Russia’s American-style treatment of Georgia

The crackdown on Georgians seems to be an example of the Kremlin practising techniques and methods for using a new array of tools in Russia’s foreign policy arsenal. America has taught the current Russian leadership how to operate in the international arena from a position of open cynicism.

One of Armenia’s leading politicians recently explained to me that neither America nor Russia should delude themselves about their influence on Armenia’s internal evolution, since its priorities are largely determined by the attitudes and demands of the Armenian diaspora worldwide. According to this politician, the diaspora will never permit Armenia to be turned into a totalitarian state, since money sent to Armenia from the diaspora (equivalent to Azerbaijan’s entire energy export revenues) is the deciding factor in ensuring the Armenian economy’s survival. Naturally, the money coming into Armenia from abroad is accompanied by political messages which the Armenian government cannot ignore if it wants to remain in power.

Apparently, Moscow has decided to take a similar approach to Georgia – in reverse. A sweeping Russian-style crackdown on the Georgian diaspora in Russia; luckily, this diaspora does indeed include some crime bosses, illegal immigrants, and business owners whose activities have nothing to do with morality and enlightenment. This was supposed to result in Mikhail Saakashvili losing the support of the Georgian community in Russia, and demonstrating to the rest of the world, including Washington, that he’s completely incapable of defending the interests of Georgian citizens. Naturally, this would only provide further confirmation that Saakashvili’s regime is against the Georgian people’s interests and Saakashvili himself is deficient in personal ethics.

The crackdown on Georgians seems to be an example of the Kremlin practising techniques and methods for using a new array of tools in Russia’s foreign policy arsenal. As well as the power to cut off oil and gas supplies, Moscow now has another way of putting pressure on unsatisfactory regimes in the CIS: by using their diasporas in Russia. It’s no secret that this form of leverage wasn’t invented in Moscow; Washington has often used it in the past, and continues to do so. America has taught the current Russian leadership how to operate in the international arena from a position of open cynicism, without indulging in melancholy reflections about morality and ethics, using nothing but the vague term “realism in politics” as a cover.

The fact that the crackdown has only targeted Georgians shows that the Kremlin has mastered another element from the arsenals of the US elite: the ability to openly use double or triple standards in its policies. This multi-standard approach in Putin’s foreign policy – described as “multilateral,” or even “flexible,” by some embarrassed Kremlin officials – actually does Vladimir Putin credit. Under his influence, the Kremlin’s managers are gradually coming to realize that any country aspiring to be a serious international player in the world today must take a sophisticated (morally uninhibited, so to speak) approach to foreign policy, in order to defend itself more effectively while also separating other countries or bringing them together. The more levels of standards foreign policy includes, the more successful it will be. For a long time, Moscow didn’t understand this. Now it’s Tbilisi that doesn’t understand it.

The irony is that Saakashvili has run up against exactly what the White House taught the Kremlin in the process of supporting Georgia: if anyone offends you, just beat them over the head with no hesitation or regrets – rather than “clacking your beak to no purpose,” to borrow the elegant expression used recently by Putin, who is said to have a personal dislike for Saakashvili. Russia has adopted a purely American style of behavior towards Georgia; meanwhile, the Russia-Georgia relationship has taken on an even closer resemblance to the decades-old relationship between the United States and small, impoverished Cuba, which continually accuses Washington of having aggressive intentions and uses any pretext to escalate tension and point the finger at its large northern neighbor’s imperial ambitions.

However, it’s not all that simple. Russia certainly had a good chance of not only emerging victorious from the current conflict with Georgia, but also reinforcing its image as a country that thinks and acts strategically and is capable of participating effectively in solving important international problems. Some experts in Washington even suspected Russia of provoking Georgia into this escalation, in order to get the chance to demonstrate its own wise and tolerant statesmanship. But then, as the world watched, Moscow got into a dither over trivialities and lost the game – regardless of the actual outcome of the conflict as such.

In order to operate like the Americans do, Russia either needs to be equally strong or to use a much smarter and more sophisticated approach. Gun control opponents in the US have a slogan: “Guns don’t kill people – people kill people.” The same applies to politics. The fact that Moscow wants to crack down on Georgians in Russia, and is capable of doing so, doesn’t mean that it necessarily should do so. Specific political methods are chosen by people, and these people presumably calculate the potential effects. Actually, that’s what they and their advisers are paid to do, with the money coming from tax-payers. And that accounts for the widespread notion that a government’s actions ought to benefit a country and its people. But in this case, our country has shown itself to be extremly inhospitable and the people have been taught another lesson in xenophobia and intolerance.

But Moscow’s political recklessness is only partly to blame. The primary cause concerns the fact that Saakashvili’s Dream Team has turned into the region’s Nightmare Team. The Georgian president continues to substantially – and groundlessly – exaggerate the political support he has in the United States.

Two years ago, that support was almost absolute. Back then, Georgia became the favorite country of ordinary Americans and President George W. Bush. These days, however, that affection persists only in the White House and the offices of a few senators, influential as they may be. Bush has only two years left, and he won’t have time for Georgia. The US political establishment is already showing signs of skepticism and disillusionment, or even irritation, with regard to the Saakashvili regime. America does indeed need Georgia – but only as a democratic, stable, predictable country. In the event of a serious conflict in Asia, Georgia could become an American airfield or hospital, a workshop for repairing military hardware, a recreation and redeployment base for the US Armed Forces, and so on. But will it?

The opinion in Washington is that the Georgian government’s major mistake isn’t really its intention to reclaim the breakaway provinces by means of armed force; rather, it’s Georgia’s demonstrative reluctance or inability to work out a civilized relationship with Russia. America won’t do that for Tbilisi. In the event of a military conflict with Moscow, not a single American soldier would ever be sent in to defend Georgia. NATO already has plenty of problems, including problems with Russia, even without the addition of Georgia, which is frantically trying to join NATO. As a result, Washington is increasingly coming to doubt whether Saakashvili can deliver the kind of Georgia that the United States needs. Consequently, unless the situation in Georgia changes, Washington will have to choose between withdrawing from Georgia, parting company with Saakashvili, or a full-scale quarrel with Russia. It’s no exaggeration to say that no one is seriously considering the last option.