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    Central Asia
     Aug 28, 2008
Russia sets off alarm bells
By Ramesh Jaura

BERLIN - A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of a new cold war in the wake of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signing a decree on Tuesday formally recognizing the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

"We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a cold war," Medvedev said hours after announcing the Kremlin's decision and one day after parliament had supported the recognition.

US President George W Bush condemned the move, calling it an "irresponsible decision" and warning Moscow that it was escalating tensions. "Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations," Bush said.

Medvedev also promised a Russian military response to a US

 

missile defense system being placed in Europe. Washington says the system is aimed to counter threats from Iran and North Korea, but Moscow believes it is aimed at Russia.

Though without the ideological tint of the Cold War that appeared to have been consigned to oblivion some two decades ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, the developments have explosive potential.

Georgia is a key Western ally in the Caucasus region, a major transit corridor for energy supplies to Europe and a strategic crossroads close to the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and energy-rich Central Asia.

Widespread anxiety about what may eventually come has been confirmed by no less than Russia's ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Dmitry Rogozin.

Comparing the current tension between Russia and the West to that prevailing on the eve of World War I (1914-1917), he said that a dangerous new freeze in relations appeared unavoidable.

"The current atmosphere reminds me of the situation in Europe in 1914 ... when because of one terrorist, leading world powers clashed," Rogozin told the RBK Daily Russian business newspaper, according to the Guardian of London.

"I hope [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili will not go down in history as a new Gavrilo Princip," he said. A Bosnian Serb citizen of Austria-Hungary and member of the Young Bosnia, Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The retaliation by Austria-Hungary against the Kingdom of Serbia activated a series of alliances that set off a chain reaction of war declarations. Within a month, much of Europe was entangled in the "war to end all wars".

In fact, it was a precursor to World War II (1939-1945), that was followed by some four decades of Cold War between the ideological blocs led by the United States on the one hand and the then Soviet Union on the other.

When the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, US philosopher Francis Fukuyama published a historical book titled The End of History and the Last Man.

A crucial point Fukuyama stressed was, "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Fukuyama has yet to be proven right. The fact is that a new edition of the cold war is unfolding. But it is not the kind of war, as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer says in a column for the weekly Die Zeit, that persisted between the two super powers.

It is a war between the only super power, the United States, and Russia that is strengthening its armed forces with income from its huge oil and gas reserves. It is a war aimed at expanding the Russian sphere of influence to counter the US-led NATO strategy of encircling Russia with radars and missiles in the "new Europe", the countries that were in the orbit of the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Fischer speaks of a "strategic blind alley" into which both the US and Russia have maneuvered themselves.

Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and president of Georgia prior to being overthrown by Saakashvili, says that both sides made mistakes in the lead-up to the war between Georgia and Russia.

In an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Shevardnadze says, "Many people blame the Georgian president. They are wrong in part, but there is also an element of truth to it. He can't be accused of having acted illegally. It was legal to move our forces into [the South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali. But it would have been better not to."

But many European leaders believe that Saakashvili acted rashly and brought down much of the destruction on his own head when he sent his troops to take over the autonomous ethnic enclave South Ossetia.

Media reports quoted a senior French official as saying, "On one side you have a bear, and on the other a little roquet," using the latter word for a small yapping dog.

Saakashvili may have fallen into a carefully prepared Russian trap, the official said. "But when you're a chief of state, you have to know about the reality of forces. This was an incredible misjudgment by Saakashvili."

But there is also wide consensus among Western leaders that Russia reacted with a "disproportionate" and overwhelming military counter-attack pushing deep into Georgia.

Medvedev's announcement that he had "signed decrees on the recognition by the Russian Federation of the independence of South Ossetia and the independence of Abkhazia" has swiftly met with sharp Western criticism.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the decision as "extremely unfortunate" and said that Washington continued to regard Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia".

She added that the US would use its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to block any Russian attempt to change the status of the two provinces.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon warned Russia's recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions "may have wider implications for security and stability in the Caucasus".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Moscow's decision was "completely unacceptable" and contrary to international law. She said Russia's actions contravened the principle of territorial integrity, one of the basic principles of international law.

Merkel said it was time to talk to Russia about common values. Things cannot be allowed to continue as they are, she said. At the same time, the chancellor regretted the lack of a UN resolution on the Caucasus conflict.

Merkel said in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, that she thought "the European Union will respond in a similar way". The 27-nation EU's heads of state and government will travel to Brussels next week to attend a special summit on the Caucasus conflict.

The German chancellor wants the European Council to signal that Georgia can count on the EU in its restructuring efforts. "Through our policy of neighborliness, the European Union must do all we can to support Georgia and Ukraine," said the chancellor.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also regretted Medvedev's decision. Speaking in Berlin, he said it encroached on the territorial integrity of a neighboring sovereign state. "We find this unacceptable. It only adds to the difficulty of solving the conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia."

The German view is considered critical in view of the eventful history of German-Russian relations. Also, former Soviet allies now members of the EU and NATO are of the view that Germany can play a crucial role.

This was evident from several calls to Merkel particularly since the beginning of tensions between Russia and Georgia on August 8.

Another significant player in Europe is France, which brokered a ceasefire agreement to end the fighting between Russia and Georgia, and holds the six-month presidency of the EU.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said, "We consider this a regrettable decision, and I recall our attachment to the territorial integrity of Georgia."

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office was reported saying, "We reject this categorically and reaffirm Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the fact that Russia's leadership "has now chosen this route means they have chosen a policy of confrontation, not only with the rest of Europe, but also with the international community in general".

Western reactions reflect the dismay with which Europe and the United States have watched Russia fail to be swayed by any international threats.

But explaining the decision, Medvedev said in a televised speech on Tuesday, "This is not an easy choice but this is the only chance to save people's lives."

The Russian president said Saakashvili had chosen "genocide to fulfill his political plans". He said Georgia had wanted to achieve its goal "to absorb South Ossetia by eliminating a whole nation".

Medvedev said the two provinces had the right to determine their future, particularly after the Georgian assaults, adding that his decision was in compliance with the right to self-determination firmly anchored in the UN charter, the principles of international law and the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Abkhazia on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and South Ossetia in South Caucasus rebelled against Georgian rule after the collapse of the Soviet Union and have effectively ruled themselves following wars with Georgia since the early 1990s.

Medvedev's statement came one day after both houses of Russia's parliament unanimously asked him to give diplomatic recognition to the two provinces that are known for their loyalty to Moscow.

Adding another bone of contention the same day, the Russian president warned Moldova, located between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east and south, against repeating Georgia's mistake of trying to use force to seize back control of a breakaway region.

Russia sent peacekeepers to Moldova in the early 1990s to end a conflict between Chisinau and its breakaway Transdniestria region, and is trying to mediate a deal between the two sides.

Transdniestria, one of a number of "frozen conflicts" on the territory of the former Soviet Union, mirrored the standoff between Georgia and its rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia until they erupted in war earlier this month.

The Cold War atmosphere became conspicuous when the US said on Tuesday it intended to deliver humanitarian aid by ship on Wednesday to the Georgian port city of Poti, which Russian troops still control through checkpoints on the city's outskirts.

A top Russian general said that using warships to deliver aid was "devilish". "The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us," Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow, according to media reports.

"Only yesterday I saw there were nine NATO ships in the sea and by evening another frigate of the US Navy passed through the Bosphorus Strait. We have also learned that another eight warships from NATO states are expected shortly," said Nogovitsyn.

He added, "They talk about planned exercises and you can probably find some legitimacy in that but ... it's very hard to believe that all the visits so far have been bringing only humanitarian aid."

(Inter Press Service)


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