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Thomas de Waal and The Caucasus

I am finally reading Thomas de Waal’s excellent The Caucasus. The entire book is a valuable overview and introduction in the recent history of the region. In connection with that, I should also recommend his article for The National Interest from last year in which he reviews–and demolishes–Ron Asmus’ Little War That Shook The World. Here is an excerpt from the article, which contains many of the same sharp insights as the book:

Back in Tbilisi, as the Georgian analyst Ivlian Khaindrava memorably puts it, Saakashvili had a “government by day” and a “government by night.” Washington and CNN studios saw the young, articulate, English-speaking reformers, but they did not see men like Vano Merabishvili, Saakashvili’s interior minister and chief enforcer, or Niko Rurua, an ex-paramilitary fighter who is now the minister of culture. It is men like these who sit with the president late at night in his office, making the big decisions. And it was they who supervised the crackdown against antigovernment demonstrators in November 2007, when riot police cleared the streets of Tbilisi and smashed up the studios of Imedi, then an opposition channel-an episode that barely figures in Asmus’s book. For men like Merabishvili and Rurua, it is more about control than about democracy. In November 2009, Transparency International reported that “Georgia’s media is less free and pluralistic than it was before the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze.”

These shadowy figures were also behind the massive buildup of the Georgian armed forces that preceded the 2008 war. Asmus honestly concedes that there were plans to launch a military operation in South Ossetia in 2004-a plan scotched in Washington-and for a “preemptive Georgian military move” on Abkhazia in the spring of 2008, as the Russians were increasing their military presence there. Presidents Bush and Saakashvili had a misunderstood conversation in which the latter apparently believed he had been given the go-ahead for military action. It took high-level diplomatic intervention to dispel the impression. U.S. officials delivered repeated messages in private that they would not support a military campaign, but they never said so strongly in public. Here, it seems, was the flashing amber light that made Saakashvili think that if he did launch a quick military strike, he would be allowed to get away with it.

As I am going through the book, I will probably be posting on some of the more interesting parts I come across.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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