As an additional preamble, when I say that the West has no more credibility than Russia on this conflict, it does not mean that Russia has any credibility, or that I love Putin, it means that the West has no credibility whatsoever; when I mock the West's claims about human rights and democracy, it does not mean that I think Russia is a defender of human rights and democracy, just that we have no credibility either on the topic.
All of that stated, here are a few facts worth noting about Georgia and the current behavior of its president, Russia, and decision makers in Washington:
- First, let's be clear: there are two reasons only we care about Georgia: the oil pipelines that go through its territory, and the opportunity it provides to run aggressive policies towards Russia.
- Second, let's also be very explicit: this conflict is not unexpected: it is a direct consequence of our policies, in particular with respect to Kosovo (and to all those that will claim that "no one could have predicted" this, let me point out to this comment, or this earlier one, or this article). I would even go so far as to say that it was egged on by some in Washington: the neocons.
- Third, our claims to have the moral high ground are totally ridiculous and need to be fought, hard. This is not about democracy vs dictature, brave freedom lovers vs evil oppressors, but a nasty brawl by power-hungry figures on both sides, with large slices of corruption. The fact that this is turned into a cold-war-like conflict between good and evil is a domestic political play by some in Washington to reinforce their power and push certain policies that have little to do with Russia or Georgia. That needs to be understood.
OK, first, the oil angle.
Georgia does not have oil, but it is a transit country. This is valuable because it provides the only outlet for Caspian oil and natural gas which is not going either through Russia or through Iran. (See the maps and the wider context in that diary) And after a 15-year tug-of-war, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was inaugurated two years ago: it takes roughly 1 million barrels per day from the Azeri oil fields run by BP to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, via Georgia. That's over 1% of world production, and it is fully controlled by Western oil majors. There is also a smaller gas pipeline that follows the same route and brings smaller volumes of gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey.
These pipelines have been at the heart of the relationship between Georgia and the USA over the past 15 years, but, oddly enough, they have played a very small role in the current crisis. In fact, the BTC pipeline has been cut off for the past few days, not because of events in Georgia (which are in the north of the country, whereas the pipelines go through the south), but because of a bomb attack in Turkey before the conflict started, with claims by the PKK, the Kurdish movement.
The reason the current conflict is not about the oil is because, now that the pipeline is built, that game is, in effect, over. Now, the only thing that could stop the flow of oil is, other than localised attacks (like the one conducted by the Kurds, something that has long been expected, and which was mitigated by building the pipeline on a route that avoids kurdish territory) would be for Russia to actually invade all of Georgia and physically take control of the pipeline, ie an outright act of war not just against Georgia, but also against the US.
The reason for that is that, as part of the process to put in place the pipeline, Georgia invited the US military to set up a base on its territory, near the route of the pipeline. Thus, any attack on the pipeline by Russia would become an attack on the USA.
But the important thing to note is that this base was not set up by the current Georgian government, but by its predecessor, that of Shevarnadze, Georgia's previous president (and, if you remember, Gorbatchev's - and the Soviet Union's - minister for foreign relations in the 80s), which was kicked out of power by Saakashvili's bunch in the rose revolution a couple of years ago - more on this below. That base was seen as a defensive gambit, and was relatively small. Indeed, with Georgia still hosting Russian military bases (see the map I posted here), anything bigger would be ... interesting. Which is what's happening today.
But before we go into the internal politics of Georgia, the thing to note at this point is that it is oil that brought the West to care about Georgia, but that this was a settled situation, and no longer a source of conflict in itself.
the color revolution and "democracy"
What changed in the past few years was the series of "color revolutions" in former Soviet republics, started in Ukraine (the orange revolution) and continued in Georgia (the rose one). These have often been profoundly misunderstood, and have been turned into a simplistic "brave democrats fighting to choke off the grip by the evil Putin on their country" narrative, which, oh so conveniently supplemented an extremely aggressive policy by Washington against Moscow.
