Georgia and Russia

By William Urban

Twenty years ago I spent a summer at the University of Pennsylvania studying the problems of Russia's "Near Abroad". Then in 2002 I spent time in the Kuban, the region just to the north of Georgia. My project in 2002 was to see what knowledgeable people thought would happen in the region. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I could not find anyone willing to talk (almost nobody was willing to admit knowing that there were countries just to the south). They may have thought I was CIA — speaking some Russian, knowing the history, etc. 

The people I spoke with were probably also cautious. The communists had never given up the government in the Kuban, and Vladimir Putin was on the rise. Intelligent people understood that Russia is never long without a strong central government and a strong state police.

I learned much about other aspects of life in post-Soviet Russia, lessons that I reported in columns for the Review-Atlas. Prosperity was visible. It wasn’t overwhelming, but people were buying pizzas, automobiles, going bowling and patronizing tanning parlors. Money was still short, but the markets were a long way from the day when prices were cheap and products difficult to find. (There is a lesson there for all those who want to impose price controls, but it is unlikely they will see it — most people do not like to work for little or no profit.) I spoke with government officials who were out-of-touch with life in the street, but were absolutely confident that they knew what was best.

The Chechen war was quiet at the moment, but no one relying on the newspapers would ever know there had been a problem. The issue there, as is the case in Georgia, was partly oil. A pipeline ran near Chechnya, and a new BP line runs through Georgia, then to the coast and to Turkey; this is the only pipeline to Europe not under Russian control, and oil and gas are the weapons that Putin uses to blackmail European nations.

An even more fundamental issue is self-government, which can be reduced to one question: how small a political unit can decide it will be self-governing? Russians want their empire back, Georgians want to be independent. Equally important, leaders in the "break away" provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have accepted Russian assistance rather than be governed by Georgia. Divide and rule is a lesson that Russians mastered long, long ago.

National unity is the same issue we faced in 1990-91. President H.W. Bush did not believe in breaking up countries (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Iraq); the peoples unwillingly inside the larger states thought differently and managed to make themselves independent. The issue is now being re-negotiated. Putin is putting pressure on the Baltic states, the successor nations to Yugoslavia are being brought into the European Union, and the Iraqis are negotiating some tricky issues such as sharing oil revenues.

Georgia is complex. It is a Christian country that long looked to Russia to protect itself from Turks and Persians, but it had its own ancient history. Joseph Stalin learned his radical political beliefs in a seminary where he was supposedly being trained to be a priest, and he wrote Georgia poetry good enough to be included in anthologies before he became famous. Russians just cannot understand why this people would want to be independent. Georgians cannot understand why Russians cannot see it. Ossetians and Abkhazians cannot see why Georgians won’t give them an autonomy that would amount to independence.

This is not a crisis limited to the Caucasus Mountains. There are relatively few ways for American aircraft to reach Afghanistan. A confident and aggressive Russia, combined with less enthusiastic regional allies, could make it practically impossible to supply the American and NATO troops there. Not completely surprisingly, the Georgian president was flanked by the presidents of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania when he made a recent press conference. Each of those nations feels the Russian pressure, too.

 On the other hand, Russian aircraft trying to bomb the pipeline missed their target. The new Red Army may not yet be ready for prime time.

Review Atlas (August 21, 2008), 4.