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    Sunday, August 17, 2008

    Russia and Georgia at war: how we got here

    Just a quick post to highlight an article of mine on the war (and especially Mikhail Saakashvili's bizarre decision to attack South Ossetia) that was published today in The Globe and Mail. There's also an audio slideshow.

    As fighting raged all over his tiny former Soviet country this week, a CNN anchor asked Georgia's brash and unpredictable President Mikhail Saakashvili whether he had believed his country could actually win a military showdown with Russia. "I'm not crazy," the President answered in his American-inflected English.

    Others weren't so sure. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev charged that Mr. Saakashvili had acted like a "lunatic" in provoking the conflict and said he needed to be removed from office. A French diplomat suggested Mr. Saakashvili had been mad to take on Russia, and American officials wondered how he could have so badly misread their signals calling for restraint in his efforts to reclaim the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

    Many of his own people are shaking their heads at how "Misha," as he is affectionately known, could have backed their country into such a dangerous corner.

    It was on Monday afternoon in the tree-lined city of Gori that Mr. Saakashvili came face to face with the scale of the error he made in attacking South Ossetia and triggering war with Russia, Georgia's giant neighbour to the north.

    Sporting a green camouflage flak jacket, he was preparing to address the international media when Russian jets suddenly roared overhead. Someone in his entourage shouted, "Air! Air!" and Mr. Saakashvili looked at the sky, then broke into a sprint. Eventually he dove for cover, his bodyguards piling on top, hoping to shield their President from shrapnel.

    Many bombs fell in and around Gori — the geographic heart of this strikingly beautiful country on the southeastern edge of Europe — and none came close to hurting him.

    But the video of him ducking and running may prove to be the bookend to a tumultuous political career that began five years ago with another famous image: Mr. Saakashvili striding into Georgia's Soviet-era parliament building clutching a rose, at the vanguard of a democratic revolution that was supposed to remake not only his own tiny country but the entire former USSR.

    Even if he remains in office after this crisis, the era of hope, democracy and pro-Western reform that Mr. Saakashvili — still boyish-looking at 40 — was supposed to herald has ended. The moment he ordered his troops to attack the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali a week ago, Georgia once more became a failed state, a place where wars, coups and instability are the norm and one that Western investors would be wise to avoid.

    Georgia's loss is Russia's gain. Moscow is once again emerging as the regional hegemon, on the verge of pushing the U.S. back out of the former Soviet Union, an area Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calls "the near abroad." The leaders of Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all former Soviet republics, rushed to stand with Mr. Saakashvili in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi this week in what was as much a demonstration of fear as it was of solidarity. They were joined by the President of Poland, another country that remembers when the Red Army regularly ranged far beyond its borders and thus fears Russia's resurgence.

    Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is probably the most concerned member of the quintet. While Poland and the Baltic states are under the protective umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Ukraine is not. Along with Georgia's, its application to join NATO was shelved back in April for fear of offending Russia, which considers both states to be properly part of its "sphere of influence."

    It all makes Mr. Saakashvili's decision to attack last Friday — while the world was distracted by the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games — extremely difficult to understand. In the name of "reuniting" Georgia, which has never been united since it gained independence in 1991, hundreds of people are dead (each side accuses the other of ethnic cleansing) and Georgia's sovereignty is under renewed threat.

    As the sound of gunfire recedes, questions about Mr. Saakashvili's judgment — and his ability to continue governing — are growing louder.

    Read the whole article here, and let me know what you think.

    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.