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Wine, water and the Rose Revolution: background to the Georgia-Russia dispute

In one of those 'far more comprehensive than you'd ever want' posts, here is a little background to the current dispute between Russia and Georgia. Things haven't been quite this heated before, but all the elements have been there for a while. There's the political grandstanding by both Putin and Saakashvili, partly animated by personal dislike but mostly a strategy to enhance their domestic popularity. Then there are the plausible underlying causes: the Russian soldiers who are in Georgia and helping separatists, and the overall story of Georgia's attempt to get out from under Russia's thumb.

A war of words

How much of this is just about looking good on TV? A pretty huge amount, I'd say. Saakashvili's persona is based on being unremittingly pro-Western - look at how he has presented defiance of Russia as his personal contribution to politics:

"...we're no longer the country we were two or three years ago. We're not afraid of anything and we won't let anything upset us"

Saakashvili loves political grandstanding against Russia. He has loudly accused Russia of arming separatists, sabotaging gas pipelines to leave Georgia without winter fuel, even involvement in kidnapping a Georgian child. In the UN, he has hinted about Russian aims of annexing Georgia.

There's a kernel of truth in a lot of this rhetoric, but Saakashvili is saying it all so publicly for his own political interests.

There's been almost as much verbal nastiness on the Russian side. Some of it is personal tension between Putin and Saakashvili. Putin has, for instance, blamed a previous crisis on "the ability of individual political figures in Georgia to respond adequately to the situation in the relations". Then there's the time a Russian Foreign Ministry official seemingly encouraged assassination of Saakashvili

I'd count Russia's ban of Georgian wine and mineral water, and their occasional refusals to issue visas to Georgians, in this category of 'political grandstanding'. They aren't insignificant (wine and water are two of Georgia's main exports, and the million or so Georgian workers in Russia need their visas), but the measures were obviously driven by politics rather than necessity.

The unwanted soldiers

Then we get onto the underlying issues - and yes, it's military and it's ethnic. It's about the Georgian separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an about the unwanted Russian troops still stationed in Georgia. Some of the troops are (not exactly neutral) 'peacekeepers' in the separatist regions. Others are loitering on old Soviet bases: everybody agrees they have to go at some point, but Russia is dragging its feet and trying to keep them in Georgia for another few years.

Saakashvili certainly isn't the only Georgian to be angry about all this, but he has gone particularly far in trying to change it. There are fairly frequent military skirmishes, particularly significant ones being in South Ossetia in August 2004 (causing a row with Russia), and this summer the Kodori gorge of Abkhazia (causing - you guessed it - a row with Russia)

Georgia has also tried arresting the Russian soldiers before. I imagine this is partly to nudge Russia towards withdrawing them, partly for domestic political reasons, maybe even because they were breaking the law. I can't find any for spying until recently, though - mostly they've been about smuggling and visa irregularities. Georgian police even had a punch-up with Russian soldiers after a road accident.

High politics and international relations

But, in the end, it all comes down to wider disputes. Saakashvili wants Georgia to be all but a part of Europe, Russia wants to keep it as a client state.

Georgia has always been among the most Westward-looking of the former Soviet states. Then in 2003 came the Rose Revolution, bringing in the Kremlin-baiting, West-loving Mikheil Saakashvili, and the course was fixed. As with the separatist republics, Saakashvili has only been doing what most Georgian politicians also want - but he's been pushing it a lot harder than they would dare.

His first foreign minister was not just (in what is perhaps a diplomatic first) the former French ambassador to Georgia, she was also Georgia's first non-Russian-speaking foreign minister. Then there's the new oil pipeline running through Georgia on its way from Azerbaijan to Turkey, cutting Russia out of the supply route. Or the WTO membership (something Russia hasn't yet managed), the understandable desperation to join NATO.

All this unnerves Russia, which needs Georgia as a client state. It's not that Georgia is intrinsically all that valuable to Russia - but if this one gets away, it undermines Russia's ability to browbeat the rest of the post-Soviet states. Putin is seeing his 'near abroad' crumble as hte 'colour revolutions' remove pro-Russian elites, and as the CIS (a loose political union of the former Soviet states) is replaced by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia, and GUAM further West.

So there you have it, from spheres of influence down to looking good on TV.

[incidentally, a lot of the articles I link above have been pulled out of a useful del.icio.us collection by Nathan Hamm of Registan. Even if Georgia isn't his main focus, and he hasn't blogged on the latest crisis, he still has a decent eye on what's happening there. Go Nathan!]


Nice job.

I think that Russia's desire to retain Georgia (and others) as client states is not so much in the old imperial sense, as a way to prevent NATO expansion. A debatable question, at least.

I'm going to be looking into the deeper background of the Abkhaz and Ossetian cases over the weekend, if you're interested.

Thanks, Blair. I'll keep an eye out for it.

It seems to me that if, as you write, "all this unnerves Russia, which needs Georgia as a client state. It's not that Georgia is intrinsically all that valuable to Russia - but if this one gets away, it undermines Russia's ability to browbeat the rest of the post-Soviet states" then it's quite difficult to criticize Saakashvili for being too public. After all, Georgia has ever right not to want to be or become a "browbeaten client state" so even if all of his charges are trumped up, his rhetoric is still fully justified until he achieves NATO membership. And given the fact that Russia is capable of murdering Anna Politkovskaya over Chechnya and poisoning Victor Yushchenko over Ukraine (to say nothing of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and bringing back the Soviet anthem), perhaps we should take Saakashvili at his word. After all, it's his life on the line.