|Georgia pays price for its Nato ambitions|
|August 08, 2008|
August 8, 2008
The outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia is really about Nato, the West and spheres of influence
While the world watched China's pyrotechnical tour de force at the opening of the Beijing Olympics, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia was making a plaintive appeal for Western help against Russian military aggression.
One fact is clear: the Kremlin's troops would not be in South Ossetia today if Georgia were a loyal ally. Instead, Mr Saakashvili is paying the price for his pro-Western foreign policy and, in particular, his ambition to join Nato.
Two key events well beyond Georgia's borders have triggered Russia's fury. The first was Kosovo's declaration of independence in February and the new country's subsequent recognition by many Western states. This brought a public warning from Moscow that Kosovo's move to independence could set a precedent for Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The second was Nato's pledge at the Bucharest summit in April that membership of the Atlantic Alliance for both Georgia and Ukraine was not a matter of "if" but "when", although in deference to Russian objections, no timetable for entry was granted. This provoked Vladimir Putin, then still Russia's president, to promise more support for Georgia's breakaway regions.
Despite the Cold War's demise, Russia regards the successor states of the old Soviet Union as its sphere of influence. This intervention is about sending a message from Moscow to Washington to "keep your nose out" of an area that the Kremlin has always seen as being inside its domain.
But as Mr Saakashvili warned yesterday, this is no longer about a tiny country way off most people's radar. Georgia's fate is about the future world order, Europe's place in it and persuading Moscow to desist from the brutish behaviour that has marked its recent foreign policy.
To be sure, Mr Saakashvili damaged his own reputation by his suppression of opposition dissent last November, but in the post-Soviet world of authoritarianism and rampant state corruption, Georgia remains one of the few pinpricks of light.
If the West cringes now in the face of Moscow's bicep-flexing, the message to any other aspiring members of the democratic club will be patently clear: take that risk if you like but do not count on us to help if things turn nasty.
Georgia now stands on the very brink of a grotesquely uneven conflict with a resurgent Russia itching to flex its muscles and burning with post-imperial hubris. The chosen causus belli is South Ossetia, which fought a separatist war with Georgia in 1992 and has enjoyed the support of Russia ever since.
So much so, that Russia has spent the intervening years handing out Russian passports to any South Ossetian who cares to have one. These are the people who Dmitry Medvedev had in mind on Thursday when he said that as president of the Russian Federation, he was obliged to defend the lives of Russian citizens wherever they were.
Russian forces form part of a self-styled "peacekeeping force" in South Ossetia - but are seen by the Georgians as anything but neutral or interested in peace. As far as Georgia is concerned, the Russian troops are not mediators but an active party to the conflict.
The Russian presence has been a protracted exercise in cynicism - while its armed forces crushed the life out of separatism in Chechnya, its "peacekeepers" have propped up separatist regimes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Moscow's diplomacy has been no less dishonest. All efforts to achieve a lasting peace in South Ossetia, by offering a degree of automony and a federal relationship with Georgia's central government, have been conducted under the auspices of the Joint Control Commission (JCC). This body, estabilished in the 1990s, includes representatives from Russia and its two proxies, North and South Ossetia, as well as Georgia.
It has long been clear that the JCC, which is dominated by Russia, is never going to agree to a peace agreement remotely acceptable to Georgia. But matters like peace, self-determination or territorial integrity have never been the real issue for Russia in the southern Caucasus.
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