No longer was Putin an ally or someone that could be worked with, he was evil incarnate. Whether this has anything to do with the fact that he prevented Yukos from merging with a US oil major, or blocked the construction of an oil pipeline and export terminal project to Murmansk that would not have been controlled by the State-owned pipeline monopoly, we'll never know. But the fact remains that the steady policies of encirclement of Russia by bringing former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO, and then former Soviet Republics, and setting up massive military bases there continued and accelerated, despite earlier promises to Russia not to do that. And the rhetoric about Russia's "energy weapon" suddenly turned strident in 2006 as the UK, the neocons's faithful lapdog, suddenly realised it no longer had enough gas and had to find someone to blame for that state of fact rather than its insane 'let the markets provide' policies.
Now, let's be clear about something: Putin's Russia is not quite a democracy. But then it wasn't either in 1999-2004, a time when the discourse about Russia's turn to authoritarianism was rather muted (could it be linked to the fact that its oil sector was, then, almost fully open to foreign investment?). And in the meantime, our own track-record on that topic was rather going in the wrong direction, as painstakingly chronicled on the blogs and elsewhere). Thus my point in pointing out the hypocrisy in the public discourses about Russia is NOT to claim Russia as a model, but to suggest that this public discourse on democracy is hiding something else. And people that accuse me of being too pro-Russian seem to, precisely, miss that point.
The rose revolution that brought Saakashvili to power in 2003 was certainly welcome (the previous regime was terribly corrupt), but it soon had its own problems, and in the most recent elections, turned to pretty anti-democratic means to avoid losing. Feeding nationalistic flames was the time-tested way to try to build up support, and various crises with Russia and Russia surrogates helped the regime maintain its grip on power in increasingly unpleasant ways.
That did not prevent the current occupants of the White House to laud Saakashvili as a great democrat, and to support him against the supposed plots of its neighbors and breakaway republics. The fact that he has been given a quasi-permanent editorial role in the Op-Ed pages of the WSJ (alongside another useful anti-Russian idiot, Gary Kasparov) to blather about how Europe was cowardly betraying democracy and human rights by not standing up to Russia in giving Georgia NATO membership should be a clue. The man is a tool of the warmongering neocons, and a man bent on clinging to his power, at whatever the cost.
Russia has explicitly stated that bringing countries like Ukraine and Georgia, long parts of its empire, into NATO, would be seen as an aggressive act. Is that such an irrational position to take? (I mean, look at US policy towards Cuba...) And yet the US is pushing hard to do that, despite these explicit warnings. Who is being provocative and clamoring for conflict - those that bring military forces to the borders of Russia, or those that say they consider this threatening and will react unpleasantly if it goes on?
Kosove and territorial integrity
This is all the more galling that this is happening in a context where the double standars in the West's policies have never been more staggering.
We talk about the territorial integrity of Georgia after blatantly ignoring it in the case of Serbia, by pushing Kosovo towards independence (again, as I noted above, that this would have immediate, obvious consequences in Georgia was noted long ago by observers not blinded by Washington's rhetoric).
We talk about diplomacy and international law after destroying both in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We talk about human rights and democracy after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, millions are refugees, and after an administration made torture its official policy.
(If you think this is about anti-Americanism, let me note again that I consider that Europe is fully complicit: we authorised or encouraged renditions on our territory, we never protested US policies and generally supported the War in Terror in practice if not in theory. Our leaders are generally happy to participate to the "cover" of these policies by supporting the grand claims about peace, human rights and the like, as if they had any more credibility ourselves, and they love to be seen in Washington or alongside the US on the international scene. Sarkozy and Berlusconi seem bent on being even bigger warmongerers, at their small scale, than Bush)
It does not matter what Russia is doing. We have zero credibility to talk about democracy, human rights, territorial integrity, peace, diplomacy and the like because we have thoroughly trashed these concepts in the past few years.
So, the question as to what our real intentions are when we hide behind these grand words HAS to be asked. The same question has to be asked of Russia, or any other player, but that's precisely my point: we see Russia as brutally playing power games: we have to see our side as doing the same.
We're just as power-hungry and ruthless as the Russians - and probably a bit more reckless and hubristic, lately. saying so does not make me a Russian apologist, just a worried bystander.