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Little Country Caught In Big-Stakes Game

  • Brian Whitmore

Thousands of Georgians have been displaced, or worse, by the fighting, including these displaced persons at a camp in central Georgia on September 13.

TBILISI -- It's not surprising, given the uncertainty in their country and its breakaway regions, that many Georgians are reaching for historical analogies. Some mention Cyprus, some Israel and Palestine, and others North and South Korea.

Nika Rurua, the deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, draws yet another comparison.

"Unfortunately, we are in the same situation that East and West Berlin were in the middle of the last century," he says. "People are artificially divided."

A month after Georgia and Russia clashed over the separatist territory of South Ossetia, Tbilisi seems less likely than ever to restore its territorial integrity. If the past 15 years saw little progress on reintegrating South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the past month has been a distinct step backward.

Ethnic Georgians have fled from villages in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia, meanwhile, has recognized the independence bids of both territories, and is announcing plans to more than double its peacetime troop presence there to some 7,600 personnel.

"The advantage of this situation, if you could call it so, is that everybody really understood what the real role and the aims of Russia were and are toward Georgia," Rurua says. "It's not a Georgia-Abkhaz or Georgia-Ossetia conflict. It's now a Georgian-Russian conflict where Russia is after Georgian sovereignty, Georgian statehood, and Georgian territorial integrity. So now, who the real aggressor is has been revealed."

'A New Master Will Emerge'

Now, with NATO officials arriving in Tbilisi for a historic, first-time meeting here of the North Atlantic Council, the scope of the conflict appears to have expanded even further -- pitting Russia against the West, and pinning Georgia uncomfortably in between.

For many Georgians, the fate of their own country's fledgling democracy is worrying enough. But Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Georgian Institute for Strategic and International Studies, says Russia, in seeking to contain Georgia, is playing a much bigger game.

Moscow, he says, is ultimately looking to solidify the Kremlin's dominance over gas and oil routes, and prevent other former republics, like Ukraine and Azerbaijan, from aligning with the West.

"If Russia succeeds, what does it mean? It's a real geopolitical revolution," Gegeshidze says. "What we are witnessing now -- if Russia is really succeeds -- is that a new master will emerge in world politics, no matter how poor Russia is in comparison to the United States or Europe."

Gegeshidze describes Georgia as a "valve" that Moscow hopes to seal shut in order to stem the exchange of energy and political ideas with the West. Georgian authorities, in fact, prefer to think of their country not as a pawn but as a regional linchpin with the power to break Moscow's tightening embrace.

Tbilisi's current predicament is, in some ways, a matter of timing. Georgia's pro-Western leanings, which began in the late 1990s and gained speed under President Mikheil Saakashvili after the 2003 Rose Revolution, coincided with Russia's recovery from its profound post-Soviet funk and consequent desire to reassert itself on the world stage.

Giga Bokeria, Georgia's deputy foreign minister, says Moscow is intent on restoring its former empire.

"This is an attempt to have a modernized Soviet Union, in control of all the territories the Soviet Union used to control within its own borders -- and then further, playing the same superpower role throughout the world," he says.

A Pawn, Or A Player?

Georgia, which appeared disappointed by the West's unwillingness to provide military support during its war with Russia, is now looking for a concrete sign of support from NATO -- preferably a green light to advance Georgia's membership bid with a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

Georgia has long sought NATO membership, an aim that is hotly resented by Moscow and which likely contributed in no small part to last month's conflict.

Authorities in Tbilisi express confidence that Russia's actions of the past month will convince NATO holdouts like Germany, France, and Italy of the need to bring Georgia into the alliance as quickly as possible. But some observers say the conflict could have the opposite effect.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is currently a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, says neither side behaved admirably in the conflict. Russia may have been prepared to strike, but it was Saakashvili who triggered the fighting with what Pifer calls his "ill-advised" move into South Ossetia.

Georgian officials say they entered only after intelligence reports indicated Russia had begun moving troops into the territory. But the lack of clarity, and what appears to be an impetuous move by Saakashvili, may give NATO leaders pause, says Pifer.

"Those who were reluctant to go forward on the Membership Action Plan are probably going to say: How exactly did this crisis start? They will want to understand what was the Georgian decision making process that led to the decision to send forces into South Ossetia," he says.

NATO officials are highly unlikely to give any sign as to the fate of Georgia's MAP, which is due to be formally considered -- together with Ukraine's -- during a foreign ministers meeting in December.

They are, however, offering support in the form of an inaugural meeting of the NATO-Georgia Commission, formed in the wake of the war. The alliance has also promised to assist Georgia in rebuilding its military, although it has stopped short of offering actual hardware -- a sore point with Moscow.

For many Georgians, the NATO visit may fall short of expectations. Sophia, a 28-year-old student, seems resigned to her notion of Georgia as a pawn in a far larger game.

"We ended up as victims," she says. "This could have been any other small state. When big states engage in power redistribution, a small state always falls victim to this. And this time, it was us."
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.