The war between Georgia and Russia harks back to the Cold War with ominous overtones, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Little Georgia has stomped on the toe of its neighbouring Russian bear in order to enhance its credentials for NATO membership and the Russian bear responded with fury. Resurgent Russia, with its newly-found sense of power and wealth, has been vexed by the Western alliance's drive to hem it in through planting a series of anti-missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia considers a threat to its national security. What if Georgia, too, joined NATO and accepted a US anti-missile defence system on its territory pointing at Russia? It is bad timing to test the new Russian leadership and a bad gamble in the sensitive, oil-and-gas rich Caucasian region. After all, the US under the John F Kennedy administration brought the whole world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 because of the pre-position of Soviet missiles in Cuba, 100 miles away.
With separatist Chechnya still aflame in its backyard, Russia hardly needs a new war on its hands, but the Georgian challenge is too much to bear for the big bear. Nothing could be more telling of the extent of Russia's aggravation than Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov's televised reaction to the conflict in which he pointed to the European Union's flag firmly planted on the left side of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (and Georgia's flag to his right) as he made several TV appearances on Western networks. Lavrov's exasperated comment was "That tells it all". It is no secret that Georgia is energetically seeking NATO membership with President George W Bush's blessings, against Russia's strong opposition.
For five decades the US and the Western alliance (NATO) fought relentlessly to break up the former Soviet Union and liberate the East European countries held hostage behind "the iron curtain", as Winston Churchill described it. The main objective was to eliminate the challenge posed by the "Evil Empire" as former president Ronald Reagan called the former Soviet Union. Little provision was made for splinter regions that could come to life asserting separate ethnic, religious or nationalist identities once the cohesion of the former Soviet Union was unglued. That is how Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, the republic of Transnistria in Moldova and other splinter regions came about, exacerbating regional tension in the Caucasus and igniting armed conflict.
Moreover, with huge oil, gas and uranium deposits unveiled in the territories of the former Soviet republics, it became a matter of strategic Western interest to keep these resources out of the reach of a rising Russia and to deprive it of a new sphere of influence. This is demonstrated by the European Union's support of the construction of a $5.8 billion gas pipeline running for 3,400 kilometres from Central Asia through Georgia to supply gas to Western, Southern and East European countries, bypassing Russia. The idea behind the Nabucco project is to weaken Russia's Gazprom hold on gas supplies to the countries of these regions. It is a fact that Russia has raised, and will still raise, the price of gas exports to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Then there is the question of the US- driven global war on terror, particularly in Afghanistan, and the containment of Iran. The US has, for the past decade, been fostering military, intelligence and monitoring, pre-positioning and training alliances with former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. The presence of US military advisors and intelligence-gathering experts in countries bordering on Russia makes the latter nervous. In the war on terror Russia finds itself in the paradoxical situation of being an uncomfortable partner with the US because of the secessionist movement in its backyard region of Chechnya and also as an oppressor of nationalist aspirations that it supports in South Ossetia. This region, with a population of 150,000, includes an indeterminable number of Russians and Russian passport-holders. The Russian- Georgian war that started under the Russian claim to protect the indigenous Russian population seems to have come to a halt with the Russian president's announcement that his country has ceased military operations.
For analysts who advocate that the Cold War is back, the Russian-Georgian conflict, with its international ramifications, offers supporting evidence. With the downfall of the former Soviet Union Russia was left with nothing but debt, poverty and some remaining military assets. Its 13 constituent republics, the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States, were blown to the wind but ended in Western hands. Before its newly found oil and gas bonanza, Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, was so poor that in 1997 it defaulted on its international debt repayment, sending the global financial markets on a scary downward spiral. Russia was stripped of its disintegrated Warsaw Pact military alliance while NATO expanded, adding new members from the former Soviet Union. The historic political transformation was more about the break-up of the former Soviet empire than about the liberation of the nations behind "the iron curtain". Many of these nations, particularly the Asian republics, are ruled by former communist dictators or newly-crafted autocrats fashioned in the communist tradition, running rigged elections, suppressing the opposition and the whole galore.
The now full-blown Russian-Georgian war is not about the so-called persecution of ethnic Russians in South Ossetia. It is about Georgia, being emboldened by Western encouragement, pushing the limits and Russia, energised by a new sense of power, reclaiming its vital interests in its former sphere of influence. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the world was ripped apart, replaced by an American world order dominated by loose military power and globalisation. Russian ambition, running parallel to that of China and India, has put on the table a new world order. It is not exactly Yalta all over again, but big powers still claim their privileges. If the US can claim the illegal privilege of conquering, destroying and dividing Iraq for whatever kaleidoscopic purpose it may claim, so Russia can invade Georgia to protest its vital interests. Other countries in the region are on notice not to try to block the Russian fleet's re-entry into the Black Sea where it left its home base as the fighting with Georgia began.
This is not Prague Spring 1968 or the Hungarian revolution of Imre Nadj in 1956 when both were in the firm grip of the former Soviet Union. But a shadow of the Cold War's spheres of influence still reigns. It is a replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis without missiles, but with Russia shadowboxing the Western alliance in the Caucasus. While the European Union and NATO have been chipping away at the republics of the former Soviet Union, they will not go to war with Russia over the Caucasus.
There are many claims of splinter groups in the region to autonomous rule or independence and, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put it, "If [autonomous] Kosovo can claim and be granted independence, why can't South Ossetia?" And indeed, why can't the Kurds? And of all nations, why have the Palestinians been denied the right to self-determination on their territory for almost a century?
After the end of the American century, with all its achievements and failures, the new world order needs a fresh look that should factor in the many changes that have come into play during the second half of the 20th century, and which haven't been fully accounted for.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.