Friday, August 8, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

Just when we thought we could kick back and numb our brains with the beautiful pictures coming out of Beijing a small war breaks out in the Caucuses. The present source of mayhem centers around a small chunk of mountainous land called South Ossetia. This being the Caucuses there are several layers of history to dig trough before getting to the bedrock of the matter.

The most recent bit of history is the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is so recent it almost qualifies as current events instead of history. Lenin and Stalin’s take on the “prison of nations” took its final swan dive in 1991, only seventeen years ago. The first draft of real history usually occurs at least a generation in time after the event happens. Be that as it may let us look at those events in the past.

The story arc starts out fairly simple. After the Czechs and Poles left the Warsaw pact most of Eastern Europe followed suite. With the wall gone the Baltic Nations started to eye the exits too. Before long other parts of the old Russian Empire too decided to leave while the leaving was good. A bewildering list of Stans spun off from Mother Russia to form there own little Authoritarian states. Trying to preserve some form of the old Soviet Hegemony Gorbachev created the Commonwealth of Independent States. The whole idea died an ugly death when some old-school Communist Appartiks attempted to pull a 3rd rate putsch on Gorby. Right after that event there was a rush for the doors as even Georgia and the Ukraine decided it was time to leave the sinking ship.

Russia really never got over the desertion of these two nations. The Ukraine was the birthplace of Russia. Kievan Rus gave the nation its religion and a great history. Moscow became the heir of Kievan power and culture when that great mediaeval state fell to the Mongols. The Northerners always felt a filial relationship to their “little brothers” to the south. If the big brother relationship of the Northerners was irritating to the Ukrainians it was down-right overbearing with the Georgians.

The Georgian’s relationship with Moscow was strained one. As a small Christian nation situated next to the Shia power of Persia Georgia needed a protector. Like their Armenian neighbors they were in a bad spot. And like their Armenian neighbors they were often their own worst enemies. Russia was more than willing to protect their Christian Cousins, it was if anything a little over-eager. When the Old Russian Empire was overthrown by the Bolsheviks the Georgians were more than happy to loose their “protectors” But unfortunately for the Georgians one of their own was very high up on the food chain of the Communist Party. This man, who had renamed himself Stalin, could not allow the Republic of Georgia to go its own way. Thus Georgia was once again placed in the loving embrace of their bigger brothers the Russians.

With Stalin at the helm Georgia did not fair well. Stalin had some very interesting ideas of how to handle the “minority situation.” These ideas included liquidation and internal exile. But mainly Stalin played one minority group off on another. This tactic worked brilliantly in the Caucuses were inter communal and inter ethnic conflict is an Olympic sport. Georgians grow two things very well; they grow wonderful wine grapes and they grow feuds. When not feuding amongst themselves they are always willing to feud with the Ossetians. The Ossetians on their part are more than willing to reciprocate. Stalin found the Ossetians so rambunctious that he packed off the entire lot of them to Siberia. After Stalin joined Marx in heaven (or perhaps some warmer climes) the Ossetians drifted back to their homeland.

When the Soviet Empire fell apart both the Georgians and the Ossetians were ready to rumble. Russia then stepped in the middle of the dispute and became a “peacekeeper.” Of course Russia used its peacekeeping status as a way to meddle in the affairs of the Georgia. Russia essentially set up two quasi-independent, quasi-autonomous, but mostly pro-Russian statelets in Georgian territory. But the Karmic wheel gave the Russians a big kick in the teeth when the Chechen rebels thought being a really independent state might not be a bad idea. Russia then disabused the Chechens of that idea by leveling Grozny. But as Chechnya is still in the neighborhood, Russia is playing a very dangerous game in Georgia supporting one set of Rebels while trying to suppress another set in the very same area.

The Western powers have not been exactly innocent either. The US and the Europeans have been doing everything in their power to woo the State of Georgia into their loving arms. Looking at a map it is easy to see why. Georgia sits right next to Iran and to the oil rich Azerbaijan to its north is Russia. Cross the Black Sea and one can reach most of the Balkans, go south on the sea and you bump into Turkey and its great city of Istanbul. If real estate is all about location, then Georgia is some prime land.

Of course having a western presence on its doorstep does not make an old KGB hand like Putin sleep well at night. Thus Vladimir has been doing everything in his power to undermine the leader of Georgia; President Mikhail Saakashvili. Mikhail has been no angel himself. The leader of a small country with big and dangerous neighbors he has been every bit the sly operator such a position requires. He has suppressed decent in his country and played a very dangerous game of bear-baiting. Many think he used the distraction of the Olympics to launch his attack on South Ossetia. He is not very popular in Georgia and a war against the Ossetians may help him with the general public.

