TBILISI: Given the tremendous damage that Russia has inflicted on Georgia, it is easy to conclude that the Kremlin has achieved its objectives.
But, so far, Russia has failed in its real goal – getting rid of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-democracy, pro-American president.
To be sure, Russia has tightened its control of the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It shattered the Georgian military, grievously damaged Georgia’s economy, and stirred up discord within the Western alliance. For three years, it has tried every conceivable tactic to bring Saakashvili down – fomenting a domestic uprising, imposing an economic blockade, beefing up its forces in the enclaves, and finally a war. Yet Georgia’s president remains in power.
Here in Tbilisi, tension is understandably high. Russian tanks are less than 25 miles away, and the wheat fields along the main road to Gori were ablaze, set on fire by Russian troops, as I drove through Russian checkpoints to get to that deserted, occupied city. (Most memorable sight: drunken Russian soldiers in stolen Georgian uniforms – “because they are better than ours. ) Russia’s invasion of Georgia has reshaped the strategic landscape. But, as the West debates how to “punish Russia, it is vital to remember that the main front is still in Georgia. Talk about taking away the 2014 Winter Olympics or ejecting Russia from the G-8 may (or may not) have some effect on the Kremlin, but the most important thing the West can do now is strengthen the government in Tbilisi. The equation is simple: if Saakashvili survives, Vladimir Putin loses.
The intense personal hatred between these men overlays two centuries of tortured history between Russia and Georgia. Many people report that Putin simply “loses it when discussing the upstart Saakashvili, who led his country from near bankruptcy into a golden age of economic growth and the world’s highest rate of foreign direct investment relative to GDP. All this has been halted by Russian tanks.
The Kremlin has probably lost its chance to remove Saakashvili by overt force, although sinister, stealthier means cannot be ruled out. Having just dined with him in a public restaurant, I wish his security was a little tighter.
(His predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, was a near-miss target for several assassination attempts that are widely believed to have been Russian-directed.) The Kremlin’s best hope now is that Georgia’s economy will crumble, its currency will collapse, and an unhappy populace, encouraged by some opposition leader (perhaps bankrolled by Russia), will force Saakashvili from power.
The Western response to this challenge must go beyond rhetoric. What matters most right now is massive economic and military assistance. Public commitments to help rebuild Georgia are the best way to prevent Russia from achieving its goal. Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze estimates that rebuilding railroads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure will cost at least $1 billion; this does not include humanitarian relief, refugee resettlement costs, or rebuilding Georgia’s military. Gurgenidze also foresees negative economic growth, a huge budget deficit, and a collapse of tourism, which was just taking off in this beautiful country.
United States Senator Joseph Biden has called for an immediate $1 billion supplemental appropriation, a proposal quickly endorsed by Barack Obama. But the Bush administration has not yet been specific on economic support. Congress will be in session only briefly before the election, and a supplemental appropriation will pass only if President Bush pursues it vigorously as a bipartisan measure. Even if delayed until next year, its immediate proposal by Bush and endorsement by both presidential candidates would help morale in Georgia. The European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development must match American support.
In the long run, Georgia and Russia must coexist peacefully. Here, Georgia must do its part. Saakashvili, an immensely talented 41-year-old, saved his country from utter collapse in 2003. But he must think strategically about the future.
On occasion, he has berated the Europeans for insufficient support – not a good tactic for someone trying to join the EU – and has used rhetoric about Russia that, while understandable, only increases the danger to himself. Saakashvili cannot pick up his tiny country and move it to Mexico.
He has to manage the situation with greater care.
There will be consequences, of course, for Russia’s relations with the West.
(Bush’s inattentiveness to this Russian threat – dramatically illustrated by his literal embrace of Putin in Beijing as Russian tanks rolled into Georgia – may have led the Kremlin to think it could get away with its invasion.) While the West will not going to war over Georgia, Russia must understand that it will pay for using force, or the threat of force, against neighbors that were once part of the Soviet space.
This is especially true for Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which are likely to be Moscow’s next targets for intimidation. The rules of the post-Cold War world are changing – but not to the ultimate benefit of Russia, which has underestimated the unifying effect its actions will have on the West. Exactly how these relationships evolve depends on what each side does in the coming weeks – especially in Georgia.
Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, writes a monthly column for The Washington Post. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, (wwwproject-syndicate.org).