Georgia in peril

The Washington Times
May 13, 2008

THE WASHINGTON TIMES EDITORIAL – The pro-Western Georgian government bordering Russia needs the assistance of the West in order to combat Russia’s growing assault on its territorial integrity. The new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, promised in his inaugural speech on May 7 to govern with a softer hand — especially to show greater respect for civil liberties and human rights. He will immediately face a test in the oil-rich Caucasus as tensions between Russia and Georgia continue to escalate over the status of the breakaway, autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Will Mr. Medvedev demonstrate to Russia’s neighbors that he will respect their sovereignty or will he continue Vladimir Putin’s imperialistic policies?

Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia in the early 1990s following Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. The United Nations regards the autonomous republics as the sovereign territory of Georgia. Contrary to Russian claims, the republics do not have a majority population of Russian natives, nor are the people’s rights and freedoms violated by remaining within Georgia. In order to settle the dispute, the Georgian government has offered generous terms to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet Moscow continues to meddle.

At the heart of the matter is whether Georgia will be permitted to develop along a Western trajectory. The United States has been working to integrate Georgia into NATO — a move that has been hotly contested by the Kremlin. In last month’s NATO summit in Bucharest, Germany bowed to Russian pressure and nixed giving Georgia and Ukraine a “membership action plan” which would put them on the road to NATO membership. Both Georgia and Ukraine are determined to escape the Russian orbit and face recurring interference from Moscow.

In the case of Georgia, the Russian government is deliberately wrecking havoc in order to destabilize the country and therefore prevent it from being placed on a Western track; its entry into NATO is considered a threat to Russian interests. Following the NATO summit in Bucharest, the Russian government, led by then-President Putin initiated a series of actions engineered to provide greater support to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: The Russians increased their troop deployments and declared they would cooperate with the citizens in the disputed territories in order to improve their legal structures, trade and economy. The Russian government has issued passports to the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and permits them to vote in Russian elections.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in power since 2003, has been warning the West that the Kremlin is attempting to provoke war. Last month, a Russian plane shot down an unmanned Russian spy drone over Abkhazia — which is Georgian air space. The Russians are also threatening to send more troops into the region based on false accusations that Georgians are escalating their troop deployments.

Leaders of EU countries have recently visited Georgia in a show of solidarity. However, the onus for strong action rests on the United States and on NATO. In order to forestall a war and Russian expansion, the U.S. and its Western allies should denounce Russia and insist that they withdraw their troops. It is also imperative to convene an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council — as the Georgian government has requested. In addition, the U.S. should expand its military advisory role in Georgia.

For the West, what is at stake is not just the fate of two distant, tiny autonomous republics. Rather, the issue is whether Russia’s neighbors will at last be able to determine their own fate without having to contend with incessant Russian bullying. If the West provides timely assistance to a pro-Western nation such as Georgia, Moscow will at last understand that its imperial days are over.