Timid and emotional, Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili is no longer the confident democratic president the South Caucasus leader was a few weeks ago. Underestimating the right of might, his wish to win back breakaway South Ossetia has become a nightmare in his ex-Soviet country. In an ironic way, Saakashvili might have strengthened Russia instead.
“When the president ordered to attack Tskhinvali [the capital of South Ossetia], we knew then we were doomed,” told a Georgian woman to Newsweek. “How come he didn’t realize that?” Saakashvili might have recognized the hardships that Ossetian and Georgian families were going to face in the face of the military action, but he either didn’t realize Russia’s role in Eurasia or hoped for American military build up in his country.
Understandably, Saakashvili is popular in Georgia right now. During wars, people tend to support their leader, especially when the enemy is someone considered long-rooted colonizer. But the war, despite the de jure cease fire, is not going to help Georgia in the short run. Perhaps Saakashvili thought it might help Georgia in the long run. Here are some convictions that might have had a role in the Georgian president’s decision.
Assumption 1. Saakashvili takes his democratically-elected (while forgetting his not-so-democratic crackdown on the opposition) status a privilege. To some extent it is true, but right is not always might in the realpolitik – especially when you are the president of an entire country.
Assumption 2. Saakashvili thinks his western education and pro-western attitude is an extraordinary asset. Having a degree from Columbia doesn’t change the world imperial order.
Assumption 3. States’ protection of “territorial integrity” is the West’s (especially the United States’) most-adored principle. Even in not-so-U.S.-friendly countries, like Bolivia, the State Department most of the time defends “territorial integrity.” (“[W]hy on earth should arbitrary lines drawn up by Stalin be the basis for statehood in the 21st century?” would respond Ossetians).
Having the above convictions, these are two scenarios that might have crossed Saakashvili’s mind.
Scenario 1. U.S. Military build up in Georgia would follow a Russian action after provoking the latter to attack Ossetia. This would be a perfect opportunity to invite NATO and U.S. soldiers to Georgia (forgetting that the U.S. has already has a front with Russia with the NATO bases in eastern Turkey).
The bases could be used in a possible strike against Iran (especially if Saakashvili’s old friend John McCain becomes the president, and especially if Azerbaijan continues being an authoritarian country, and, thus, proving to be an unsuitable U.S. ally).
Scenario 2. Given the history of Ajaria (another breakaway region that Saakashvili was able to reunite with Georgia without a single bullet), Georgia’s respect in the West (Bush visited Tbilisi a few years back) for its democratic image, and Georgia’s possible prospects to become more energy-independent from Russia due to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Saakashvili might have thought Russia would either ignore the attack on South Ossetia or would try to negotiate with Georgia.
Neither the above nor any other scenario would have been beneficial for Georgia. The attack on South Ossetia was a perfect opportunity for Russia to showcase its power and new role in the region and in the world. Few political analysts would have expected inaction from Russia. So Saakashvili must have expected counterattack as well, but he either overestimated his abilities or underestimated Russia’s capable aspirations. Or he had a long-term vision of Iranian invasion. In either case, neither thought makes him a good leader for his people.
Speaking of the people, the latter were the last thing that either Saakashvili or Russia cared about. Some time back Saakashvili skillfully fought racism in his country by saying, “For those in Georgia who hate Armenians, I will be an Armenian; for those who hate Azeris, I will be an Azeri. People have said I am Ossetian. I will gladly be an Ossetian. I will be a Jew as well, and this will be a great honor for me.” One wouldn’t t attack South Ossetia out of love for Ossetians, would they?
Russia’s rhetoric was even more ironic. Claiming that it was defending its citizens, Russia came to “protect” a people who are generally treated as second-class citizens, to say the least, in Moscow. Like the rest of the people from the South Caucasus, Ossetians are part of the Russia’s “blacks,” people without blond hair who are often killed on the streets for simply not looking ethnic Russians. While it is not hard to understand racism among bitter and uneducated youth, Russian government’s inaction to prevent or even fully prosecute hate crimes in Moscow and other cities is inexcusable.
Double-standards and hypocrisy is no news in politics. But even if Scenario 1 works and the U.S. moves in, Georgia’s people and their neighbors are not going to win in the long run. Small states working for a superpower don’t win. They need to work with superpowers, all of them. That’s one lesson Saakashvili didn’t learn at Columbia.