Georgia at Risk

Walter Russell Mead, who has authored some very interesting books on foreign policy, offers a cautionary assessment following a visit to Tbilisi.  The views he brings back on the situation, unfortunately, are quite glum, but also honest and independent.

Some of Georgia’s problems are, frankly, the fault of bad decisions by its government.  The reckless and aggressive Georgian policies toward Russia in the summer of 2008 — policies it undertook in defiance of warnings from the Bush administration and the rest of the West — gave Putin an opportunity to occupy South Ossetia, create a new wave of Georgian refugees, and make trouble for both Georgia and the United States.  Even today, there is a certain trust deficit.  Many in western Europe for example simply do not trust Georgia’s president and I do not believe that Georgia will be admitted to NATO until either he or his successor convinces skeptics in Europe that things have changed.  Most of the Georgians I spoke with, including political allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili understand this.  But it is not clear that Georgia’s president or its political process can or will summon up the necessary “strategic patience”. (…)

The behavior of the Georgian president, rightly orwrongly perceived as reckless and rash by both Europeans and Americans,has so spooked the NATO alliance that Georgia will not be joining itanytime soon.  The US has no power to change this; European members ofNATO are free to make up their own minds and new members must beadmitted by a unanimous vote.  (A military alliance could hardly run itsaffairs in any other way; free peoples cannot be bound to go to war indefense of someone else without at some point giving their consent.) The US supports Georgia and Georgia’s aspirations to NATO, but we arenot going to make a bilateral security treaty with Georgia like the onewe have with Japan.

That leaves Georgia in a pickle.  It is embroiled in a series ofdisputes with Russia, with Russian troops currently occupying Abkhaziain the northwest and South Ossetia in the north-center.  Almost 300,000Georgian refugees were driven from or fled their homes in theseregions.  With Russia’s blessing, Abkhazia and South Ossetia havedeclared their independence.  Georgian public opinion can be rabidlynationalistic, and the 4.4 million residents (about 85% of whom areethnically Georgian) are divided by geographical, cultural and clanlines into many quarreling factions.  Since the collapse of the SovietUnion in 1990, Georgia has known two revolutions and, depending on howyou count them, three civil wars and two significant internationalones.  New wars could flare up unpredictably, though it seems to me thatwith the Winter Olympics scheduled in nearby Sochi in 2012, Russia isunlikely to seek new conflicts that could spoil its Olympic celebration.