You want help? Oops!

by on August 18th, 2008

Toward the end of the fourth century, the Romanized Britons realized that the security provided by the Roman Empire was ending. Departing legions were not replaced. Waves of Germanic warriors and settlers flooded into the vulnerable areas of the British Isles and northern Gaul. Appeals for help to Roman military leaders and even to the emperor went unanswered. Britain’s Dark Ages began.

A semblance of order was restored in the last quarter of the ninth century when Alfred, the ruler of the West Saxons, stopped the western expansion of the Danes. Historians credit Alfred with founding what came to be called England. He is the only English monarch to be called “the Great.”

That bit of British history was repeated to me by a Georgian who is a close friend of President Mikheil Saakashvili. We were having dinner at a pleasant restaurant overlooking one of Georgia’s beautiful valleys, not far from Gori, the site of vicious Russian aggression in the past few days. But on that night, everything seemed perfect. Saakashvili had just won Georgia’s presidential election after his brilliant leadership of the Rose Revolution. Everyone was hopeful. Despite that festive mood, my dinner companion was thinking about the Roman abandonment of Britain. Was he prescient?

Soon, investors undertook projects that had been planned but never started under the increasingly inept and corrupt administration of the former president, Eduard Shevardnadze. A kindly man, Shevardnadze was a national hero when he became president in 1995. But by 2003, his forgetfulness allowed ruthless underlings to assert power and Saakashvili and his supporters saw their chance to take control. They precipitated a crisis that demonstrated that Shevardnadze was incapable of leadership.

End of a friend

Once in office, Saakashvili quietly eliminated rivals. One close friend was especially helpful in Saakashvili’s rise: Zurab Zhvania became prime minister under Saakashvili. Likeable and open, his manner contrasted with Saakashvili’s sometimes secretive, darker nature. Zhvania gained in popularity. Then he died in 2005 in his apartment of supposed carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas heater. Most observers of Georgian politics believe that Zhvania was murdered. He was a Jew and in Georgia as in Russia, the old prejudices survive. The authorities and media were less likely to investigate. Saakashvili consolidated his power with Zhvania gone.

If anything, Saakashvili gained the respect of the ruthless and corrupt element in Georgian society. Contacts close to the Kremlin told me at the time that the Russians were impressed with Saakashvili’s cleverness and decided to keep Saakashvili on as short a lead as possible.

Investors continued to pour money into Georgia and the Black Sea ports were modernized. The capital, Tbilisi, bustled with construction and reconstruction. A pipeline crossed Georgia and brought Caspian oil to neighboring Turkey and beyond.

The pipeline troubled the Russians, who wanted no rival pipelines to compete with their monopoly. Through Gazprom, its natural gas supplier, Russia showed its willingness to use energy as a weapon when it shut off supplies to Ukraine and other parts of Europe on January 1, 2006. Vladimir Putin was testing to see just how far he could go.

Saakashvili, who received an LLM from Columbia University in 1994 and a doctorate in law from George Washington University the next year, was working for a blue-chip New York law firm when Zhvania approached him on behalf of Shevardnadze to return to Georgia. Shevardnadze was attempting to attract talented and well educated Georgians to return to help their native country. Saakashvili returned and quickly won a seat in parliament.

A few days before his death, Zhvania lunched in Washington with some close supporters of Georgia. He told us that from the moment Saakashvili returned to Georgia, he set out to become president. Saakashvili believed, Zhvania said, that his familiarity with the United States would allow him to operate with American support – or at least the appearance of American support – which would serve to keep Russia at arms length. “With Russia, he believes he can work magic,” Zhvania sighed.

Not everyone was enjoying the new prosperity

Fast forward to August of 2008. To outward appearances, Georgia was booming. New buildings were going up in the cities. Foreigners were everywhere, sightseeing and investing. But the prosperity of the cities was not reflected in the rural areas.

Many Georgians still live without plumbing and reliable electricity. A surprising number have rarely if ever ridden in a motorized vehicle. Families with no fields let their animals graze on the roadsides. Traffic on the main road from Tbilisi to the Black Sea is often slowed by wandering horses, cows, goats, sheep, geese or chickens. The road was built with financial help from the U.S. that was given to the national government, which then built the road between the cities and villages along the way. The central government gave local officials money to build the road within their municipal territory. Many did not. So the road may come to an abrupt end as it comes to a settlement. Drivers make their way on local roads or through dusty fields until they come again to the national road.

Despite all the progress in the cities, the people of the countryside have been growing restless. They have not enjoyed the prosperity so evident in the cities. Some suggest that Saakashvili used South Ossetia and the other breakaway territories within Georgia to fuel a sense of nationalism and distract the Georgian people. I have met many Georgians, from all parts of the country, and they share a friendly inquisitiveness that makes it unlikely that they could be distracted so easily. They know too much and have a healthy cynicism regarding politicians and government. They also share a deep desire to be part of the West. This fuels their desire for NATO membership and their strong pro-Americanism.

They see NATO membership and the U.S. as shields against Russian domination. It is easy to see how bitterly disenchanted they are with the U.S. With fewer than five million people, Georgia until a few days ago had more troops in Iraq than all other countries except the United Kingdom and the U.S.

