As far as Western observers are concerned, keeping alive attachments to lost territories in post-communist and developing countries is normally considered a hindrance to modernization, reform and integration into the international order. In most cases, if a nation’s politics is dominated by antagonism with neighbors and nationalist desires for reunification with lost territories, Western observers tend to regard it as politically regressive, stunted, atavistic and stuck in the past. None of this applies in the case of Georgia, where the majority’s preoccupation with territorial “reintegration” is treated as a perfectly reasonable and appropriate priority deserving of no further comment. Kirchick can be given some credit for at least acknowledging the deficiencies in the recent municipal elections that others have simply ignored. For my part, I don’t really begrudge the Georgians their desire to make Abkhazia and South Ossetia part of Georgia again. Ultimately, it is their business, and they can pursue that (futile) direction if they wish, but I continue to marvel at how this sort of throwback nationalism never gives Georgia’s Western boosters pause when it would prompt a collective panic if it happened in, say, Serbia, Austria or Greece.
More worrisome is the paranoia that grips Georgian politics:
Yet Georgian leaders persist in warning of the Kyrgyz scenario. After deadly ethnic riots rocked southern Kyrgyzstan last month, one Georgian minister claimed that Russia has been behind the “ethnic cleansing” of Uzbeks. Indeed, Georgians see a Russian hand in everything that goes wrong in the region; about half of Georgians believe that the Kremlin was responsible for the April plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski.
Kirchick’s discussion of the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan is woefully inadequate in an article that spends so much time comparing Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The Washington Post reported almost two weeks ago that pro-Bakiyev forces were responsible for initiating the unrest in Osh, and the anti-Uzbek rioting that followed was a violent response to Uzbek support for the interim government and the opposition protests that had ousted Bakiyev. In other words, for their own reasons Russia aided in toppling an authoritarian ruler whose supporters inside Kyrgyzstan have since resorted to the mass expulsion of an ethnic minority, and yet somehow a Western audience is supposed to look at this and conclude that Russia has wronged Kyrgyzstan? As the article explains:
But the back and forth on May 13-14 was a turning point. Because many in the crowd that prevailed were minority Uzbeks, the struggle for political control of the region began to be seen as a battle for ethnic survival, especially among the Kyrgyz majority here. That perception grew in the following weeks, fanned by local politicians as the national authorities in the north struggled to respond.
According to the reflexively anti-Russian view being entertained inside the Georgian government, Russia is somehow responsible both for toppling Bakiyev and for facilitating the expulsion of an ethnic group that supported the opposition Russia wanted to bring to power at Bakiyev’s expense. This is a virtue of conspiracy theorizing: it can contain blatant contradictions so long as the main theme of the conspiracy theory (in this case the absolute perfidy of Russia) remains intact. What I find strange is that members of the Georgian government and the government’s Western sympathizers actually want to promote the idea that the governments of Saakashvili and Bakiyev have anything in common.
This is one of the many problems with the “color” revolution story: it tries to treat three significantly different countries as comparable because they have all undergone what Westerners decided was a similar process because all of them were perceived as anti-Russian and therefore “pro-Western.” Of the three “color” revolutions since 2003 in the former USSR, the one led by Saakashvili probably had the most genuine, broad popular support. It certainly had significant Western sympathy and some outside support, but it was probably the least artificial of the three. Unlike Yushchenko, not even Saakashvili’s disastrous blunders have resulted in the collapse of political support for him and his agenda, and unlike Bakiyev’s coup the “Rose Revolution” could lay some real claim to representing democratic legitimacy. For both good and ill, what Saakashvili has done has broad popular backing.
The “color” governments have all been disasters for their countries in different ways, but at least in Georgia Saakashvili and his ministers have been much more in line with the wishes of the Georgian public than their counterparts in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Unlike the significant regional and ethnic differences that shape the politics of the other two, Georgia is sufficiently compact and relatively ethnically homogenous that the divisions that have paralyzed and wrecked Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in recent years are not as great. There is little chance of a “Kyrgyz scenario” in Georgia, and promoting the idea that Russia can and will topple Georgia’s government simply encourages conspiracy theorizing and paranoia in Tbilisi.
As for the claim that “few in the West predicted the August 2008 war either,” this is true up to a point, but it is also badly misleading. It wasn’t predicted because no one, not even Saakashvili’s Western critics, could have imagined he was so foolish as to escalate a war with Russia. There were certainly some of us who saw what the recognition of Kosovo and the promises made to Georgia in Bucharest could mean for Georgia. Some of us saw quite clearly that there would be increasing tensions and conflict over the separatist republics after Kosovo’s independence and the promise of future NATO membership. More were able to acknowledge the close connection between these things and the August 2008 war. It is possible that the Kremlin could be so reckless as to try to overthrow Saakashvili by force, but that would be so much more trouble for Russia than it was worth that it is hard to see why the Kremlin would attempt it. Fanning suspicions that this is probable or even likely may be eye-catching, but it isn’t very responsible or correct.