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    Tuesday, August 12, 2008

    Misha's terrible gamble

    I know Mikhail Saakashvili a little bit. I've met him a few times in Tbilisi, and have come to admire his raw idealism (rare in politicians these days) as well as his daring and determination. Those qualities made him the perfect leader five years ago when he led from the front as street protests against a flawed election turned into the Rose Revolution that propelled him to power. Then, in his first 12 months as president, he bowled over the naysayers by tackling endemic corruption in the police and public service and bringing the renegade province of Adjaria back under Tbilisi's control.

    On subsequent visits, I couldn't help but be impressed. Life in Georgia was demonstrably better after the Rose Revolution than it had been beforehand. Saakashvili had his detractors, but even they couldn't deny that he was transforming the country and the region. The West (and Western investors) loved him, and Georgia's successes inspired copycat uprisings in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

    But Misha's idealism and daring always had a dangerous side. His early victories led him to believe that it was only a matter of time before Georgia's other breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, would also succumb to Mishamania. Ignoring the one thing he could never change about his country - the fact that Russia, no matter how hard he pushed it away and tried to resist its influence, would always be Georgia's giant neighbour and most important trading partner - he insisted on flicking the Russian bear in the nose, almost to see how far and how long he could get away with it. His neocon allies in the United States (notably including Senator John McCain) cheered him every step of the way in his fight against what they saw as renewed Russian imperialism.

    Misha spited the Kremlin until Russia blocked imports of Georgian wines and the country's famous Borjomi mineral water, two of the tiny country's most lucrative exports. A Canadian leader who instigated such a trade war against our giant and powerful neighbour to the south wouldn't last through the next elections, but Misha did, though only after shedding his democrat's cloak to oversee a violent crackdown on opposition demonstrators in Tbilisi last fall.

    His effort to get Georgia (along with Ukraine) into NATO was also foolhardy. He must have (or at least should have) known that the bid would fail since countries like Germany and France had signalled long beforehand that they weren't interested in admitting a country that had an outstanding territorial dispute with Russia. The only thing the bid accomplished was to further convince Moscow that Saakashvili was an enemy.

    Misha's twin obsessions - battling Moscow and reestablishing control over Abkhazia ad South Ossetia - were bound to cause trouble at some point. But even those who know Saakashvili couldn't have predicted that he'd take it as far as to launch Friday's surprise attack on South Ossetia.

    Even for a man of his well-chronicled volatility, it was an amazing gamble. And a very poorly thought out one. Hundreds of people are now dead, most of them civilians. Russian planes are striking all over Georgia and its troops and tanks have crossed from South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia proper. The Kremlin has made it clear that its end goal, one way or another, is to oust Saakashvili from power.

    I'm not writing all this to defend Russia's actions. The idea of Russian troops in Gori - or Tbilisi - is abhorrent to me. But I can't for the life of me figure out what Misha (that's him in the photo, second from the right, taking cover during a Russian air raid on Gori) was thinking.

    He must have known that attacking South Ossetia would provoke a massive, and disproportionate, Russian response. He should have realized that his government might not survive such a confrontation. And anyone who occasionally glances at the news could discern that his friends in America are far too concerned with places like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to even consider aiding him militarily against the Russian army.

    The West can kick and scream and call Vladimir Putin a monster, but there's little Washington and Brussels can do. Post-Iraq, the moral high ground has been ceded and there's no longer the necessary force to back it up anyway. And Saakashvili muddied the waters for many by launching the Friday assault on South Ossetia that left 10 Russian "peacekeepers" dead. One also wonders how Washington would react if Serbian troops launched a snap assault on Kosovo (another breakaway province under foreign protection that claims independence), killing 10 NATO troops in the process.

    So why did Misha do it? Why were pride and South Ossetia worth risking his government and his country's sovereignty - not to mention the hundreds of people dead - for?

    As day breaks in Tbilisi on the fifth day of this unnecessary war, I know I'm not the only one asking.

    P.S. - For those of you in Canada, I'll be discussing all this tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. EST on Canada AM. I'll do it again on CTV Newsnet at 7 p.m.


    Unknown said...

    Wow! I'm impressed Marc that you have the intellectual honesty to call a spade a spade.

