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Monday, October 01, 2007

EDITORIAL: The Russian Who Cried "Wolf!"


The Russian Who Cried "Wolf!"

The Putin administration is getting predictable, and although what's predictable is pure black evil, in and of itself the predictability may be a good thing for those ready to challenge it.

Last week, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (pictured above) traveled to New York City to address the U.N. General Assembly at its opening ceremonies. Russia got a taste of its own medicine, receiving the same type of un-sugarcoated criticism that the U.S. gets from lunatic rogue leaders supported by Russia like Hugo Chavez of Venezulea and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran -- except that Saakashvili is a respected leader who is on his way to NATO membership whose statements carried the undeniable ring of truth rather than meeting with the contempt and scorn of the Western democracies.

A week prior,
Georgian security forces had killed two Russian officers training insurgents in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Saakashvili asked the General Assembly: "One has to wonder -- what was a vice-colonel of the Russian military doing in the Georgian forests, organizing and leading a group of armed insurgents on a mission of terror?" As Stratfor observed:
The Russian response, both from Moscow's U.N. ambassador and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was not long in coming. Lavrov claimed the Russians were on an anti-terrorism exercise and that when the Russians acceded to the Georgians' demand that they disarm, two Russian instructors were executed with knives and gunshots to the head. Why the Russians waited seven days before mentioning this to the world raised more than a few eyebrows. Also odd was the dispassionate way in which the Russian dignitaries brought up the topic. There were no calls for apologies or justice, just a bland hope that the U.N. observation mission in the area would get to the bottom of things.

Either way the result is the same: the Russians have now put themselves in a place where they cannot easily back down. Their credibility is on the line. Either Russia can allow Georgia to think it is okay to execute its soldiers, or it can visit consequences upon the Georgians. It is almost as if the Russians were beginning to build a logical case for an intervention in Georgia. In fact, that is likely precisely what they are doing. There are signs that the Russians may already be moving. The night of Sept. 26-27 witnessed heavy mortar exchanges between Georgian villages and the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. South Ossetia is Georgia's other pro-Russian secessionist region. Thursday also brought with it reports that Abkhaz forces were advancing on the border of Georgia proper. Neither the Abkhaz nor the South Ossetians are capable of doing more than harassing their border regions -- their combined population is only 250,000 vs. Georgia's six million and their gaining and maintenance of de facto independence would have been impossible without extensive Russian military assistance.

None of this is conclusive, but the mortaring, the troop movements and the seemingly detached use of the word "executed" is beyond the pale even for the troubled Caucasus. The events of Thursday -- and a week earlier -- could just go down in history as yet more spittle exchanged between a fallen empire and its former colony. But never forget that Russia has the means and motive to crush Georgia -- and with the United States occupied in full by Iraq, Russia now has the opportunity.
There are no words to adequately describe Russia's hypocrisy whilst meddling in Georgia. For years, Russia has screamed and wailed to high heaven that the world must stay out of its conflict with Chechnya because it is an "internal Russian matter." Yet, Russians allow Georgia no such latitude, and feel they have the right to intervene as they see fit in any Georgian internal conflict. As we have documented, Russia has repeatedly encroached upon Georgian territory with military aircraft, heedless of the nation's sovereignty, in a manner Russia would never tolerate NATO doing in Russia.

And the disturbing events didn't stop there. Suddenly, while Saakashvili was away at the U.N., not only did Russia ratchet up the violence in Abkhazia but former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili took it into his head to publicly accuse Saakashvili of soliciting him to commit murders, despising the Georgian Orthodox Church and being a closet fascist (why he waited until this exact minute is a question that, in all likelihood, only Russia can answer). Thousands of "protesters" took to the streets calling for insurrection, and Opposition People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili, another former Saakashvili ally, told the crowd it was "time we overthrew this gang led by Saakashvili." Can you imagine Russia's response if opposition leader Garry Kasparov made such statements about Vladimir Putin? Russia would immediately accuse him of being a foreign spy and arrest him -- or worse. Yet where Georgia is concerned, Russia takes the side of the insurrectionists (and indeed, may even be supporting them). It's amazing that Dictator Putin fails to realize the precedent he is setting.

Mr. Okhruashvili's biography sheds important light on Saakashvili. Okhruashvili is a hard-liner, whose aggressive posture on the Abkhazia and Ossetia problems was too much for Saakashvili to tolerate. Appointed Defense Minister in December 2004, Okhruashvili made a number of confrontational statements about resolving the conflicts in Georgia's favor, including threating Russia, which led Saakashvili to remove him from his post in November 2006. Okhruashvili resigned from the government a week later and a few days ago announced the formation of an opposition party that began to challenge Saakashvili for power. Immediately after that, Okhruashvili was placed under arrest on corruption charges. Putin hypocritically declared the matter to be internal to Georgia even as the Chairman of the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee immediately pounced on the allegations against Saakashvili, who the Kremlin despises and wishes to destabilize, calling for his investigation and ouster. Does anyone in the world believe that the chairman of a major Duma committee could make these statements without the blessing of the Kremlin?

