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Russia is Miscast in the Georgian Tragedy

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Message Nicolai Petro
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The following questions were prepared by the Saylor Company, a U.S. public relations firm employed by the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I was glad to answer their questions pro bono publico.

IP: How do you see the declaration of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia in an international legal sense?

Declaring independence is distinct from actually achieving it, and distinct again from obtaining widespread international recognition of it. Many decades can pass during each phase of this process and success, ultimately, seems to hinge mostly on dogged perseverance in the pursuit of sovereignty.

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Despite having achieved their independence as a result of the tragic events of August 2008, however, Abkhazia and South Ossetia seem to be on quite different trajectories. While Abkhaz leaders have always been clearly focused on obtaining international recognition as a sovereign state, some South Ossetian leaders seem to aspire to some form of integration with North Ossetia, within the Russian Federation.

Paradoxically, it may be more difficult to achieve international recognition for the latter, than for the former.

IP: The reality of the situation in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia is that their citizens are in the process of nation building while the rest of the world debates whether they have the legal right to do so. What are your thoughts on this?

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In both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, nation-building has been given a significant boost by separation from Georgia. Local elites now have a free hand to define their national identity, and to promote it among the citizenry.

Since an essential prerequisite for nation-building is the cessation of armed conflict within one's borders, so long as this is guaranteed by mutual defense treaties with Russia, I expect the process to gain momentum, regardless of what any other nation thinks.

Moreover, the longer that Georgia ignores this process, and rejects direct negotiations over the status of these countries, the less influence it will have in determining the final status of relations with either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

IP: The EU report on the causes of the war in 2008 stated that President Saakashvili was responsible for starting the war. Do you think his standing in the international community has been eroded by the findings of the EU?

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If I may be pardoned a small pun, there is little doubt that "the bloom is off the Rose" Revolution. But while Saakashvili has few ardent supporters left in Western capitals, the Georgian political opposition is fragmented and ineffective. For now, therefore, he is in the unenviable position of being the least undesirable candidate to head the country, but for whom there is as yet no viable substitute.

Given the frequency of past coups in post-Soviet Georgia, one can easily imagine another coup removing Saakashvili from power. The main stumbling bloc to this scenario seems to be that this time, instead of making common cause as they did to remove Eduard Shevarnadze from office, Russia and the West are now at odds, fearing that "the other side" will gain some temporary advantage through Saakashvili's removal. As a result, the status quo prevails, and Georgians suffer.

IP: It seems to some that outmoded Cold War attitudes which cast Russia as the bad actor in every international conflict are at the root of US policy towards Georgia. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, do you think there are ways to mitigate the potential damage of American military aid provided to a leader just because he is viewed as a foil to Russia?

U.S. military, economic, and other assistance should not be condemned per se. Any assistance is misguided, however, if it abets poorly conceived policies.

In this instance, Western governments miscast a problem that was internal to Georgia, as a problem that was external to Georgia. Once Russian neo-imperialism became the problem, enhancing Georgia's military became the obvious solution.

But, while Washington believed the problem had thus been taken care of and therefore stopped paying serious attention to the region, Saakashvili's military enhancements assumed proportions that should have sounded alarm bells. In four years military expenditure increased thirty-fold! By 2008, military expenditures were 1.1 billion dollars, out of a total GDP of 10.2 billion—an astonishing 11% in a country that is one of the region's poorest. What did his military suppliers think Saakashvili was going to do with all this new military hardware? Use it all in Iraq?

The calamitous events of last August will not have been in vain, however, if instead of lazily re-casting Russia as the new USSR, politicians and pundits in the West finally set about the task of creating a global security pact in which Russia can be an equal partner with its former Cold War adversaries.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is time.

IP: Thank you, Dr. Petro.


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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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