    I know a lot of people had high hopes for Saak and that he could be convincing. But Thursday night changed everything.

    Gary said...

    Thank you for putting this escalating and deplorable situation into context. It's heartbreaking that innocent civilians are suffering displacement and loss of life as a result of Saakashvili's gambit.

    Hubert said...

    Excellent article explaining the situation in Georgia. Thank you!

    The Chemist said...

    Unfortunately I agree, there is nothing the "West" can do. What could we do? Threaten another cold war? Over a country most Americans think is the state where Coca-Cola comes from and iced tea is served with sugar? Forget it.

    Now if the Russians start torturing Georgian dissidents, maybe the US can say someth- Oh wait, never mind.

    Anonymous said...

    I came along your blog after reading your piece on Georgia's crisis in the Globe & Mail today. Again, your comments are right on target. I was born in Argentina and lived through the Falklands War, and Mr. Saakashvili's actions are eerily reminiscent of then- Argentina's dictator Galtieri, who started a war against Great Britain. Given that parallelism (though by no means an exact one), I can't but think that the reason has more to do with the inner politics of Georgia and boosting Mr. Saakhashvili's popularity than with anything else. The whole thing looks like something made looking inwards rather than abroad. Of course, a lot of wishful thinking from Mr. Saakhashvili must have also been involved. He might have think that being the USA's "darling" in the Caucasus, having a vague promise (at best) of NATO membership and displaying the EU flag as if Georgia was a member state (how can he get away with that ?!) would be enough to disuade Russia and Putin from intervention. By no means I would rule out some "encouragement" from Russia, in the form of an intelligence operation to convince him in that sense.

    Anyways, thanks again for your articles and I will look for your book right away.

    La Russophobe said...

    Sorry, Mark, but your comments are utterly insane.

    By your logic, Georgia must surrender any section of its tiny territory upon demand to Russia, because to do otherwise would provoke Russia to violence. By your logic, Americans would not have fought the revolutionary war, Belgians would not have stood up to Hitler.

    The leader of Georgia has not only the right but the obligation to defend Georgian territory, recognized by all the nations of the world.

    And frankly, you now have egg on your face. Georgia has won a massive PR victory, crushing Russia in that battle. The world has polarized against Russia and Georgia's strategic position has now been immeasurably strengthened. The Kremlin is flailing about in a manner that exposes its true nature before the world, and we have valiant Georgia to thank for it.

    Shame on you. You ought to retract and apologize.

    Anonymous said...

    The last set of comments reflect the kind of utter nonsense predominating the far from perfect English language mass media.

    Russia rightfully counteratacked against the brazen strike into South Ossetia. It then rightfully took out Georgian military positions.

    Compared to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and 2003 American led attack on Iraq, the Russian counterattack against the Georgian government is quite justified and humane.

    Anonymous said...

    Pardon misspell in the last set of submitted comments.

    To elaborate on the last points:

    In 1999, the American led NATO action acted outside of its understood domain (NATO countries). On the other hand, Russia is an internationally recognized peacekeeper in the former Georgian SSR conflict, involving two disputed regions. Prior to its counterattack, Russia sought a UN declaration calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of the Georgian attack force. The UK, US and some others rejected that Russian request. The US and UK changed their minds after the Russian counterattack. CNN quoted the Georgian government saying that their withdrawal wasn't a defeat, but a tactical move. This stated view serves to warrant Russia's seeking to take out Georgian military capabilities within Georgia.

    Prior to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, the JNA militarily responded to a series of heightened terrorist activities in Kosovo. As stated in an OSCE brokered cease-fire, many JNA forces withdrew from Kosovo. The response was heightened terrorism against non-Albanians and Albanians deemed as "collaborators" by Albanian nationalists. The JNA then increased its numbers in Kosovo to fight against the increased terrorism after the OSCE brokered cease-fire was violated. Note NATO's unwillingness to confront Turkey during its war against the Kurds.

    The 2003 attack on Iraq was premised on a questionably claimed WMD presence which hasn't been evident. Note that Iraq's neighbors didn't support the 2003 war unlike the 1991 campaign. On the other hand, the CSTO recently endorsed the Russian counterattack against the Georgian government's strike into South Ossetia.