What is going on here is a repeat of the old “Great Game” Back in the 19th Century Imperialists like Great Brittan, Russia and France jockeyed for position all over the world. In the Near East and Central Asia the two great powers were always the UK and Russia. The borders of the Near East especially near Iran and in the Sub Continent were drawn by these Imperial powers. Even the status of Tibet was determined by the Great Game. Russia’s main drive was for Constantinople (Istanbul) and a warm water port. The UK’s main drive was to keep Russia out of India and Out of the Mediterranean. Both nations got bogged down in Afghanistan and both got their heads handed to them by the tribesmen.

Flash forward from the age of Bismarck to the age of Steve Jobs and it is Déjà vu all over again. A foreign power is hopelessly bogged down in the mountains of Hindu Kush; Russia is taking advantage of that fact to expand its influence in “the near abroad.” Meanwhile a former Russian Proxy in the Balkans has been forced to accept a humiliating loss of territory by a clique of European powers. That small break-away state in the Balkans is now totally reliant on the good graces of those European powers and the real power behind throne. It is that very same hegemon that is getting embarrassed in Afghanistan. All you have to do is change a few names and the similarities become unnerving.

None of the participants seem to be giving much thought of where this may be going. The Western powers were happier than clams at high tide to see the birth of Kosovo but are not so happy to see South Ossetia or Abkhazia become independent. Why is it OK for the former Yugoslavia to break down into its component parts but not for the people of the Caucuses to find their own arrangements? Exactly why should Russia have to put up with a hostile pip-squeak of a nation on its border? Then again exactly what in the long run does Russia gain from fomenting divisiveness in the Caucuses? The blow-back from Chechnya and other nominally Russian states in the region could be disastrous for Putin’s dreams of greatness. How does Russia plan to stir up one hornets nest while keeping the other hornets in the region, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Iran and Turkey calm? If we learned anything from WWI it is that minor powers have a way of dragging major powers into ungodly disasters.

Talking about ungodly disasters; exactly how is George W. Bush going to figure a way out of this particular mess? He can’t seriously scold the Russians for invading Georgia. The Russians have a much better reason to be in Georgia than we do in Iraq. They were “peacekeeping.” With almost all of our useable military tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan exactly what kind of stick does W have to poke the Russian Bear? What can the Europeans do? They made the horrendous error of creating a “free” and “independent” Kosovo; their stock with the Russians is lower than belly of a snake. The US and the Europeans can jaw-bone Mikhail Saakashvili but to what effect. He had his own domestic political considerations for his invasion. Those considerations have nothing to do with peace and amity and everything with him holding onto and perhaps increasing his power in Georgia. The South Ossetians are not exactly happy either. They want no part of Georgia they want to live their separate existence with their North Ossetian comrades in Russia. They are strongly Pro-Russian today but god only knows about tomorrow. This is the Caucuses after all, a neighborhood every bit as rough, devious and cutthroat as the Middle East.

This would be a little easier if we had adult supervision in the White House. Unfortunately the only adult in the room is the deeply evil Dick Cheney. As the closest oil in the region is parked way out west in Azerbaijan it is doubtful that dead-eye Dick will care much about the situation. This may be a blessing in disguise since dead-eye Dick comes up with some really bad ideas when oil is involved. While Condi Rice has done some real good by curbing Dick’s enthusiasm for things that go boom in the night, one can not confuse her with a competent Secretary of State.

The real danger is that Dead Eye Dick and his Neo-Con buddies will have happy flashbacks to the days of Regan. If they get their anti-Soviet / anti-Russian groove going again we are all in deep Kimchi. Cheney still knows how to push George W’s buttons. With a real godless communist to combat will the NeoCons go into full mad hatter mode? Remember these are the folks who thought we could “win” a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. With W’s simplistic good guy / bad guy understanding of the world how easy would it be for the Dark Lord Of Halliburton to manipulate W into a show down with Putin? The White House is already operating on third and fourth stringers; it is twilight time for the Crawford mafia. Other than Defense Secretary Gates and maybe the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would be the voice of sanity in the White House? “The plans are already drawn up for Iran, we just need to push those jets a little farther north Mr. President.” “We would be heroes in Tbilisi; they would greet us with flowers.” That would be the pitch- a great shining moment for George W. Bush. Incurious George listened to that pitch before; a chance to be a great man, a man better than his father, a war president. The last time W listened to Cheney it lead to Iraq; let us not even think about where the Dark Lord Of Halliburton could lead Bush to this time in the Caucuses
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