Georgia on His Mind

November 27, 2006 Topic: DefenseSecurity Region: South CaucasusEurasia Tags: South Ossetia

Georgia on His Mind

TNI editor Nikolas Gvosdev feels former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's call for the Russia-Georgia relationship to be a key factor in the West's ties with Moscow fails the "reality test."

Reading former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke's essay in today's Washington Post once again confirmed for me the faith-based nature of so much of U.S. foreign policy. The world is as we declare it to be; inconvenient facts and on the ground realities are ignored or airbrushed away.

Holbrooke wants Washington to make the relationship between Tbilisi and Moscow a key organizing principle of the U.S.-Russia relationship ("The European Union and the United States must make the continued freedom and independence of Georgia a test case of the Western relationship with Russia" is the specific quote.)

One problem, of course, is that nothing has ever been cut and dried or simple about the Russia-Georgia relationship, certainly not since the Middle Ages when Georgia's feuding kings and princes besought the Russian tsars to cross the mountains and become involved in Caucasian affairs. 

I am always struck by the Rashomon effect when reading advocacy pieces of this type.  Russia, in the view put forth by Holbrooke, has no legitimate economic, security or political interests whatsoever in the region and should not only accept but subsidize the existence of hostile regimes by providing energy at below-market prices and facilitating guest workers whose subsidies sent from Russia make up at least 30 percent of Georgia's economy.

Given his logic, I await his follow-up op-ed where he advocates the immediate creation of a free-trade agreement with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and the sale of U.S. oil to Cuba at below-market rates. And his outrage over the suspension of rail and road links between Russia and Georgia-correct me if I am wrong, but I haven't read much from the ambassador recently holding Turkey to task for its blockade of democratic Armenia or Ankara's continued unwillingness to implement UN Security Council resolutions calling for its troops to be withdrawn from Cyprus. But I forgot-those are different cases.

And if Russia is "black", then Mikheil Saakashvili's Georgia must be "white". He, of course, realizes that this characterization is a bit difficult to say with a straight face, so a partial inoculation with the truth-reference to less than perfect efforts on the part of the Georgian government in promoting democracy-is thrown in. Let's be candid. As I wrote at the time of the Rose Revolution, for Saakashvili's government to be effective, it would, of necessity, have to become more Putin-esque.

Honest observers with no personal, professional, political or business stake in spinning Georgian realities are prepared to be much more blunt. In the current issue of The National Interest, Parag Khanna and Lawrence Groo warn:

"The lesson is that Western powers must be careful whom they back in so-called revolutions, for they risk giving a carte blanche to self-serving executives who are far from democratic champions.

"Nowhere is this more evident than in Georgia, site of another Western-endorsed regime change that took the form of the 2003 "Rose Revolution." Riding a wave of popularity after the ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze, young and Western-educated Mikhail Saakashvili has since taken every opportunity to profess democracy in theory while often ignoring it in practice. Opposition newspapers, TV stations and NGOs have been intimidated and shut down, while ironically Western funding for such groups has dried up due to the presumed success of the Rose Revolution. Under the pretext of Russian meddling in the disputed province of South Ossetia and its cut-off of gas supplies, Saakashvili maintains a powerful secret police, used more for shaking down his opponents than for internal security. While Saakashvili's administration has achieved some success in reforming antiquated business regulations, his appointment of loyal judges has undermined the judicial system's independence, and the constant musical chairs in the cabinet has made it difficult to know who is leading on important policy reform efforts at any given time."

But since so many of the color revolutions of the past few years have run out of steam-Georgia is arguably the only success story left on the books, and so it has acquired exaggerated importance. And so, just as Washington did with Saakashvili's predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze, who in his day was also vigorously defended as pro-American, pro-democratic and pro-Western-until nearly his last day in office-when suddenly Shevardnadze was rewritten to being a pro-Moscow despot-so with Saakashvili-his vices must be hidden and his virtues exaggerated.

If Georgia is so important to U.S. interests and values-a case this essay still does not make-I would have much greater respect for his call for stronger action if he would honestly call on Americans and Europeans to shoulder the real burdens that changing Georgia's geopolitical realities would entail. But Georgia is for Holbrooke and others an unwelcome symptom of how the world is changing. Reading through his essay one cannot help but be struck how strongly he desires the world to return to its mid-1990s state-where the United States could depend on a quiescent China, a debilitated Russia, a pre-occupied Europe to set the international agenda with only a minimal amount of cost and effort on America's part.

And also, it was so much easier for the U.S. during those halcyon days to ignore problematic double standards and to say that the view from Washington is the sole reality. This is why he complains: "Today, by contrast, Russia has threatened to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would give Kosovo independence and has spuriously linked Kosovo's status to that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Spurious? That is very much in the eye of the beholder.

As I wrote in a response in Foreign Affairs last year:

"The United States insists that the Kosovo case is unique, but others are by no means obliged to see things Washington's way. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Kosovo precedent can be limited. The case for independence rests on two foundations: first, that the revocation of the province's ethnoterritorial autonomy in 1989 created a legitimate case for armed rebellion and ultimate separation, and second, that Kosovo's de facto independence for the past six years should be recognized de jure to end the province's nebulous status."

I can find no logical way to argue objectively that one formerly autonomous region comprised of an ethnic group different from the titular majority of the larger state which had its autonomy revoked by an ultranationalist president and which has enjoyed de facto independence with the support and active intervention of outside powers deserves independence while another one does not.

Why can't, in this matter, Holbrooke and others just be honest with their readers? Drop the moralizing, drop the self-righteousness, and simply say, U.S. policy in the matter of the frozen conflicts is based on a mix of favoritism and perceived self-interest.

But moralpolitik is such a comfortable perch. I particularly enjoyed one of his closing comments, that "We will not sacrifice the interests of a small country that has put its faith in Western values for the sake of energy supplies or U.N. votes."

That's not why the voters returned the Democrats to power in the House and Senate. Perhaps the ambassador should consult a few U.S. opinion polls about what ordinary Americans feel their priorities are. Lower energy costs, keeping a workable international coalition against terror and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction top the list.

It's also hypocritical, to say the least. The Clinton Administration's policies toward Africa are proof positive of that-fledging democracies ignored in favor of backing regional strongmen and keeping the vital flows of energy and other commodities to world markets. (Perhaps that yet another one of the "exceptions.")

I start to feel like a broken record. Let me close with what I wrote in the most recent issue of the Journal of International Security Affairs on the matter of the "Russia debate":

"Given our commitments elsewhere, the goal of the United States ought to be to strengthen the states of the periphery to give them a greater degree of independence and leverage vis-a-vis Russia, rather than to hold out quite unrealistic expectations that the West is prepared to break them out of the Russian sphere altogether-or support them against Moscow in violent conflicts where the U.S. has little or northing at stake.

"Those who argue that we do not have to choose between our values or interests (or at least to assign priorities)-and who suggest that increased pressure on Russia both promotes our values and enhances our security-have to present compelling evidence that this strategy has a reasonable chance of success (or that the consequences will be minimal). …

"But a more confrontational approach with Russia can only be justified if this clearly serves the vital interests-not the hopes and dreams-of the United States."

I think the Holbrooke essay fails all of these tests.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.