Sun, Jan 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Georgia now the new Cold War battleground

ANOTHER FRONTIER The long struggle between the US and Russia has found a new focus -- Georgia, where elections today will determine its diplomatic direction


In the dying weeks of another war-filled year, one bit of good news last year was the non-violent uprising which toppled Eduard Shevardnadze's regime in Georgia. But as the Caucasian republic goes to the polls today to choose a successor, the risk of bloodshed remains high and powerful external forces are trying to determine how the new president behaves.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Georgia is the cockpit of a new cold war. During the Soviet period the struggle between the US and Russia was on a global scale. Massive arsenals were locked in stalemate in Europe, but wars ravaged Africa and Asia as the superpowers found it easier to compete there by interfering in local conflicts without the fear of nuclear conflagration. These were the so-called proxy wars.

The USSR's collapse did not end the rivalry. It merely recast it on a more complex stage which stressed deviousness rather than outright hostility. Washington wooed post-communist Russia with offers of partnership while expanding the old anti-Russian alliance, Nato, to take in former Soviet allies as well as the three Baltic states.

Even as that task was being completed, the Clinton administration was turning its attention to Russia's southern flanks in central Asia and the Caucasus. With Russia's formal system of control dismantled, the aim was to reduce as much of Moscow's political and economic influence as possible.

Georgia was a good candidate to start the process because Shevardnadze, as Soviet foreign minister, had shown great readiness to comply with western demands. Aid money poured in, making Georgia the biggest per-capita recipient of American government funding after Israel. Help also went to develop a range of civil society organizations, from private media to polling organizations and new political parties. While few would quarrel with the need for "good governance" initiatives in authoritarian or failed states, it would be better if they were run by less partisan bodies, like international non-governmental organizations or the UN agencies, than by states with an imperial agenda.

However, by last year, after 10 years of Shevardnadze's rule, "reform" in Georgia was unimpressive. The country had become an archetype of the worst kind of post-communist state, where a corrupt rentier class of narrowly selected officials and mafia businessmen enriched itself through smuggling, crony privatization, theft from the few remaining state enterprises and control of customs duties and port revenues.

Shevardnadze had not sparked any wars, but nationalists were upset that he had failed to regain two lost provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mikhail Saakashvili, who led the November street protests and is expected to win today's election, is a nationalist who regularly plays that card in his speeches.

Bush's people supported Clinton's strategy of diminishing Russia. In power, they sharpened it. They exploited the terrorism scare of 9/11, plus Putin's desire for US acquiescence to his failed war in Chechnya, as a way to get Moscow's consent to the establishment of US bases in central Asia. Geared as a temporary measure against the Taliban, they are determined to keep them for possible use against Russia, China and the Middle East. They accelerated the "pipeline wars" in the Caucasus by pressing western companies to cut Russia out of the search for oil in the Caspian and make sure that none was transported through Russia.

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