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FEBRUARY 6, 2009 4:52PM

Moscow expands military influence in Georgia

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Well, it is official.

Russia announced earlier this week that it would be opening two new military bases in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. The former Soviet vacation province has been under de-facto Russian control for about 15 years, but this summer's Russia-Georgia War allowed Moscow to reaffirm its authority over the region. In the conflict's aftermath, Abkhazia and South Ossetia both declared independence (again) and this time Russia (and Nicaragua) officially recognized the two "countries."

From the perspective of those who've been watching the Caucuses, there certainly seems to be an element of inevitability in this bit of news about the Russian bases. But it remains troubling news nonetheless. With Russia's intentions so boldly and officially declared to the world, it becomes even harder to view this summer's South Ossetian War as anything other than the well-planned and calculated Russian power grab that it was.

Meanwhile, down the road in Tbilisi--the Georgian capital city whose suburbs and hotels continue to house well over 100,000 ethnic Georgian refugees from conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia--President Mikhail "Misha" Saakashvili isn't exactly enjoying smooth sailing.

He just brought in his fifth prime minister in five years, 33-year-old boy wonder and former energy minister Nika Gilauri. After getting a modest bump in popularity during this summer's Russian occupation, the U.S. educated Saakashvili's poll numbers are down again. His approval rating is closing in on the nadir of 15 months ago, when the opposition coalition staged weeks of large scale protests in Tbilisi.

In November 2007, Saakashvili proclaimed on television that his opponents were in bed with Moscow before bringing out the army to violently disperse the protesters and shut down the opposition tv station. He then called for a questionable special election and won, reclaiming his Rose Revolution mandate.

I was there during the late 2007 protests. At the time I did not believe Saakashvili's accusations about Russian interests secretly backing his opposition, but the summer war and its aftermath have given me cause to reconsider.

Again, in Tbilisi the opposition is mounting. Saakashvili may not survive this time. With the announcement of these new Russian bases, Saakashvili's popular platform of Georgian reunification and NATO membership now seems less realistic than ever.

And I'm sure Moscow could not be happier.

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Russia is making its move to get co-equal status with the United States in my analyis. America's failure to defend Georgia was a bad mistake I now realize. rated and important.
A clear statement of the current situation, Edgar. I'm glad you're still following the story.

That said, let's not forget that Saakashvili (not the Russians) launched the war, giving Russia the pretext it needed to do all of this. The HRW report you reference cites numerous abuses by both sides.

Finally, ironically the region may be more stable with the Georgians out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- they've solved their ethnic problem, just not the way they wanted. And that may yet pave the way for entry to NATO, given that Obama seems to back NATO expansion in the region.
Thanks for reading and commenting Don and Inch.
This AP story offers a little more insight into how that Human Rights Watch report came about. While the group accused all involved parties of war crimes, the most egregious were said to be committed by Russian and Ossetian forces. Plus, unlike Moscow, Tbilisi actually cooperated with HRW investigators. Georgia's crimes were limited to the use of cluster bombs and inaccurate rockets near civilian areas of S. Ossetia's capital city.

Also, I don't think it is clear as to who exactly started the war (not that it matters all that much anyway), although I tend to put some faith in Saakashvili's account. He claims that he only sent forces into S. Ossetia after intelligence reports showed Russian units already rolling in from the north.

The evidence is there. The Russians had mobilized in N. Ossetia before the Georgian invasion. Even if Saakashvili is to blame, he was most likely provoked. And the Russian aggression and response that followed was overwhelming, disproportionate and catastrophic.

