Rene — US Role in Georgia Crisis

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US Role in Georgia Crisis
Published on Friday, August 15, 2008 by Foreign Policy in Focus
by Stephen Zunes
The international condemnation of Russian aggression against Georgia –
and the concomitant assaults by Abkhazians and South Ossetians against
ethnic Georgians within their territories – is in large part
appropriate. But the self-righteous posturing coming out of Washington
should be tempered by a sober recognition of the ways in which the
United States has contributed to the crisis.
It has been nearly impossible to even broach this subject of the U.S.
role. Much of the mainstream media coverage and statements by American
political leaders of both major parties has in many respects resembled
the anti-Russian hysterics of the Cold War. It is striking how quickly
forgotten is the fact that the U.S.-backed Georgian military started
the war when it brutally assaulted the South Ossetian capital of
Tskhinvali in an attempt to regain direct control of the autonomous
region. This attack prompted the disproportionate and illegitimate
Russian military response, which soon went beyond simply ousting
invading Georgian forces from South Ossetia to invading and occupying
large segments of Georgia itself.
The South Ossetians themselves did much to provoke Georgia as well by
shelling villages populated by ethnic Georgians earlier this month.
However, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ruled out signing a
non-aggression pact and=2
0repeatedly refused to rejoin talks of the Joint
Control Commission to prevent an escalation of the violence.
Furthermore, according to Reuters, a draft UN Security Council
statement calling for an immediate cease fire was blocked when the
United States objected to `a phrase in the three-sentence draft
statement that would have required both sides `to renounce the use of
Borders and Boundaries
In the Caucuses and Central Asia, the Russian empire and its Soviet
successors, like the Western European colonialists in Africa, often
drew state boundaries arbitrarily and, in some cases, not so
arbitrarily as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. The small and
ethnically distinct regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Ajaria were
incorporated into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and – on the
breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – remained as autonomous regions
within the state of Georgia. Not one of the regions was ethnically
pure. They all included sizable ethnic Georgian minorities, among
others. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, there was not much
in the way of ethnic tension during most of the Soviet period and
inter-marriage was not uncommon.
As the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s, however, nationalist
sentiments increased dramatically throughout the Caucuses region in
such ethnic enclaves as Chechnya in Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh in
Azerbaijan, as well as among those within Georgia. Com
pounding these
nationalist and ethnic tensions was the rise of the ultra-nationalist
Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who assumed power when the
country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. With the
possible exception of the Baltic states, Georgia had maintained the
strongest sense of nationalism of any of the former Soviet republics,
tracing its national identity as far back as the 4th century BC as one
of most advanced states of its time. This resurgent nationalism led the
newly re-emerged independent Georgia to attempt to assert its
sovereignty over its autonomous regions by force.
A series of civil conflicts raged in Georgia in subsequent years, both
between competing political factions within Georgia itself as well as
in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, resulting in widespread ethnic
cleansing. Backed by Russian forces, these two regions achieved de
facto independence while, within Georgia proper, former Soviet foreign
minister Eduard Shevardnadze emerged as president and brought some
semblance of stability to the country, despite a weak economy and
widespread corruption.
Russian troops, nominally in a peacekeeping role but clearly aligned
with nationalist elements within the two ethnic enclaves, effectively
prevented any subsequent exercise of Georgian government authority over
most of these territories. Meanwhile, the United States became the
biggest foreign backer of the Shevardnadze regime, pouring in over $1
billion in
aid during the decade of his corrupt and semi-authoritarian
The Rose Revolution
Though strongly supported by Washington, Shevardnadze was less
well-respected at home. For example, The New York Times reported how
`Georgians have a different perspective’ than the generous
pro-government view from Washington, citing the observation in the
Georgian daily newspaper The Messenger that, `Despite the fact that he
is adored in the West as an `architect of democracy’ and credited with
ending the Cold War, Georgians cannot bear their president.’ Though
critical of the rampant corruption and rigged elections, the Bush
administration stood by the Georgian regime, as they had the
post-Communist dictatorships in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and
most of the other former Soviet republics.
