MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti)
The arrest of Russian commissioned officers in Georgia and the subsequent blockade of the Russian military headquarters were not emotional acts, but rather a well-considered step on the part of President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is trying to resolve domestic problems by a tested old method - mobilizing society against an external enemy. This is especially important when municipal elections are just a few days away.
The first stage of the operation took place in early September, when some members of the pro-Russian opposition were arrested. Now the second stage has been launched with defiant and openly anti-Russian measures. Relations with Russia have deteriorated so drastically that the Georgian authorities seem to be lacking the common sense to understand that they should not quarrel with the politically and economically strong neighbor, with whom the country has historical ties. The priority for them now is to achieve a convincing victory at the elections that reflect the population's attitudes toward the authorities.
It was four years ago, at similar elections in Tbilisi, where Saakashvili's party won, that the president began his ascent. Now trust in the leader has fallen drastically, but he cannot launch repressions against pro-Western (unlike pro-Russian) opposition, or the United States and Europe will no longer consider his regime a democracy. Although his henchmen use administrative resources (of which the opposition has numerous proofs), it is apparently insufficient to ensure an electoral success. The only means left is to play the anti-Russian card, to encourage spy mania in society and to create a situation when criticism of the authorities can be equaled to collaboration with an external enemy. Clearly, the opposition possibilities will be greatly limited in this case.
Another pre-election move was to rename the Kodori Gorge, where Georgian troops had been deployed last summer, as Upper Abkhazia. As part of his election campaign, Saakashvili promised to restore Tbilisi's control over the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia, but has so far failed. If so, why not give this name to a gorge that has never been controlled by the Abkhazian authorities and tell voters that it is the first step on the way to Sukhumi? In reality, however, Georgia has not only failed to make progress in peace settlement of the issue, but also further infuriated the Abkhazian leader by its risky moves.
Saakashvili's pre-election activities suggest two important conclusions. First of all, Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvily has strengthened his position in the country. He is seen as the biggest hawk and proponent of confrontation with Russia and use of force against Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So the possibility of military solution to the problem of breakaway republics has increased. Peaceful statements sometimes made by Tbilisi mean only that a potential war can be slightly disguised as, for example, an anti-criminal operation (which, of course, will not make it such).
Secondly, Georgia's tough moves could not have happened without the United States' approval, which has been supporting the country since the Rose Revolution of 2003. The sequence of events in the last three months is remarkable. Saakashvili's visit to Washington; deployment of Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge; arrests among pro-Russian opposition; the launch of an "intensive dialog" between Georgia and NATO (an important and mandatory stage within Atlantic integration); and the arrest of Russian commissioned officers. Clearly, should Americans have rebuked Georgia, say, by slowing down its integration into NATO, it would have had to moderate its position toward Russia, despite all domestic reasons and Okruashvili's radicalism. The events, however, developed differently, and Tbilisi evidently viewed the acceleration of the NATO accession process as an approval of its hawkish policies.
So current developments in Georgia should be viewed in the context of toughening competition in former Soviet republics, which became especially obvious during color revolutions. Attempt can be made to oust from Georgia not only the remaining Russian troops (which are scheduled to withdraw in 2008 anyway), but even Russian peacekeepers who ensure stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, preventing new bloodshed. In future, Russia's military presence in the country where the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs, which is strategically important for the U.S., can be replaced with Western one, as part of Georgia's Atlantic integration.
Alexei Makarkin, deputy director general of the Center for Political Technologies.