How imperial rivalries stoked war in Georgia

Lee Sustar looks at the roots of Russia's war on Georgia.

Georgian troops near the town of Tskhinvalli (Vano Shlamov | AFP)Georgian troops near the town of Tskhinvalli (Vano Shlamov | AFP)

ACCORDING to the Western media, the Russian military's bloody invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia is all about "Russian imperialism" and the "Cold War" mentality of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president-turned-prime minister and still the country's leading political figure.

Certainly, Russia's aim to dominate Georgia--which fell under Moscow's control in the late 18th century and was formally annexed in 1801--are imperial in nature. But it's revealing that after selling the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as exercises in "promoting democracy," the corporate media is finally willing to characterize a great power's expansionist military moves as "imperialist."

What's missing from the mainstream account of the Russia-Georgia war is the role of U.S. imperialism, which has sought to incorporate Georgia into NATO as part of an arc of U.S. military outposts and alliances stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.

And while the Western press publishes accounts of civilians terrorized by Russia's military, far less attention is given to the vicious attack of the Georgian military--trained by the U.S.--on the disputed South Ossetia region.

South Ossetia is claimed as Georgian territory, but has been ruled since 1992 as a de facto independent satellite of Russia, following the collapse of the old USSR. If the Russian military was welcomed in South Ossetia and neighboring Abkhazia, it's because the Ossetians and Abkhazians, who are not ethnic Georgians, are opposed to being ruled from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Just as the U.S. used the nationalist movement of Kosovar Albanians to carve out a now-independent Kosovo as an outpost of NATO in the Balkans, the Russians are backing the Ossetians' and Abkhazians' drive for independence to weaken Georgia and pre-empt its entry into NATO.

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EVER SINCE Georgia emerged as an independent state, the U.S.--under the administrations of Bush I, Bill Clinton and Bush II--has worked to turn the country into a pro-Western enclave in the heart of the volatile Caucasus region.

The aim has been both to safeguard the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and ratchet up political and military pressure on Russia's southern flank.

After backing the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003 to catapult Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili into power, the U.S. deepened its military involvement in Georgia, sending advisers to train Georgian troops training in the Pankisi Gorge bordering Chechnya, where Russian troops were in the final stages of suppressing a nationalist insurgency.

What began as military cooperation in the name of the "war on terror" soon became a close collaboration. Georgia sent 2,500 troops to Iraq, the single biggest contingent in the occupying forces after the U.S. and Britain.

After assimilating Moscow's former Eastern Europe satellites into NATO, as well as the three Baltic states that were formerly part of the USSR, the U.S. set its sights on adding Ukraine and Georgia as well. The U.S also raised the stakes by installing missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic--a move supposedly to ward of threats from Iran, but obviously aimed at Russia.

Russia has responded by pushing back. In Ukraine, a big industrial country of 45 million people, Moscow has had to play a long game. After the December 2004 "Orange Revolution" that forced an election rerun which brought the pro-U.S President Viktor Yushchenko to power, Russia was able to use bullying over supplies of oil and gas and reliably pro-Moscow elements in the Ukrainian ruling class to limit that country's tilt to the West.

But in Georgia, with just 4.6 million people in the largely impoverished Caucasus region, Russia's methods have been rougher. In 2006, Georgia's arrest of alleged Russian military spies prompted Moscow to impose an embargo on Georgian imports and other sanctions.

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IN THE corporate media, Russia's heavy-handed tactics represent an unbroken line from the Tsars through the Russian Revolution to Putin.

In fact, the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the right of self-determination to the non-Russian peoples of the Tsar's empire. Georgia became an independent state in 1918, putting itself under the protection of first, Germany, and then, Britain.

In 1920, Georgian independence was recognized by Russia's Bolshevik government. But the Georgian government, controlled by the reform socialist Menshevik Party, aligned itself with the Western allies that had backed the counterrevolutionary White armies. In 1921, a Bolshevik-led uprising, backed up by invading Russian Red Army troops, installed a pro-Soviet government.

