Russia bids to rid Georgia of
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
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.