The Georgian Times reported:
Georgian Times obtained confidential information that Irakli Okruashvili, who originally comes from Gori, has support from the Communist Party of Georgia. The communists, supporters of the Kremlin policy, are working to find similarities between Stalin and Okruashvili. Representatives of the Parliament majority think this is ridiculous. But, Aleko Shalamberidze declares that it is not surprising, as all forces who oppose the authorities will try to join Okruashvili. “In my opinion any party wanting to come to power will try to cooperate with Okruashvili,” reckons Shalamberidze.
Russia would be such a party, of course.
Kommersant reported:
The United National Movement’s Secretary General David Kirkitadze told Kommersant on Friday that “some of Okruashvili’s statements are oddly reminiscent of speeches of Georgia’s most vehement opponents in Moscow; for example, his words about the head of South Ossetia’s provisional administration Dmitry Sanakoev sound very similar to the opinion of Russian politicians.
Okhruashvili can be analogized to the Georgian version of Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Saakashvili's action against him clearly shows that the latter is no extremist. Naturally, Russia would rather be supporting the rise of someone who was a bit more stable and solidly pro-Russian, but beggars can't be choosers. Russia's efforts to dislodge Saakashvili in that manner have so far come to nothing. Russia's military posture in Ossetia already bespeaks an intention to destabilize and invade Georgia, and assisting Okhruashvili in raising crowds and publicity only makes Russia's job easier. What Russia wants now in Georgia is chaos by any means, and Okhruashvili conveniently provides it. Remember how dictator Josef Stalin had no problem making common cause with Hitler as a means of jabbing at the hated West?

Okhruashvili's most sensational charge is "that in July 2005, the President personally ordered him to have Badri Patarkatsishvili assassinated. Patarkatsishvili is a Georgian oligarch currently living in London and the long-time business partner of Boris Berezovsky." If true, this would mean that Okhruashvili himself sat on the plan until he was booted out of government and decided to go into the opposition, something that hardly makes him a statesman. And just days ago, we reported on the latest Transparency International study of corruption, which revealed that Georgia's score for reducing graft in government had soared by 20% over last year, while Russia's has plummeted even further. In short, it's simply absurd for Russia to lecture Georgia on transparency in democratic politics, and more amazing hypocrisy when it does so. President Putin never tires of telling America to shut up and get its own house in order on the issue of democracy, yet Russia never loses an opportunity to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. Putin said of the Georgia events: "Certain friends frequently tell us that democratic processes in some CIS member countries, including Georgia, set a good example. God forbid we follow examples of the kind." In other words, if Georgia has any kind of problem, this proves Russia is not to be criticized (even thought it is Russia that is creating Georgia's turmoil); yet, when Georgia is shown to be exceeding Russia, this is to be ignored. How neo-Soviet can you get?

It is, of course, somewhat suspicious that Okhruashvili would be arrested and charged so soon after announcing his opposition party, making it seem as if Saakashvili was repressing him. But why did Okhruashvili wait so long after being ejected from the government to come forward with his party (to say nothing of the question of why he waited so long to reveal that Saakashvili is a mafioso)? Isn't it possible that Okhruashvili, a former Interior Minister, found out that the arrest was coming and moved to create his party in order to preemptively derail the investigation? Isn't it just a little bit too convenient that all this turmoil happens when Saakashvili is out of the country and Russia is ratcheting up the tension in Georgia's breakaway republics? The Mayor of Tbilisi said: "The statement made by him earlier yesterday, was somewhat irritating, because it was made by a dishonest man. But his statement made in the evening was really raving nonsense, the ravings of a frightened man." Even a Russian political scientist admitted: "Saakashvili is backed by the majority of the nation."

By now, Russia has cried "wolf!" just a few too many times where Georgia is concerned. Even if there were something untoward in
Saakashvili's handling of Okhruashvili, the idea of listening to Russia complain about it now is absurd. It's clear that Russia has no intentions concerning Georgia other than to destabilize Saakashvili and return Georgia to being a servile doormat, preventing the nightmare scenario (for Russia) of having Georgia join NATO. Having failed so many times in the past, the Kremlin is now getting desperate, and the world should see that desperation for what it is -- and it should respond accordingly.

Just as it's not accurate to blame only the lion for killing the farmer's cows, it's not accurate to blame only Russia for trying to take advantage of a Western display of weakness over Georgia. The NATO allies have certainly not done all they could to extend protection and security to the Saakashvili government in the face of naked Russian imperialism, and sow what they reap when Georgia shows signs of instability in the face of provocation by a much larger and more powerful Russia. Will we let Russia swallow Georgia the way we let Hitler swallow Czechoslovakia? Have we learned nothing from our past mistakes? A far stronger and more visible Western response to Russian aggression in Georgia is necessary if Russia, pathologically bent on recreating the Soviet empire, is to be persuaded to leave Georgia alone.

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