20 August 2008

Great Power politics in the Caucasus

Poor Georgia. An ancient civilization now best known for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, it currently finds itself the target of two competing Great Powers while led by a president who recklessly gambles with the welfare of his people.

The American interest once again revolves around that dirty little three-letter word: oil. The U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, carrying a million barrels of crude a day, runs through Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while, of great importance to the Americans, bypassing Russia and Iran. The pipeline carries oil from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea fields which hold the world's third-largest reserves. The U.S. would very much like to have Georgia accepted into NATO thus obliging Western European countries to defend the pipeline.

Russia, on the other hand, has considered Georgia its property for centuries, under the czars and then under the Communists. Great powers do not yield their empires easily and the hostility of Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has not helped. Consequently, Russia makes mischief where it can, i.e. in the two separatist-run provinces of Abhkazia and South Ossetia where it still has some influence.

Unfortunately, Russia can justify its muscle-flexing by a precedent the West established. We defended the Kosovars right to divorce themselves from Serbia (and accepted their declaration of independence with unseemly haste), so we can hardly deny the South Ossetians the right to independence from Georgia. So when Saakashvili decided to throw the dice, taking advantage of Putin's presence in Beijing and all the Olympic hoopla to bully South Ossetia back into the fold, Russia had ample justification in hand. As for the Americans' scolding Russia about invading other countries, their bluster lacks all credibility coming from a nation that's waging wars in two foreign lands and threatening a third.

In a perfect world, democracy would determine the status of all regions. People everywhere would determine their own futures whether it be South Ossetia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Tibet or anywhere else. Tragically, however, might is still often right, and the wishes of Great Powers must be taken into account. The future of South Ossetia will depend therefore not only on the wishes of the Ossetians but also on the whims of the Russians.

Georgia has a right to its independence and we should support its democracy, such as it is, but we shouldn't rub Russia's face in it. And that's what the United States has been doing -- using the country as a pipeline corridor, training and equipping its army, promoting its acceptance into NATO, and so on.

As for Georgia, it's going to have to live next door to Russia for a very long time. A tiny country with a giant neighbour, it might be advised to pursue a more astute policy than looking for allies afar and enemies nearby. And the world can well do without its president's provocative foolishness.

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