Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Same As It Ever Was, Same As It Ever Was (JM)

I wish we had a brief rundown of the Georgian conflict in Lost episode recap format, complete with banal Matthew Fox voiceover. Since I don't, here's basically what we know. Georgia, a former section of the Soviet Union is the first non-satellite state to develop even a quasi-democratic government outside the auspices of the Soviet Union. After regaining independence in 1991 almost all of the 90s were spent in turmoil, violence and opportunism being the order of the day. The next momentous period came in 2003 when then President Eduard Shevardnadze was reelected in by a system that was grossly skewed in his favor. This led to a series of mostly non-violent protests which culminated in Mikheil Saakashvilli and other pro-democratic supporters marching on the opening of the Georgian parliament carrying roses. So called the Rose Revolution led eventually to the resignation of Shevardnaze and a new series of elections which came down resoundingly in favor of Saakashvilli.

During this time of transition there were other problems developing. Two key regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia began to erupt in violence. These are both region with substantial non-Georgian ethnic minorities. However, the exact demographic make up of these regions is particularly unclear as the Georgian government created large-scale settlements in these areas with Georgian ethnic to disrupt the balance of power. In turn, violence was fomented in both areas, and Georgian ethnics were largely displaced from these communities by local ethnic groups, warlords, outside groups such as the Chechens and, above all, the support of Russia.

It's this backdrop that leads to the current set of conflicts. Georgia, along with the Ukraine (which is, despite Kramer's insistence, not weak), are interested in becoming members of NATO. However there are serious concerns about offering Georgia NATO membership, the primary being a potential for intense conflict with Russia, but also the fact that Saakashvilli has been far from perfect, going out of his way to antagonize Vladimir Putin and also repressing the speech of major opposition groups. Despite all of these reservations Georgia remains a far more democratic stronghold than its neighbors and is an incredibly close ally of the Western world, the United States in particular. It's status as a Western supporter drives Russia even further to try a destabilize the region (and potential a full-scale invasion with the direct hope of regime change). It also certainly doesn't help that Putin and Saakashvilli loathe each other and either would be happier should the other cease to exist.

This brings us to today. Russia invaded to protect the minority populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from being bombarded by the Georgian military. The Georgian military claims to have attacked these areas in response to attacks from Russia supported militias and warlords in this region. In other words, Russia has a thinly veiled excuse to invade and Georgia has thinly veiled excuse to repress. Think Palestine with military support while ignore some of the ancillary issues. In other words, it's a total mess.

We've certainly had a myriad of responses from our government and candidates about this crisis. McCain has taken the hardest line, arguing that we should immediately extend NATO membership to Georgia and demand the removal of Russian troops. It should be noted that McCain has a very close relationship with the Georgian government, his campaign manager Rick Davis is a registered lobbyist on behalf of Georgian interests. Despite all of this, it is certainly in our and the world's interest to keep Russian out of Georgia and certainly prevent them from toppling an even quasi-democratic regime. But there appears that there is just too little to be done. The fact is that we have several players in this, none of whom are completely innocent. Even on an even playing field there is just no way to fairly assess blame (though it does appear that Russia has pushed the most boundaries). Even if the world were to agree that Russia's actions ought to be condemned the U.N. is powerless to do anything due to the Russian Security Council veto. Other international organizations hold little sway in this matter as well. If we were to extend NATO protect to Georgia it would put the entire Atlantic community on the hook to defend Georgia militarily. It's exactly this sort of entanglement that lead us down the path to World War I.

This is, frankly, what Russia is counting on. The United States tired and poor from fighting two separate wars, it's political capital spent and amidst an election that will change the direction of our foreign policy in either case is ill-equipped to take the lead in this situation. Russia is aware that they can essentially call the world's bluff and repress the beginnings of local democracy right before our eyes. Though weakened they still retain a certain amount of power due to an abundance of natural resources and fuel needs. However, Putin has discovered that their greatest power might just lie is simple brazenness and an awareness that no one in the world has any desire to be the one to get in their way.

This leaves our country in quite a quandary, two small ethnic divisions of a relatively small state threaten to disturb the stability of Eastern Europe completely. The simple truth is that something must be done and nothing can be done. This is the greatest advantage Putin has and one he has shown the proclivity to use. If we allow Russia to hold Georgia in abeyance based on flimsy pretense, Ukraine and other former Soviet territories will soon follow. Essentially an ominous Russia will make the expansion of the European and Atlantic community over these states much more difficult and is position itself to feel threatened by any expansion. The truth is we are once again faced with a decision, stand up to the threat as a world and risk violence on a world stage or allow aggression to stand an allow for the creeping spread of authoritarianism throughout Eastern Europe. Neither is a great option, but I would suggest that action has always proved more valuable in the long run than inaction. A show of strength now may prevent Russia from getting the type of strength we'll really have to fear. In the end though either solution will be a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

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