Georgia enjoyed relatively more political freedom and civil society
institutions than most other post-Soviet states. Nevertheless, high
unemployment, a breakdown in the allocation of energy for heating and
other needs, a deteriorating infrastructure, widespread corruption, and
inept governance led to growing dissatisfaction with the government. By
2003, Shevardnadze had lost support from virtually every social class,
ethnic group, and geographical region of the country. Heavy losses by
his supporters in parliamentary elections early that November were
widely anticipated. Still, Shevardnadze continued to receive the strong
support of President20George W. Bush due to his close personal
relationship with high-ranking administration officials. Contributing
to this relationship were his pro-Western policies, such as embarking
upon ambitious free market reforms under the tutelage of the
International Monetary Fund, agreeing to deploy 300 Georgian troops to
Iraq following the U.S. invasion, and sending Georgian troops trained
by U.S. Special Forces to the Pankisi Gorge on the border of Chechnya
to fight Chechen rebels. Opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania and Mikheil
Saakashvilli strongly criticized the United States for its continued
support of the Georgian president.
In addition to the electoral opposition, a decentralized student-led
grass roots movement known as Kmara emerged, calling for an end to
corruption and more democratic and accountable government as well as
free and fair elections. Though not directly supported by the Bush
administration, a number of Western NGOs, including the Open Society
Institute (backed by Hungarian-American financier George Soros) and the
National Democratic Institute (supported, ironically, by U.S.
congressional funding) provided funding for election-monitoring and
helped facilitate workshops for both the young Kmara activists and
mainstream opposition leaders. This led to some serious tension between
these non-governmental organizations and the U.S. embassy in Georgian
capital. For example, when the U.S. ambassador to Georgia learned that
some leaders from the successful stude
nt-led nonviolent civil
insurrection in Serbia three years earlier were in Tbilisi to give
trainings to Kmara activists there, he told them to `Get out of
Georgia! We don’t want trouble here. Shevardnadze is our friend.’ (The
young Serbs ignored him, and the scheduled trainings in strategic
nonviolent action went forward anyway.)
The parliamentary elections that November were marred by a series of
irregularities. These included widespread ballot-stuffing, multiple
voting by government supporters, late poll openings, missing ballots,
and missing voter lists in opposition strongholds. These attempts to
steal the election elicited little more than finger-wagging from the
Bush administration.
The Georgians themselves did not take the situation so lightly,
however. They launched general strikes and massive street protests
against what they saw as illegitimate government authority. This effort
was soon dubbed the `Rose Revolution.’ Gaining support from the United
States only after the success of the nonviolent civil insurrection
appeared inevitable, this popular uprising forced Shevardnadze to
Presidential elections, certified as free and fair by international
observers, were held two months later, in which opposition leader
Mikheil Saakashvili emerged victorious. Four months later, the
authoritarian ruler of the autonomous region of Ajaria, a Shevardnadze
ally, was ousted in a similar nonviolent civil insurrection.
AThough not responsible for the change of government itself, the Bush
administration soon moved to take advantage of the change the Georgian
people brought about after the fact.
U.S. Embrace of Saakashvili
Despite its longstanding support for Shevardnadze, the Bush
administration quickly embraced Georgia’s new president. Taking
advantage of Georgia’s desperate economic situation, the United States
successfully lobbied for a series of additional free market reforms and
other neoliberal economic measures on the country, including a flat tax
of 14%. Though official corruption declined, tax collection rates
improved, and the rate of economic growth increased, high unemployment
remained and social inequality grew.
With strong encouragement from Washington, Saakashvili’s government
reduced domestic spending but dramatically increased military spending,
with the armed forces expanding to more than 45,000 personnel over the
next four years, more than 12,000 of whom were trained by the United
States. Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars of military
assistance to Georgia, a small country of less than five million
people. In addition, the United States successfully encouraged Israel
to send advisors and trainers to support the rapidly-expanding Georgian
armed forces.
Although facing growing security concerns at home, the Bush
administration also successfully pushed Saakashvili to send an
additional 1,700 troops to Iraq. Thus, Georgia inc
reased its troop
strength in Iraq by more than 500% even as other countries in the
U.S.-led multinational force were pulling out.
Though Georgia is located in a region well within Russia’s historic
sphere of influence and is more than 3,000 miles from the Atlantic
Ocean, Bush nevertheless launched an ambitious campaign to bring
Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The
Russians, who had already seen previous U.S. assurances to Gorbachev
that NATO would not extend eastward ignored, found the prospects of
NATO expansion to the strategically important and volatile Caucasus
region particularly provocative. This inflamed Russian nationalists and
Russian military leaders and no doubt strengthened their resolve to
maintain their military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Washington’s embrace of Saakashvili, like its earlier embrace of
Shevardnadze, appears to have been based in large part on oil. The
United States has helped establish Georgia as a major energy transit
corridor, building an oil pipeline from the Caspian region known as the
BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylan) and a parallel natural gas pipeline, both
designed to avoid the more logical geographical routes through Russia
or Iran. The Russians, meanwhile, in an effort to maintain as much
control over the westbound oil from the region, have responded by
pressuring the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan
to sign exclusive export agreements a
nd to construct natural gas
pipelines through Russia. (See Michael Klare’s Russia and Georgia: All
About Oil.)
