Martin Sieff is Chief Global Analyst for The Globalist. He is former chief foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and former managing editor, international affairs for United Press International. He is the author of Shifting Superpowers and the upcoming Cycles of Change: The Patterns of U.S. Politics from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama. He is a Fellow of the American University in Moscow
A democratic election has been held in a former Soviet republic. The government party lost it. It was a party that was widely regarded as incompetent, brutal, repressive and corrupt. It never recovered from a torture scandal in its own prisons that was exposed by a non-government television channel funded by the leader of the opposition. Surely the United States eagerly applauded this second Rose Revolution, this "Caucasus Spring" and this proof of democratic vitality and freedom of speech and media in mountainous little Georgia, with a population of only 5 million people?
You might think that, but you would be wrong.
President George W. Bush and his neocon foreign policy hawks bet big on supporting Georgia's fiercely anti-Russian President Mikheil Saakashvili after he won power in 2004. In 2008, they even pushed hard to try and get Georgia accepted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The whole world can breathe a sigh of relief the Bushies did not succeed, for in August 2008 the appalling relations between Saakashvili and Russia boiled over into war and the Russian army occupied one third of the country in only 48 hours. Had Georgia already been a NATO ally, the United States would have faced the choice between stumbling into a full-scale war with Russia that could have gone thermonuclear or writing the entire credibility of the venerable NATO/Atlantic Alliance off after nearly six decades of successful deterrence.
Yet even after Bush left office, President Barack Obama maintained the potentially combustible high-level U.S. military presence in Georgia, a country that had been part of the Czarist Russia Empire and then the Soviet Union for nearly 190 years before it became independent of the disintegration of the Soviet system at the end of 1991 -- a longer period of time than most of the individual states of the United States have been part of the Union.
Suppose the U.S. state of Georgia declared independence and then received large amounts of Russian military equipment, advisors and support -- and suppose Russia lobbied to get the U.S. state of Georgia accepted as a charter member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the nearest thing the post-Soviet space has to its own version of a collective security military alliance. What would the reaction of the U.S. government and of the rest of the American people be? They would certainly not be amused and they would not welcome the Soviet intervention – to put it mildly.
Saakashvili, still aged only 44, is an exceptionally volatile leader and makes no secret that he never intends to be bound by the traditional rules of democratic fair play in the current election campaign. He had the main opposition leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili forcibly stripped of his Georgian citizenship. Then Saakashvili turned up the government pressure to try and ruin a bank Ivanishvili owned and got the challenger fined $45 million under a new campaign finance law that was custom-design targeted at him. But none of it worked: The Georgian people voted Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition into parliamentary power anyway.
Now Ivanishvili has become prime minister, but Saakashvili also stays in the saddle as president. His track record over the past eight years makes clear that he will not share power gracefully or willingly.
However, if Saakashvili acts too blatantly in trying to topple or sabotage Ivanishvili’s new government, he could trigger another Russian intervention. The Russian armed forces made no secret of holding military maneuvers in the two tiny enclave rebel republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that they have supported in defiance of the central Georgian government over the past 20 years.
Even David Ignatius of the Washington Post, as cautious a pillar of the U.S. journalistic establishment and its complacent Conventional Wisdoms one could conjure up, admitted in a recent column before the election as held, "The Rose Revolution made Saakashvili a role model for democratic challenges to autocratic rulers in Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere. But in this year’s murky campaign, Saakashvili’s regime risks becoming a symbol of what he once so eloquently opposed: the resistance of an entrenched elite to political change."
In fact, Ignatius wildly understates Saakashvili's volatility and the dangers of his resentment against Ivanishvili and the new government.
Saakashvili has been somewhat restrained over the past four years: The combination of the Russian lightning-quick, but only temporary occupation of a massive chunk of his country followed by the election of Barack Obama in the U.S. somewhat sobered him: But not that much.
Ivanishvili’s victory, like the rise to power after free elections of the Moslem Brotherhood, or Ikhwan in Egypt, confirms the enormous gaping flaw in the relentless neocon and neolib calls to force their own style of democracy down the throat of every government in the world US can lay their hands on: They assume that every popularly elected government is bound to love the United States and be grateful for imposing these wonderful blessings on them. The idea that people on different countries around the world might rationally decide to vote in parties and leaders that are not in Washington’s pocket continues to elude them.
The neocons and neolibs, of course, have a simple answer to this problem. Any party that wins power against their chosen champions must automatically and by definition be anti-democratic and therefore deserves to be toppled.
If Matt Romney wins the U.S. presidential election next month, we see this proposition applied yet again. For Romney has casually surrounded himself with such incendiary hawks as John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz as senior advisors in his campaign. It is all too likely that, if Romney wins the presidency, they will waste no time in giving a nod and a wink to Saakashvili to run riot in his efforts to topple the new Ivanishvili government, confident that Washington will then support him. But if that happens, will the Russians stand back, or invade Georgia again? And if that happens, what will the U.S. government do?
World War I convulsed the planet and devastated Europe - Yet it was all set off a young fanatic's barrage of shots from a single pistol in Sarajevo. Imperial Germany's "blank check" to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire set off an avalanche of consequences that destroyed both empires, and European civilization with them.
American pundits and political leaders today seem totally ignorant of that terrible tale -- and what it led to. Georgia today is like Serbia then -- an obscure little potential flashpoint that almost no one pays any attention to -- until it's too late.
In September 1938, British Prime Minister infamously and contemptuously dismissed the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” In fact, he was totally wrong about Czechoslovakia, whose military power was crucial to the survival of France, and therefore of Britain too. But his words apply with far more force to Georgia today.
If Saakashvili is allowed to suppress the genuinely democratic will of his own electorate this time, and if Washington politicians and pundits turn a blind eye to it, the consequences could be infinitely worse than they dream.