The Russian action in Georgia had two sides, the local and the global. It also had the human side, which I cannot avoid because I am also a native Armenian from the Caucasus. Among my relatives, friends, neighbors are Georgians and Russians, Ossetians and Abkhazes. One day people might share bread as neighbors, next day they can savagely fight each other. I can just hope that a rational understanding of what happened in my corner of the world might bring us eventually to join together again.
Globally, these events are best explained by the American expression "blowback," the unforeseen returns on one's own actions.
Georgia enjoyed a special position in the former USSR. Before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, seven percent of Georgians were nobles. Many of them perished during the communist rule. Nevertheless, their surviving children used the inherited education and aristocratic manners to become later in the Soviet period an exceptionally large and successful group of elite professionals and artistic intelligentsia who led their society. The Georgian elites remained defiant of Soviet censors, which produced recurrent public protests. After Stalin's death in 1953, Moscow avoided the self-destructive mass purges that meant that it had to rely on generous subsidies to contain tensions. Georgia thus enjoyed one of the highest standards of living among the Soviet republics. It achieved, for instance, the highest per capita number of medical doctors in the world.
In 1989 the Georgians rose in a national revolution against Soviet rule. They hoped to leave behind the collapsing USSR and immediately join the prosperous West. Instead, amidst a series of civil wars and coups, Georgians found themselves in more misery. The economy shrank by 75%. Georgia's own ethnic minorities of Abkhazes and Ossetians seceded in wars. During the 2003 peaceful "revolution of roses," a fellow sociologist found that among the street protestors, 67% claimed to be middle class - while also admitting the income of two dollars a day, the level of Jamaica.
The new President Saakashvili, an American-educated scientífico and a devoted neo-liberal, solemnly vowed to restore prosperity and national pride. Mr. Saakashvili, however, was not merely an American pawn. He rather proved to be a sly and active manipulator, presenting himself to the Western neo-conservatives as their enthusiastic disciple and key ally in a volatile region bordering both Russia and Iran. When the U.S. President visited Georgia his motorcade raced along the newly repainted and renamed George W. Bush Avenue. Georgia, whose population is only four million people, sent 2,000 troops to Iraq (replacing the Australians as the third largest military unit) and established military cooperation with Israel. The effort was rewarded with a large package of foreign aid, including military. In the meantime, the internal politics of Georgia grew unstable. Several prominent figures died mysteriously, Saakashvili's own supporters began deserting him amidst accusations of murder, corruption and "Napoleonic ambitions." Last autumn a surprisingly large crowd of protesters was violently dispersed by riot police. Moreover, the political utility of George W. Bush Avenue was to expire in the end of 2008. Evidently, Mr. Saakashvili resolved to deliver a spectacular coup by the lightning reconquest of the small and indefensible secessionist province of South Ossetia that had long existed under the tutelage of Russian military.
And here comes the blowback. Mr. Putin almost gleefully took the page from the ideological script of George W. Bush. Moscow explicitly invoked the American arguments for invading Kosovo and Iraq all the way to suggesting regime change. Accusing Mr. Saakashvili of genocide might lack judicial grounds, but it provides a strong rhetorical reminder that America is not the sole remaining authority in the world. It is now a fact that Moscow has reasserted its power at least in the immediate geopolitical neighborhood, while Washington failed to protect its favored disciple and might yet fail to gather the necessary diplomatic support of European allies in isolating Russia. It remains to be seen whether a new Cold War erupts in world politics. What is, however, clear is that the global hegemonic project of American neo-conservatives has just cracked in yet another part of the world.
Georgi Derluguian is Professor at Northwestern University. He Lives in Yerevan, Armenia.
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