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Carl Thomson: We should be wary about jumping to Mikheil Saakashvili’s defence

Carl Thomson Carl Thomson is a commentator on Russian and East European affairs and was the Conservative Party candidate for Glasgow East at the 2005 General Election. Writing a year after the beginning of the Russia-Georgia War, he takes a somewhat different viewpoint than Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who wrote this article yesterday on the subject.

While the world’s attention was distracted by events in Iran, another country with a record of human rights abuses and rigged elections sent in the riot police to beat and arrest democracy protestors.  Masked policemen attacked dozens of demonstrators in Georgia early in the summer as they held a rally calling for the release of six opposition activists who had been detained on charges of spying for Russia.  The police arrested 39 demonstrators and warned of further reprisals should the protests that have swept the Georgian capital in recent months continue.

The violence follows similar attacks against opponents of Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime earlier in the summer.  A prominent opposition spokesman suffered a broken rib after being attacked by police who chanted the name “Saakashvili” as they held him down and beat him with truncheons.  Other critics of the Georgian president have been arrested or found their families on the receiving end of state harassment.  A recent report by the Organisation for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights into last year’s parliamentary elections in Georgia found “widespread and significant” irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing, the kidnapping and beating of opposition activists, biased news coverage from the state media, and government officials campaigning openly for Saakashvili’s United National Movement party.

A common refrain used to justify this repression is that the opposition is working in league with Russia to foment a coup.  The crackdown on Georgia’s independent media, which has seen television stations that carry reports critical of the president shut down or nationalised, has likewise been justified on the basis that Georgia does not have a “culture of democracy” to support a free press.  This is a far cry from what we were told last autumn, when popular opinion held that the war between Russia and Georgia was nothing more than an attempt by the Kremlin to snuff out a fledgling democracy on Russia’s borders.

Georgia’s main opposition leader, Nino Burdzhanadze, has appealed for international condemnation of Saakashvili’s actions over the last few months and demanded that his Western allies make a fresh assessment of the situation there.  Her request is unlikely to be met with sympathy.  Georgia’s cooperation is essential for the success of the Nabucco pipeline project, which the EU hopes will bring natural gas from the Caspian to Western markets from 2015.  Its strategic location as part of an alternative energy corridor that circumvents Russia and Iran, as well as the desire of the United States to strengthen its position in the former Soviet states, means Saakashvili has escaped censure even as his actions betray his spoken commitment to democracy.

Saakashvili has invested a lot of money in ensuring that he is viewed favourably in the West.  In a conflict of interest that did not receive nearly as much attention as it should have done, John McCain’s top foreign policy advisor during his presidential campaign also acted as a lobbyist for the Georgian government.  Now Barack Obama is in the White House, former staffers from John Kerry’s presidential campaign have been hired to burnish Saakashvili’s image.  Georgia clearly won the propaganda war and became a cause celebre during the war in South Ossetia. John McCain claimed that he spoke with Saakashvili at least once a day during the crisis, while British politicians and commentators lined up to express their support for his “vibrant democracy” and call for Georgia to be fast-tracked into NATO and the EU.

This could be excused on the basis that events in Georgia do not receive much coverage in the West, even if Saakashvili’s reputation as a reformer had been discredited long before the war with Russia.  But one year after the outbreak of hostilities, it is clear that it was Georgia, not Russia, which was the aggressor in that conflict.  The OSCE has accused Georgian forces of war crimes and carrying out attacks on sleeping civilians in South Ossetia.  The OSCE’s report into the war points the finger of blame firmly at Saakashvili for firing the opening shots, and reports that the Georgian offensive was well underway before Russian troops and tanks crossed the border. 

The publication of an EU investigation that was expected to be critical of Georgia has been put back on the basis that it would inflame tensions in the region.  This is not to say Russia was blameless.  There is a lot we can criticise Russia for, but the Kremlin had warned for years that it would respond to any attempt by Georgia to take back South Ossetia or Abkhazia by force.  Russia’s reaction to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia can be justified not only by the precedent set in Kosovo, but by the clear wishes of the Ossetian and Abkhaz people, who have long feared the excesses of Georgian ethno-nationalism.

The strong support Britain gave Saakashvili during the crisis could be understood if Georgia was a young democracy bravely fighting off the imperial ambitions of her larger neighbour, but we have seen that this is not the case.  It could be explained if his remaining in power were vital to our national interest, as we will always need to have working relations with countries whose record on human rights and democracy we find distasteful.  But we have no strategic interest in Georgia that trumps our relationship with Russia, however strained the latter may be.

The fact Georgia hosts energy pipelines is not as important as it seems.  The Caspian Sea’s energy resources are useful, but far from the scale of those found in more agreeable parts of the world.  The Nabucco pipeline will source gas from countries even more unstable, authoritarian and hostile to the West than Russia, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran.  Given Britain’s growing dependence on imported energy, a long-term rapprochement with Russia would be more desirable than propping up Saakashvili’s authoritarian regime and backing his claim to provinces that, in reality, were lost to Georgia twenty years ago.

There is now speculation that Saakashvili may launch a fresh offensive against South Ossetia or Abkhazia to distract from his domestic problems and cash in the guarantees of security extracted from the West after his defeat last year. We should be wary about jumping to Saakashvili’s defence.  As we grapple with the financial crisis and public fatigue with the war in Afghanistan, we should ask ourselves whether we are willing to commit British lives and money to a regime which has proven itself divorced from Western standards of behaviour.  Going to war to save a democracy is laudable, but squaring up to Russia for the sake of an unstable autocrat in a part of the world where we have little interest is a luxury we can ill afford.


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