to be unlikely. Why? It’s pretty evident that Russia would be caught half-naked with the farmer’s daughter and work damage control to prevent itself from either a damaged reputation or involvement in a civil war. Russia seems to have learned that it gains prestige and favor when it cooperates with Georgia and the US. I’m inclined to think that is a more likely outcome than threats of potential terorism (and when with the left quit saying that this, that, and the other thing could spawn terrorism?).

At the very least, Almond recognizes the risk of war. The situation deserves a sober and honest consideration of the pitfalls and potentials involved. And to be honest, one must work a little harder than pointing a finger of blame at the United States when the opportunity presents itself (especially when Russia deserves it more). I am frankly getting fed up with leftist intellectuals who are more committed to shackling the United States and its allies than they are to standing up for the ideals they claim to trumpet.


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 2 comments }

Alisher August 11, 2004 at 10:14 am

First of all, I should say that I don’t have any sympathies for neither side in this conflict.
Besides, I don’t think that respectful Dr. Almond deserves this treatment with his text, but when reading it I had a sudden idea to simplify the language and render it more understandable to wider public. Of course, I admit that I might have misunderstood some of his ideas, but if I got at least one right, than this try was not in vain.

a. There will be never peace in Georgia if it tries to get out of Russian influence-zone.
b. Saakashvili is a bad man and he is supported by the United States, a bad country and by Soros, also a bad man.
c. Georgia is former Soviet territory.
d. The Georgian army is not strong and incapable and made up of brutes and criminals, though US tries in vain to train them.
e. The “Revolution of roses” in Georgia was neither democratic nor popular, but in fact Saakashvili bought over the Georgian police and army with Soros money.
f. Good relations between Georgia and USA are fake, because U.S. soldiers training Georgia’s new army complain that different men show up for training every day, rendering the exercise pointless.
g. So far Saakashvili achieved his aims without bloodshed, but be sure there will be bloodshed the next time.
h. Abkhasians and Ossetians are completely different than Georgians and they don’t belong to Georgia, plus they have Russian trained soldiers, who are better than American trained Georgians.
i. Abkhasians and Ossetians, beware! Saakashvili will kill you and your innocent wives and children!
j. Georgia is a very dangerous place like Iraq and Sudan.
k. Saakashvili is American puppet, and Georgians know it.
l. America should leave Georgia to Russia. If USA will support Georgia, there will be attacks against American-sponsored pipeline and American soldiers in Georgia by Ossetians, Abkhasians and their friends (Russians?).

It sounds very much like Russia’s message to Georgians and Americans, but what surprises me most that this message comes from an Oxford scholar…

Nathan August 11, 2004 at 10:44 am

His tactic is one very common with the Western left–a multi-pronged attack making the points that:
[STRAWMAN ALERT!!!]
1) The “democratic forces” are not really democratic and they cause violence and violence is bad and the tyrant kept the peace.

2) The US is really out for power. Sure, we can’t make the case on the totality of the evidence, but that’s because it’s a conspiracy.

3) Past failures show that we do nothing but fail, so why try?

4) All American allies are puppets while their enemies, regardless of their patrons, are the good guys.

I could probably go on, but I should stop.

Saakashvili is no angel, but Russia isn’t trying to resolve the conflicts. It wins by maintaining the status quo until everyone accepts that it just makes more sense for these territories to be Russian.

I can understand Abkhazian and Ossetian apprehension, but I can sympathize more with a Georgia that lost the territory in large part because Russia let in volunteers and former Soviet officers from across the Caucasus to help these territories chase out Georgians. Though I’m not sure the history of how this happened, I feel it important to make the point that Abkhazians were only 17% of the population of the region in 1989. Even with the Soviet history of forced migrations, I have a hard time advocating uprooting particular groups of people.

Almond and the BHHRG read like anti-American shills. I acknowledge there’s a middle ground in these conflicts, but I have little patience for people who, by taking a knee-jerk, anti-American position, end up advocating corruption and tyrrany.

The only way that the conflicts will ever be solved is by Georgia throwing the fit it’s throwing. That noise is the only thing that will cause Russia to quit playing the “we’re just simple impartial peacekeepers” game it’s playing now. That they are arming the Abkhazians and Ossetians is now getting press and showing Russia to be working against the interests of its neighbors. Georgia knows that the US and Russia are going to have to come together to work out a new deal to replace the sham of a ceasefire the keeps the OSCE from playing a very important role.

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