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Saturday
Nov282009

Georgia's Foreign Affairs Minister in Le Monde on the sale of the Mistral warship by France to Russia 

I follow events in the Caucasus region closely and especially the comments and actions of Georgia's leadership.  Recently, Le Monde interviewed Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Grigol Vashadze. One of the subjects discussed in the interview was the proposed sale of the Mistral warship by France to the Russian Federation. Mr. Vashadze says of the ships usage  "Where would such a ship go? Neither in the Baltic against Finland, nor in the Pacific against Japan or China. Everyone knows that it would be in the Black Sea, against Ukraine and Georgia."

The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world and has thousands of kilometers of coastline as well as other naval vessels and merchant shipping to protect.  It is clear that there are many potential uses of the ship, especially by a navy that has many modernization needs.  But it seems that every Russian move is claimed to be a sign of hostile intent by Georgia.  The media is complicit in this by not asking Georgian officials the difficult questions about its role in starting the conflict in South Ossetia in 2008.  Little mention is made also of the large sums of money that the Georgian government was given by the U.S. that subsequently went into military spending.  I don't recall reports of officials from South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Russia asking how that money would be spent and if it would be used for aggressive military action.  However, in August 2008, Georgia attacked South Ossetia, killing hundreds of South Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers.  So, apparently it is all right for Georgia to use foreign aid for aggressive purposes against its neighbors, but not for the geographically largest nation in the world to modernize its outdated navy.  

The Georgian minister goes on to claim that Russia is already occupying 20% of the territory of Georgia.  A casual reader is left with the false impression that the Russian Federation has absorbed provinces of unwilling Georgians.  Mr. Vashadze conveniently does not mention the following:

1) Georgia attacked Abkhazia in 1992, despite the fact that Abkhazia did not declare independence from the Republic of Georgia until years later.  

2) Russia mediated the conflict and, with U.N. approval, was appointed peacekeeper in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, keeping about 1,500 peacekeeping troops in the region and assuring a demilitarized zone between the parties.

3) Russia agreed to help Georgia modernize its army and also attempted to get South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree to a federative structure within Georgia.  Abkhazia and South Ossetia refused, fearing Georgian hostility and ethnic cleansing.

4) Abkhazia did not declare its independence from the Republic of Georgia until 1999.

5) After years of threats, Georgia attacked South Ossetia in August 2008 as the Olympic Games in Beijing opened.  An E. U. commission report in September of 2009 blamed Georgia for attacking without provocation. 

6) Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia did not come until after the 2008 conflict, 15 years after the original Georgian invasion.

Russia's role in the region has been first as mediator of the conflict and then to maintain the peace. Finally, after years of Georgia's threats and its attack on South Ossetia, Russia has offered to protect the two nations from Georgian aggression.  In August of 2009, Russia promised $500 million for the security and infrastructure of Abkhazia. This move should be applauded because it is clear that Georgia represents a threat to the safety of the citizens of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  

Also, Mr. Vashadze does not mention that Georgia has repeatedly threatened commercial shipping bound for Abkhazia and that it has seized several Turkish merchant ships.  In August of this year, Georgia sentenced the captain of a seized Turkish vessel to 24 years in prison. Only a trip to Tbilisi by Turkey's foreign minister secured his release.  If the Mistral is bought by Russia and if it is deployed in the Black Sea region, a likely use would be to protect peaceful commercial shipping vessels from Georgian seizure.  I cannot help but wonder if this is what really is bothering the Georgian government.  

Russia is not "occupying" parts of Georgia, but protecting two nations that have no interest in being absorbed by a hostile Georgia.  If Russia truly wanted to absorb Georgia it would have happened years ago. Georgia is attempting to use propaganda to distort Russia's rule in keeping the peace in the Caucasus.

I am quite familiar with the Caucasus region and I know Abkhazia well. Neither Abkhazians nor South Ossetians regard themselves as Georgians.  Both have their own languages, cultures and customs that predate Georgian occupation and integration during the Soviet period. If Russia were to disappear from the scene, Georgia would still be regarded as a hostile and threatening neighbor.  Judging by its actions and rhetoric, Georgia would quickly attack and attempt to occupy both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Both nations would resist and there would be a bloody conflict. Russia is not an occupier, but a protector of the two nations from Georgian aggression. 

