The saviour of Georgia? by Neal Ascherson

Caught in a diplomatic trap, the country's best hope of escape could be a young opposition leader.

Neal Ascherson - The Guardian
, Monday 28 September 2009

'The Russians like what they see in Georgia at the moment." Irakli Alasania, the young Georgian whom many in the west would like to see replacing Mikheil Saakashvili as president, was in London this month, commenting bitterly on his country's diplomatic impotence.

Alasania, at 34, is already an experienced politician with global contacts, especially in the United States, where the Obama administration is showing signs of impatience with Saakashvili's obstinacy. More than a year after the disastrous war with Russia over South Ossetia, Georgia is still insisting on its "territorial integrity", and yet the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been a reality for 16 years now.

In the wake of the war, Russia formally recognised the independence of both territories. But the outgoing Bush administration, Nato and the European Union all passionately endorsed the Georgian position. Western media still refer to "breakaway Georgian regions". An open letter in last week's Guardian, signed by the Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel and several other veterans of the 1989 revolutions, urged the world to defend Georgia's "territorial integrity". The same week, the latest round of Geneva talks on "security in the South Caucasus" broke up without results – a proposed "no use of force" agreement stalled by Georgian reluctance.

But elsewhere the Abkhazian situation has suddenly begun to move. Last week, Venezuela joined Nicaragua and Russia in recognising Abkhazia, a small, fertile strip along the Black Sea coast. Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia does not want to become a Russian protectorate, although it is becoming steadily more dependent on Russian military and economic backing.

Last month the Georgian-Abkhazian standoff went naval. A Georgian patrol boat seized a Turkish ship heading for Abkhazia with a cargo of petrol and diesel, and its captain was given a 24-year jail sentence for "smuggling". It was a risky act. Since the August war, the Abkhazian coast has been guarded by Russian missile cruisers from the Black Sea fleet. A few days ago, the Russians sent a patrol boat with the mission to arrest any Georgian ships entering Abkhazian waters. The Black Sea is heating up. Turkish diplomats flew to Georgia and secured the release of their captain. But then, against Georgian advice, one of them went on to hold talks in Sukhum, the Abkhazian capital. It looks as if a new Turkish policy for the region may be emerging.

Turkey has a large Abkhazian minority anxious to break their motherland's isolation. Can the Georgians be persuaded to allow regular contact between Turkey and Abkhazia – for instance, a ferry service between Sukhum and the port of Trabzon? This could lead to a joint strategy between Georgia, Turkey and Abkhazia, aiming to reduce Abkhazia's dependence on Russia. That, in turn, could open the way to a Georgian-Abkhazian rapprochement, shelving the "territorial integrity" problem.

Irakli Alasania is about the only Georgian politician whom the Abkhazian leaders respect. His father was killed – some say murdered – in the 1993-94  [1992-93 Ed. by AW] war as Abkhazia defeated Georgia. And yet when he was in charge of negotiations with them, he was able to reach at least an outline agreement. But President Saakshvili rejected it, and Alasania was "exiled" as ambassador to the UN. On the eve of the war in 2008, he made a flying visit to Sukhum in a vain effort to secure a new understanding. After the war he broke with Saakashvili, and now leads the opposition Our Georgia-Free Democrats party.

In London, Alasania was wary. He still describes the August war as "Russian aggression", though with "mistakes on the Georgian side". But he remains convinced that peaceful association with Abkhazia is possible, and thinks the Abkhaz wish for stability and a secure ethnic identity is sincere.

Meanwhile, Georgia is in a trap. By clinging to the unreal claim that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are provinces under foreign occupation, Georgia has lost its freedom of manoeuvre. Russia is given a permanent excuse to "intervene to preserve peace", and to tighten its grip on Abkhazia. The threat of fresh conflict means that Georgia's Nato membership is indefinitely postponed, and that President Saakashvili's government remains dependent on western, mainly American, support.

Maybe Georgian helplessness suits the big powers. It certainly suits Russia. That's what Irakli Alasania means by the Russians liking what they see. But if he can convert enough voters to a radical new policy, he might be the man to free Georgia from its trap.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist, and author of Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism.

Source: The Guardian




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