Thursday, April 19, 2007



The former Soviet republic of Georgia, birthplace of Josef Stalin, is a fractious little land in the volatile and strategically important Caucasus - a ridge of mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas shoehorned between Russia, Turkey and Iran (and, yes, the origin of the word “Caucasian.”) Georgia shares borders with former SSRs Armenia and Azerbaijan, in a near-constant war over disputed territory. Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is just across the border from the conflict-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, and frequently absorbs Chechens hiding from Russia’s reach. Georgia itself is torn by internal divisions; separatist struggles between ethnic Russians and Georgians in Abkhazia killed thousands and marred the country’s transition to independence in the early 1990s. A United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was set up in 1993 to monitor the cease-fire, its mandate renewed by the UN Security Council every six months. UNOMIG remained for a decade before being expanded in 2003, and in 2006 is still in place, awaiting a final settlement thirteen years later.

Russians were among the UNOMIG observers but were excluded from its military security force. However peace-keepers under Russian command were also deployed in Abkhazia alongside the UN, part of the overall pattern of domination Moscow reserved in Georgia, part of the southern outpost of Moscow’s withered Empire. Though an agreement to pull the troops out was reached with the OSCE-brokered Istanbul Accords of 1999, a controversial rotating force of Russian troops and heavy weaponry remains in Abkhazia into 2006, with smaller forces and Russian-sponsored militias remaining in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Ajaria.

As late as 2001 Russian troops had been sent into the Pankisi Gorge to ferret out Chechen rebels, but the Russian role there was taken over by Georgian troops, trained since May 2002 by American Special Forces as part of its “War on Terror.” In addition to fighting Chechen bad guys, Political analyst Matthew Riemer succinctly explained, the U.S. policy was “to strengthen an independent, Moscow-free Georgia that would eventually become a member of NATO and the European Union,” a shift that would be enabled by privatization and Western capital injections. [1]

The most obvious investment was in westbound Caspian oil pipelines; Georgia’s capital Tbilisi was attractive to Western investors as the middle link in at least two ambitious Europe-bound pipelines through the Caucasus alley. Both originate in Baku, Azerbaijan and pass through Tbilisi before diverging. The more famous of the two is set to end at Ceyhan, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. A consortium of companies headed by British Petroleum backed this Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, and President Bush has endorsed it by name as furthering his energy policy as work began on laying it in May 2003. [2] The Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa (BTS) pipeline was set to end at Georgia’s coast to feed 120,000 to 150,000 barrels a day of Azerbaijani oil into an underground pipeline beneath the Black Sea to Europe. Soros’ EurasiaNet described how these pipelines “will allow both Georgia and Azerbaijan to more effectively resist geopolitical pressure exerted by Russia.” [3] The flip side, of course, is the ability they could give the West to exert such leverage against Russia.

President Shevardnadze, problematic US ally and target of the Rose Revolution
In these efforts the West worked closely - or tried to - with long-term Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. He was a former Soviet heavyweight: KGB officer, Chairman of Georgian Communist Party, and Soviet Foreign Minister from Gorbachev’s ascendancy in 1985. In December 1990 he dramatically resigned both his post and his Party membership, complaining of a resurgence of hard line military types. “Boys in colonels’ epaulettes are pushing the country to dictatorship,” he declared in a speech from the floor of the Supreme Soviet on his resignation, eight months before those boys would try to overthrow his ally Gorbachev. [4]

After the USSR collapsed, Russian President Yeltsin sent Shevardnadze to reign in the chaos in his native Georgia, where President Zviad Gamsakhurdia had been deposed in a coup while the region of Abkhazia had moved to split and civil war broke out. He took effective control in Tbilisi in mid-1992, and when stability allowed was finally elected president in mid-1995. While somewhat dictatorial by Western standards, Shevardnadze was no Milosevic. He had charted a path amenable to the US, generally playing Russia and the West against each other as so many other nations did during the Cold War. In 1994-1995, he collaborated with Azerbaijan’s leadership on a Western-backed transportation and energy corridor the Europeans dubbed Transportation Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRASECA). The BTS oil pipeline was the first phase of this ambitious endeavor that Ariel Cohen noted “will create relatively few jobs and relatively little transit-tariff revenue for Georgia.” [5]

As Soviet Foreign Minister “Shevy,” as the Americans came to call him, had been a great help in the prelude to the 1991 Gulf War; he grew so close to Secretary of State James Baker, the Texan once sang the standard Georgia on My Mind to him in one of their less formal meetings in Wyoming. [6] The Georgian leader also proved a workable ally in the post-9/11 world; in addition to allowing American special forces in 2002, he also offered enthusiastic support for the controversial 2003 Iraq War. Georgia was a proud member of the “Coalition of the Willing” (with 400 troops as of mid-2005, including special forces, medics and engineers, at least seven wounded so far.) [7] President Shevardnadze addressed his countrymen as the war opened, explaining that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was “a totalitarian regime […] which poses a threat to the whole region.” He reiterated the Washington line that the coalition was forced to take on the role that the UN Security Council should have fulfilled (Recall Russia’s resounding “Nyet” vote). He also noted that a Georgian-US partnership “could help Georgia resurrect its territorial integrity and resolve a number of economic issues.” [8]

Yet while useful to Washington, Shevardnadze was ever more unpopular with his own people, whose patience was wearing thin on territorial integrity and those economic issues as well as widespread official corruption, which the president seemed incapable of stopping. Presented in 1999 by his old friend James Baker with the esteemed “Enron Prize for Distinguished Public Service,” by 2003 Shevardnadze’s government was increasingly seen as plagued with corruption, mismanagement, and secrecy. [9] These problems steadily drained Shevardnadze’s power like a hole in his gas tank and strategically vital Georgia began to look rather vulnerable to another round of instability and violence, sure to put the brakes on any pipeline with a “T” in the middle. Major protests had been staged off-and-on since 2001; criticism from the media was squashed with raids on the opposition stations, while political protest was met with dismissal of the government. US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced at one point “an unstable Georgia automatically results in an unstable Caucasus,” a statement some took to mean that rather than expend more political capital propping Shevy up, the Americans should “ditch him to ensure stability.” [10]

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