Wednesday
Nov252009

Response to Jamestown

 

This is written in response to a recent article by the Jamestown Foundation (http://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/) on Georgia and the issues surrounding the potential recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Belarus.  I would like to respond directly to points raised in the article.

There is much for me to take issue with.  The first thing that jumps out at a reader with a knowledge of the region is this statement: "The puppet regimes established by Moscow in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali...." 

Where is the evidence these are puppet regimes? Are we supposed to assume this is true simply because you say so?  Has the writer been to Abkhazia or South Ossetia?   I have spent considerable time in Abkhazia and their elections are certainly more transparent and fair than anything that has ever happened in Georgia.  I see no evidence that these are puppet states.  They have their own democratic institutions and make their own decisions regarding the development and leadership of their country.  In fact, the candidate that most observers thought the Kremlin favored did not win the last Presidential election held there.  There are no political prisoners in Abkhazia, as opposed to Georgia.  Georgia's human rights record has actually declined, according to Freedom House, since President Saakashvili took power in the most recent revolution in Georgia. Abkhazia has its own democratically elected government.  However, because of undue influence by the Georgian lobby on the U.S. Government, it is not widely recognized.  Abkhazian citizens must use Russian codes for their telephones to communicate, there are no working ATM machines in the country and it is impossible to get a license even to show films because of Georgia's pressure.   So, both countries live in poverty and relative isolation because Georgia wishes them to fail as states.  Abkhazia and South Ossetia now receive aid and protection from Russia because of the Georgian military threat. Recognition by other nations would reduce their dependence upon Russia and bring in investment capital and redevelopment money from outside institutions.  Since Russia is eager for this, it seems obvious their motives are not as dark as you assume.


Next your article states in relation to Belarus:  " Even more importantly it has been in alliance with Russia as a constituent state of the Russia-Belarus Union – and feels obligated to support its powerful ally. "


If Belarus is so tightly inclined to follow Moscow's lead, why have their relations suffered so much recently? Belarus is hardly tied to the hip with Russia. Witness the recent rows over dairy products and natural gas. Belarus has issues related to credibility and its democratic institutions, but clearly sets its own course.  One might even argue that Belarus is in a position of leverage with both the E.U. and Russia over the issue.


And on recognition of the two nations:  "It is no secret that by recognizing “the independence” of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali one in fact recognizes not their independence per se but Russia’s hegemony in the post-Soviet space and the emergence of its sphere of influence."


This is hardly clear. In fact, I would argue the exact opposite.  If other nations recognize the independence and sovereignty of the two nations, both can move more quickly to develop and chart their own futures.  But, if recognition is not forthcoming, it will push South Ossetia and Abkhazia closer to Moscow for the reasons outlined above.  If Moscow wanted to dominate the new nations, a course of inaction would be in Russia's interest.

The default media narrative on Russia is negative.  That is an easy one to sell.   The truth is far more complicated.  Russia clearly has interests in what happens on its borders, just as the United States does on hers.   There are large numbers of Caucasian nationalities, including more than a million Georgians in Russia and many millions of Russians in all of the nations of the former Soviet Union.

But the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will free them to develop independently. 

I do agree that every time a nation recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it will be seen as a blow by the Republic of Georgia.   But it scarcely matters in the long run.  Only a military assault by Georgia, which would almost certainly be futile, will reintegrate South Ossetia and Abkhazia.   Both nations would resist this fiercely and Russia has militarily guaranteed their borders.  I hope there is no Georgian attack.  There would be Further carnage and it would be the result of irresponsible Georgian leadership.  Georgians should be asking why so much of their budget and time is being wasted on such a quixotic enterprise.  Both nations are de facto independent and will remain as such.

Finally, as an American citizen, I am saddened that American aid was used by Georgia to arm itself and to attack South Ossetia.   Georgia contributed troops disproportionately to the war in Iraq.   In return, the U.S. lavished billions in aid on Georgia.  Some was used to lobby the U.S. government to keep the tap turned on. Much of it went to increasing military expenditures nearly 30 times   Without American aid, Georgia would not have been able to increase its military spending at the fastest rate in the world in 2008 and subsequently attack South Ossetia.   This attack was primarily a humanitarian catastrophe and not a question of "Georgian territorial integrity".   The lives of the Russian peacekeepers and soldiers, Ossetian civilians and Georgian soldiers are forever forfeit to unprincipled political ambition.