Nevertheless, the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin advocated a policy of reconciliation in Georgia. While gravely ill, Lenin launched a struggle against Joseph Stalin--ironically, a Georgian himself--over Stalin's harsh policies in Georgia. As Lenin wrote:

[A]s far as the Georgian nation is concerned, we have a typical case in which a genuinely proletarian attitude makes profound caution, thoughtfulness and a readiness to compromise a matter of necessity for us. The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of "nationalist-socialism" (whereas he himself is a real and true "nationalist-socialist," and even a vulgar Great Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity.

Stalin's consolidation of power after 1928 ushered in a counterrevolution--and with it, a return of the oppression of national minorities within a reconstituted empire.

Boundaries were drawn to divide and conquer different ethnic groups. The Ossetians, whose language is related to Farsi, were split between an autonomous area inside the Georgian Soviet Republic to the south, and another within the boundaries of Russia to the north. The Abkhazians, whose traditional lands were on the Black Sea, were also granted an autonomous region within Georgia.

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STALIN'S PRISON-house of nations began to break up in the late 1980s under pressure from popular movements. Some of the worst repression of that period took place in Georgia, where, in 1989, Interior Ministry troops attacked unarmed protestors with shovels and poison gas.

A Georgian nationalist and former political prisoner, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, won election as head of state in 1990, even before the fall of the USSR the following year, and became the first president of post-Soviet Georgia in 1991.

Gamsakhurdia's nationalist movement opposed the autonomous status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and efforts to assimilate them into the newly independent Georgian state led to terrible wars in both regions, complete with ethnic cleansing on all sides. Moscow intervened to back the separatists and eventually sent "peacekeepers" to enforce the de facto independence of both regions.

Amid this chaos and economic collapse, Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a 1992 coup led by Eduard Schevarnadze, the Stalinist boss of Georgia in the 1970s, who had become a supposedly liberal foreign minister under the reform administration of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Schevarnadze initially enjoyed the backing of not only Russia but the U.S., to which he had made numerous concessions. Yet in the course of his 10 years in power, Schevarnadze increasingly tilted towards Russia, which Georgia remained overwhelmingly dependent on economically.

Thus, the U.S. decided to back a different horse: Mikhail Saakashvili, a young former minister in Schevarnadze's government, who holds law degrees from Columbia and George Washington Universities and worked at a high-powered New York law firm. When Schevarnadze refused to recognize an opposition victory in Georgia's 2003 parliamentary elections, Saakashvili's Rose Revolution, a series of mass protests, ultimately forced Shevardnadze to step down.

Saakashvili went on to be elected president in 2004 and, following snap elections, in January of this year. But the man portrayed by the West as a gallant democrat standing up to Russian imperialism has been highly controversial in power. In late 2007, opposition parties criticized him for his endorsement of police attacks on peaceful protests, and allegations of corruption dog his government.

What's more, Saakashvili has rehabilitated Gamsakhurdia and his brand of nationalism--and in so doing, set his sights on the re-conquest of South Ossetia. Apparently, he calculated that a lightning-quick seizure of South Ossetia on August 6 would catch Russia off-guard, and that NATO would one day guarantee a Georgian state that included the breakaway regions.

It isn't clear whether the U.S.--or even the neoconservative faction within the Bush administration--gave Saakashvili the green light to attack South Ossetia. In any case, Saakashvili has miscalculated, as his attack on South Ossetia has given Russia the pretext not only to occupy South Ossetia, but also Abkhazia. Now, it appears Russia is out to smash the Georgian military that the U.S. has tried to build up--and reassert Moscow's power in its former empire.

Washington has misjudged the situation, too. For years, it could take advantage of the collapse of the USSR to expand NATO to Russia's western borders and developing military bases and alliances to its south. Now, however, an oil-rich Russia has strengthened its military and is prepared to draw a line against U.S. forays into the region.

For that reason, Russia's war in Georgia signals a new, dangerous phase in world politics that is already dominated by endless war and economic crisis.