Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remember Gorbachev? He Weighs in on Georgia

Today the New York Times has an op-ed piece on the crisis in South Ossetia, from none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of state of the USSR.

"Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction."

A controversial statement, to be sure, yet Gorbachev is still scheduled to receive the 2008 Liberty Medal next month. Said the president of the National Constitution Center: "Awarding the Liberty Medal should not be construed as an endorsement by the center of President Gorbachev's views on the Russia-Georgia conflict."

The former Soviet leader continues:

"It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.

"If this military misadventure was a surprise for the Georgian leader’s foreign patrons, so much the worse. It looks like a classic wag-the-dog story.

"Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.

"Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.

"The problems of the Caucasus region cannot be solved by force. That has been tried more than once in the past two decades, and it has always boomeranged.

"What is needed is a legally binding agreement not to use force. Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly refused to sign such an agreement, for reasons that have now become abundantly clear.

"The West would be wise to help achieve such an agreement now. If, instead, it chooses to blame Russia and re-arm Georgia, as American officials are suggesting, a new crisis will be inevitable. In that case, expect the worst."

Read Gorbachev's full essay here.

And this morning we have news of a deal to build a U-S missile defense base on Polish soil, which of course is angering Russia. It's hard to see the timing as anything other than deliberate.

Among the voices denouncing Moscow's occupation is a Georgian who once had a prominent seat in the Kremlin. In the 1980s, Eduard Shevardnadze served as the foreign minister for the Soviet Union. His comments aired on NPR's Morning Edition today.

"For 200 years, we were a Russian colony," he said. "When one gets accustomed to controlling another country, it can be difficult to see that country become independent. Eventually, some people reappear who want to re-create the old order."

Several years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze became president of an independent Georgia. But in 2003, he was overthrown by opposition protests led by Georgia's current president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Shevardnadze said Saakashvili was unwise to try to reclaim the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force earlier this month.

But the 80-year-old former Soviet diplomat also had some advice for the current residents of the Kremlin, who have made no secret of their desire to see Saakashvili overthrown.

The more Russia squeezes Saakashvili, Shevardnadze said, the more his authority will grow. That, he added, is the nature of Georgians.

Here's the full story on NPR.)

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman points fingers all over the place:

"If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams."

Read the column here.