America's Challenge in Georgia

The Black Sea country of Georgia has become a beachhead in the Bush Administration's effort to promote democracy in Eurasia and the Broader Middle East.

The Black Sea country of Georgia has become a beachhead in the Bush Administration's effort to promote democracy in Eurasia and the Broader Middle East. It has also become a potentially major problem in U.S.-Russian relations.

The U.S. has invested heavily in Georgia's democratic success through a decade of technical assistance and training, tough diplomatic pressure in support of free and fair elections and emergency aid after Mikheil Saakashvili's "Rose Revolutionaries," bearing flowers rather than weapons, ousted former American darling Eduard Shevardnadze through peaceful protests of a stolen election. 

As the first leader in the former Soviet space to come to power through a peaceful revolution in defense of democracy, Saakashvili assembled the most pro-reform government in the former Soviet bloc since 1991, which strongly expressed its commitment to advance democratic and market economic reforms, clean up corruption, anchor Georgia in Euro-Atlantic institutions and secure the country's territorial integrity.

From its birth, Georgia's new government has faced threats from separatist and criminal leaders. This spring, Georgia's government (through a second wave of peaceful protests) ousted a heavily armed regional warlord from his fiefdom in Ajara. But two areas of this small nation are still in open cessation, refusing to accept the authority of the central government. One is South Ossetia, a tiny separatist region with fewer than 70,000 inhabitants. The second and most difficult one is Abkhazia, a region beloved by Russians - especially Russian generals who had long had villas along the coast.

Saakashvili's overriding goal as president is to reclaim these areas for the central government. Just two days before the Ajaran victory, Saakashvili told me that he would next focus on winning the South Ossetians over, and then spend the rest of his first term convincing the Abkhazians that they too would enjoy a better future by returning to the Georgian fold rather than as a tiny maverick under leaders unable to secure the region's political or economic security. In South Ossetia, Saakashvili was relying on a series of positive incentives to foster a political settlement, such as giving away fertilizer and pesticides to poor Ossetian farmers, paying pensions and wage arrears that South Ossetian authorities had ignored and broadcasting television programs in the Ossetian language into South Ossetia.

Saakashvili's efforts seemed to be going well until he made a strong pitch for NATO membership at the Alliance's June summit in Istanbul. Russians were already feeling encircled by NATO as the Alliance enlarged into the Baltic and Balkans. They responded shortly thereafter with a series of aggressive measures, such as providing weapons to South Ossetian forces and reportedly violating Georgian airspace with Russian military aircraft. 

Of course, hardball tactics is a centuries-old tradition for Russia in the Caucasus. Russia is again playing on ethnic chauvinism and separatist tendencies to provoke the Georgians. Perhaps Russia simply seeks to keep Georgia off-balance; perhaps Russia wishes to provoke a Georgian misstep that might justify a Russian counter-reaction and potential military conflict between Georgian and Russian forces.

In any case, Saakashvili must be careful to avoid falling for any such provocation. While the Georgian President has offered repeated reassurances that he understands the critical need to avoid "taking the bait," Saakashvili and his government changed course and adopted a more confrontational approach toward South Ossetian separatists and Russia. Rumors of war are circulating in Tbilisi. This is worrisome. In any kind of military confrontation, Georgia would not only lose militarily, but might also find that Western supporters might not stand on its side. 

Saakashvili's task is not going to be easy, and if mishandled, could lead to a "small" war between Russia and Georgia, which would have the additional consequence of creating a major problem for the United States and our NATO allies, especially Turkey.

Saakashvili certainly has the right to restore Georgia's territorial integrity and to oppose any infringement on his government's sovereignty. But it is important that he act calmly both to avoid a tragic military conflict, and to preserve the spirit of democratic change for which he has become an icon throughout burgeoning civil society movements across Eurasia, especially in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

Saakashvili has established constructive relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Conventional wisdom holds that Putin seeks to avert war in South Ossetia and supports a political settlement to afford South Ossetians significant autonomy while preserving Georgia's territorial integrity. This latter point is particularly salient for the Russian President, as he struggles with his own effort to preserve Russia's territorial integrity with respect to Chechnya. Unfortunately, even if conventional wisdom is accurate in this instance and Putin actually holds the above views, legions of bureaucrats below him would be happy to see Georgia's newly democratic ship of state crash on the rocks of separatist conflict. And relying on the not-so-democratic Putin to help preserve Georgia's fledgling democracy would be, to say the least, imprudent.