Abkhazia has survived long periods with its borders closed and without aid or, at times, electricity.  Clearly this is population that is willing to sacrifice for its freedom.   On the other hand, without American aid, Georgia would likely be seen as a failed state.

Monday
Nov232009

Andy Garcia and Renny Harlin Film on the South Ossetia Conflict 

Somehow I missed the reports last month that Director Renny Harlin is making a new film about the conflict in South Ossetia in 2008.  The title of the film at this moment is Georgia.  Apparently it is low budget and according to the director both anti-war and impartial.  The film is to star Andy Garcia as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Calling attention to the human rights disaster that Georgia unleashed when it attacked South Ossetia would be welcome.  I hope that it will really be an impartial look at the conflict and the events leading up to it.  However, the title does not give me confidence.  And one of the producers of the film is an MP from President Saakashvili's ruling party.

Several years ago as I was exiting the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, I happened upon Andy Garcia.  As I walked by, I heard him speaking to someone on his mobile telephone.  I am not prone to eavesdropping, but I could not help but hear him loudly admonish the listener to "stay in the moment" as they apparently discussed a film role.

I hope that Mr. Garcia and Mr. Harlin find the "moments" to research what really happened in South Ossetia last year.  It should not be too hard in light of the recent report from the E.U.

There are reports that Georgia has been involved in the financing of the film.  Goldinvest, a Georgian firm gets credited for sponsoring the film.  The Georgian government has lent government buildings and military personnel for film scenes.  President Saakashvili  has also made statements that Russia's actions are depicted unfavorably in the film.  And he has spent time with the cast and crew of the film.  This does not sound like an environment likely to produce an impartial view of the subject matter.

The conflict in South Ossetia is primarily a humanitarian disaster for the victims, including South Ossetian, Russian and Georgian, who lost their lives and also for all of the displaced persons caused by the conflict. Georgia would like the debate to be about i"territorial integrity" to distract from the actions of their government in trying to reintegrate a nation that wants no part of Georgian occupation.  If Georgia exploits the humanitarian disaster that it caused by attacking South Ossetia to make a propaganda film, it would be unconscionable.  I hope that this does not happen.

Sunday
Nov222009

November Trip to Abkhazia 

I always feel like I learn quite a bit when I am in Abkhazia.  I spent time with officials of the government and was struck by several things.  One is that  when leaders met members of the political opposition, everyone greeted each other in a warm and friendly fashion.  Abkhazia is a small country and most of those who are in positions of authority know each other.  But it is clear that while they may disagree, they don't view each other as enemies.

I was also noticed how quiet Sukhom is at night after the tourist season.  It is a small city, but the economic situation prevents most people from socializing in clubs and restaurants.  I think that is going to change because of several reasons.  One is that I really believe in the tremendous potential of Abkhazia to develop into a major tourist destination.  There has been a more than 10 fold increase in tourism between 2003 and 2009.  In 2003 there were about 350,000 tourists.  This year the number was closer to 4,000,000. And you can see the signs of change in a lot of places.  There are a number of new construction projects in Sukhom and other parts of the country.  The mayor of Moscow was in Sukhom the week before me and the Moscow City government is building a center near the sea that will house both shopping space and offices.  There is plenty more happening, too.  I saw a number of projects that have begun to redevelop buildings or to build new projects.  Several foreign groups are looking at large scale tourism and commercial projects.  None of this is surprising considering the proximity to Russia and the Olympics in Russia, the mild climate and the spectacular beauty of Abkhazia.s beaches and mountains.

I heard a lot of opinions about this.  Most people believe that things are going to change and that the change will be for the better.  However, I did hear at least one person express reservations about economic development.  She feared the change from the quiet  lifestyle.  However, I think in her case it is simply the fear of the unknown.  Abkhazia endured years of isolation and limited electric services.  There was little tourism and not much money.  Now things are better, but even modestly priced cafes are out of the reach of most citizens.  Others spoke about increased home values, more and better products available to consumers and more and better paying jobs.

I think the areas that will experience redevelopment and growth the most quickly are Gagra and the beach areas between there and the Russian border, Pitsunda, Novy Afon, central Sukhom and its port and the airport just south of Sukhom.

There are a lot more cars in Abkhazia than there were on my first visit in 2006.   Still when crossing  the border into Russia at Adler, the massive construction projects and traffic are overwhelming.

Saturday
Nov212009

Summer Gagra

DSC00075