Also, I would by no stretch call 200,000 IDPs scattered across Georgia as a "solved ethnic problem." It is an ongoing problem that history tells us Moscow deliberately created (or at the very least, pushed to the point of violence) in the final days of the Soviet Union.
Interesting post. Not a lot to add because I think you covered the topic well. I just wish we had had a way to help Georgia. But, our practical options were limited. I am doubtful that Obama would push for NATO membership.
Saakashvili made a tactical mistake in provoking Russia. Russia, as you well state, has de facto ruled over this area the last 15 years and is merely protecting the private vacation properties and developmentsof several entrepreneurs including one Vladimir Putin. It is not about ethnic tensions.
Ohh my friend...it does matter who started it. The Russians stood idly by at first while your hero Sakassvilli bombed the hell out of Tskinvali. And the assertions of Sack or shit aside that Ossetia is part of Georgia it would seem the majority of the population would disagree. They hold Russian passports and for the most part loathe Georgians who they consider oppressors. The population of this "breakaway" state has been autonoumous for quite some time. The assumption that America is on the side of angels with Sakassvilli is fallacy. He is nothing more than an autocrat bent on his own ogliarchy. Witness his own persecution of the opposition in the last elections. And the fact that the AP filed photographs asserting Russian troops in Tbilisi were later proved to be complete fabrications (never mind the staged photographs) shows they can't be trusted.
This animosity towards the "Russian Bear" is nothing more than leftover anti-communist rhetoric from the likes of Dick Chaney and John McCain. The notion that Russia has no sphere of influence is ludicrious and juvenile. It would behoove us to recognize their legitimate interest and work towards ending what is really troubling the world. Radical Islam. Not Islam...the radical bomb making, child blowing up, brand that straps bombs to mentaly challenged young girls and sets the bombs off as they enter checkpoints. These are the common enemies of the globe. Not a resurgent Russia.
Apathy or indifference is what happened in Rwanda, in Sudan, and many others. Can world politics be simply deduced to a “superman” mentality??? I don’t world politics closely so correct me if I am wrong on certain facts, but from what I observed, the United States has a lot to worry about; with its decline in its superpower status both in military and economic, it is unlikely that the U.S. will be able to help others in full capacity that it was once able to. Booming economy has brought great fortune to China, India, Venezuela, and Russia. But, money alone never satisfied anybody; China is investing in Africa communities for oil, building friendship with the Middle East for the similar reason; Russia is flexing its oil power to send EU a message ( and now its action in Georgia…) ; President Chavez is ambitious to become the next Fidel Castro in his neighborhood. Now, even EU wants Egypt to join in. My point is simple, I ask everyone to look into the mirror, and you will find that no matter what nationality you are, you will be signing Britney’s “ I’m (or my country is, in this case) not so innocent” followed by “Oops, I (my country) did it again!” On a serious note, I wonder which country and its people are more likely to lend a helping hand for humanitarian aid and start innovative projects for the needed communities? Everyone wants to be the next superpower, but who wants to be a superman?
What I worry about is the effects of this Russia-Georgia conflict, will there be a large-scale population displacement? Mr. Ichkachka said the region has become more stable; I want to think the stability is a result of oppression…
The Russians have told the Ukrainians that they will leave their huge naval base at Sebastopol in the Crimea. Is an Abkhazian substitute what we see here?

Saakashvili brought about the disaster by allowing the neocons to inflate his ego to disastrous proportions, so that he launched the war figuring the US would back him up. Let us remember how John McCain played a large part in creating the calamity, and would have made it far worse had it been within his power.
Thanks all for reading and commenting.

McGarrett50, I agree that NATO membership is no longer a viable short or even medium range goal for Georgian political leadership. Whether or not keeping Georgia out of NATO was a Russian goal in the opening stages of the conflict, it's definitely part of Moscow's long term strategy. These new bases reaffirm that.

Alan, for the most part I agree with you. However, I do think that it was more Russia provoking Saakashvili than the other way around. Since the Rose Revolution, the reunification of Georgia has been one of the president's most popular political issues. This summer's conflict cannot accurately be discussed without reinforcing the fact that there are by some estimates upwards of 200,000 who remain internally displaced from the mid 90's within fully recognized Georgian borders.

Nick, first off, Saakashvili is by no means my hero. Like I stated in the original post, I was there for his crackdowns on protesters. It was barbaric and frightening. The reason I say that it doesn't matter who started the war is because of where we are now. Regardless of international opinion, Russia won this summer. The Russian army wrecked Georgia's infrastructure, set the Georgian economy back 10 years, harmed Georgia's western ties, curbed foreign investment, solidified S. Ossetia and Abkhazia as Russian colonies, and all but ruined Sakaashvili politically. Saakashvili has his faults, but he is without question the best and most hopeful leader Georgia has had in its 18 years of independence. Who started the war does not change the disastrous effects of the conflict on Georgian people (including Ossetians). The reason Ossetians "hate" Georgians and carry Russian passports stems directly from two decades of forceful Russian influence in the region. Let's not forget that this summer's war gave Ossetians and Russians an opportunity (that they eagerly seized) to further ethnically cleanse Georgian villages within S. Ossetia.

James, one of the articles that I linked talks about the possibility of Russia relocating the fleet from the Crimea to the Abkhaz coast. The Abkhaz official quoted seems to find the idea preposterous, but I do not. And as much as Sakaashvili "sucked up" to the neocons, he did not bring this disaster upon his country. True, the nation's best road is named after W., but Sakaashvili was being a politician. He has little in common with the neocons other than the desire to free Georgia from Moscow's grip and increase his country's economic opportunities.