Amid accusations of widespread corruption and not adequately addressing
the country’s growing poverty, Saakashvili himself faced widespread
protests in November 2007, to which he responded with severe
repression, shutting down independent media, detaining opposition
leaders, and sending his security forces to assault largely nonviolent
demonstrators with tear gas, truncheons, rubber bullets, water cannons,
and sonic equipment. Human Rights Watch criticized the government for
using `excessive’ force against protesters and the International Crisis
Group warned of growing authoritarianism in the country. Despite this,
Saakashvili continued to receive strong support from Washington and
still appeared to have majority support within Georgia, winning a snap
election in January by a solid majority which – despite some
irregularities – was generally thought to be free and fair.
Lead-up to the Current Crisis
A number of misguided U.S. policies appear to have played an important
role in encouraging Georgia to launch its August 6 assault on South
The first had to do with the U.S.-led militarization of Georgia, which
likely emboldened Saakashvili to try to resolve the conflict over South
Ossetia by military means. Just last month, the United States held a
military exercise in Georgia with more than 1,000 American
troops while
the Bush administration, according to The New York Times, was `loudly
proclaiming its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the
battle with Russia over Georgia’s separatist enclaves.’ As the
situation was deteriorating last month, U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice made a high-profile visit to Saakashvili in Tbilisi,
where she reiterated the strong strategic relationship between the two
Radio Liberty speculates that Saakashvili `may have felt that his
military, after several years of U.S.-sponsored training and
rearmament, was now capable of routing the Ossetian separatists
(‘bandits,’ in the official parlance) and neutralizing the Russian
peacekeepers.’ Furthermore, Saakashvili apparently hoped that the
anticipated Russian reaction would `immediately transform the conflict
into a direct confrontation between a democratic David and an
autocratic Goliath, making sure the sympathy of the Western world would
be mobilized for Georgia.’
According to Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, the
United States may have caused Saakashvili to `miscalculate’ and
`overreach’ by making him feel that `at the end of the day that the
West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble.’
Another factor undoubtedly involved the U.S. push for Georgia to join
NATO. The efforts by some prominent Kremlin lawmakers for
recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia coincided with the escalated
efforts for NATO’s inclusion of Georgia this spring, as well as an
awareness that any potential Russian military move against Georgia
would need to come sooner rather than later.
And, as a number of us predicted last March, Western support for the
unilateral declaration of independence by the autonomous Serbian region
of Kosovo emboldened nationalist leaders in the autonomous Georgian
regions, along with their Russian supporters, to press for the
independence of these nations as well. Despite the pro-American
sympathies of many in that country, Georgians were notably alarmed by
the quick and precedent-setting U.S. recognition of Kosovo.
No Standing to Challenge Russian Aggression
Russia’s massive and brutal military counter-offensive, while
immediately provoked by Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, had clearly
been planned well in advance. It also went well beyond defending the
enclave to illegally sending forces deep into Georgia itself and
inflicting widespread civilian casualties. It has had nothing to do
with solidarity with an oppressed people struggling for
self-determination and everything to do with geopolitics and the
assertion of militaristic Russian nationalism.
While the international community has solid grounds to challenge
Russian aggression, however, the United States has lost virtually all
moral standing to take a principled stance.
For example, the brutally punitive and disproportionate response by the
Russian armed forces pales in comparison to that of Israel’s 2006
attacks on Lebanon, which were strongly defended not only by the Bush
administration, but leading Democrats in Congress, including
presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Russia’s use of large-scale militarily force to defend the autonomy of
South Ossetia by massively attacking Georgia has been significantly
less destructive than the U.S.-led NATO assault on Serbia to defend
Kosovo’s autonomy in 1999, an action that received broad bipartisan
American support.
And the Russian ground invasion of Georgia, while a clear violation of
international legal norms, is far less significant a breach of
international law as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, authorized by a
large majority in Congress.
This doesn’t mean that the Russia’s military offensive should not be
rigorously opposed. However, the U.S. contribution to this unfolding
tragedy and the absence of any moral authority to challenge it must not
be ignored.
Stephen Zunes is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus and
serves as a professor of politics and international studies at the
University of San Francisco.