NATO expansion into Eastern Europe is one of the main arguments used by both Moscow and Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia as well as South Ossetia to maintain a Russian presence in the separatist regions. No country other than Russia recognizes the breakaway territories. Russia sees expansion of NATO as a threat to Russia’s strategic interests.

Pretend that you are Putin. If you had looked westward from Moscow before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you would have seen an empire stretching west of Berlin. Today, look westward and your effective border reaches only to Lithuania. And like its neighbors, Lithuania is integrating rapidly into the European Union. So while Georgia believes that membership in NATO is a guarantee of stability in the region, Russia sees NATO expansion as provocative and threatening. So far, Russia has been winning the intimidation showdown.

At a NATO summit in Bucharest earlier this year, President Bush called for Georgia to be given a timetable for membership. Led by Germany and France, which expressed concerns about energy supplies and alienating Russia, NATO did not offer Georgia a clear path into NATO. Instead, NATO said the matter would be reviewed in December of this year. Putin understood perfectly.

Russia knew that military action against Georgia would not cause an automatic response by fellow NATO countries. Georgia took note. Ukraine took note. Both countries share not just a Soviet past and a geographic closeness to Russia but also an emotional one. Hundreds of Russian officials recall growing up in Soviet times when their families vacationed in the hills and mountains of Georgia or on the black sand beaches of the Black Sea. Russians may not like Georgians but they have fond memories of Georgian holidays.

The emotional ties to Ukraine, and Kiev, are strong. The Russian speaking part of Ukraine is the old emotional heart of Russia. This is where the Russian church and many other Russian traditions are rooted. It is almost more Russian than today’s Russia itself. So the pragmatic minds of Moscow’s manipulating officials have a layer of sentimentality glossed on when they think about Georgia and Ukraine.

The Russians have maintained a policy of agitating in the breakaway regions. They have issued Russian passports to the Ossetians and Russians in South Ossetia and other separatist regions of Georgia. They have discriminated against ethnic Georgians, in some cases refusing to tolerate the Georgian language in everyday dealings. And into this provocation stepped Georgia’s young president, like a boy baiting a bear with a stick. What was he thinking? Did he not understand that Europe is not prepared to defend Georgia? Did he not understand that the U.S. is unable to?

Charismatic and charming one moment, brooding and mercurial the next, Saakashvili has stoked Georgians’ anxiety over the breakaway regions. He created a new ministry to promote Georgian control over the regions. As criticism of economic progress increased, ultimately resulting in a flag-waving, anti-Saakashvili demonstration in Tbilisi’s Parliament Square last year, the Georgian government seemed to try even harder to deflect attention to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Suddenly, highway signs throughout the country let drivers know how far they were from the capitals of the breakaway regions – destinations that few Georgians wanted to visit.

The attempts to change the subject may have been crude, even comic, but they were based on assessments of American and European support that seemed sound at the time. Added to that was intelligence from the Russian republics just over the Caucasus mountains. Chechnya and Ingushetia seethe with separatist discontent.

Then, while the world’s attention was on the Olympic games in China, Saakashvili poked a stick in the bear’s eye. The bear swiped back. Saakashvili’s whole calculation seemed wrong.

The devastation inflicted upon Chechen cities and villages by Russian troops in the past 15 years is still fresh in Georgian minds. They feared that Tbilisi would be leveled the way the Russians leveled parts of Grozny, the Chechen capital, during two Russian-Chechen wars. The cruel destruction of civilian facilities in Gori only added to Georgians’ fears for their capital.

Huge wars start over just such things

If Saakashvili really expected military support from the U.S. or Europe, he was quickly disappointed. He seemed to have lost a foolish gamble. But his magic was working in different ways: France holds the presidency of the EU and Nicolas Sarkozy is a different sort of French president. An official of the French government tells me that other European leaders warned Sarkozy not to be too direct with Moscow. Sarkozy was undeterred. When Washington called, Sarkozy dismissed the U.S. when he complained that an America-backed UN resolution was too strident to gain traction. Then he shuttled off to Moscow.

He reminded Putin’s puppet president that Russia was losing the public opinion war. When Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest and Prague, the Soviets did not care what the world thought. Things are different now, Sarkozy said. The leaders of four former Soviet republics that are now part of the EU reinforced the message. The bear blinked.

Georgia’s great advantage is her great weakness. Georgia sits in the middle. Georgia is a crossroads. Georgia cannot be avoided if you need to go from East to West, from Europe to Asia. Waves of traders, conquerors, nomads, settlers and religious proselytizers have crossed this land. They have left their mark and their children, who do not like each other. In that, the people of this region are like the people of so many other regions, torn by ethnicity.

This was supposed to be a good time to be a Georgian. Instead, this is a dangerous time to be a Georgian. But the people believe that there is magic in their land. After all, this is the land where legend says Jason and the Argonauts landed. This is the land of the Golden Fleece. It is said that some miners still use fleece as they strain cold stream water to try to find gold. The magic is everywhere in this ancient land, they say.

Perhaps the magic is still in the land. Perhaps the trouble is with the current magician. That was not a magic wand he waved. It was a stick.

Full disclosure:

Feltman has worked in Georgia and Russia and has spent considerable time getting to know Georgia and its people.

Radnor has employed two Georgians in Washington and regretted but understood when they believed it was time to return to their homeland. They and their families are safe.

Radnor worked on behalf of French President Sarkozy in last year’s election in France.

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Kenneth E. Feltman