Monday, 11 August 2008

Trouble in the Caucasus

My one and only visit to Tbilisi was in summer 1990, a year before Georgia achieved its internationally recognised independence. I spent the best part of a week there. The terrible news of bloodshed and aggression this last weekend brought back memories of that strange summer visit.

The city had the feel of a fading Soviet entity with near-empty shops, but one full of proud people conscious of Georgia's remarkable - and little appreciated - history. There were lively demonstrations in the streets (people had died in some) with a heady mix of foreboding and freedom in the air; the people displayed a remarkable friendliness which combined with a fierce sense of nationalism and sheer loathing for the Soviets, tempered little by the fact that Stalin, whose visage could still be seen on a few Tbilisi buildings was born in Gori, the centre of so much of today's fighting.

But Tbilisi was then an oasis of calm compared with our next stop of Yerevan, the Armenian capital that was then a melancholy place with a war over the disputed Karabakh region in full swing with Azerbaijan and the memory of a devastating earthquake combining with the people's deep sense of injustice best seen in the city's holocaust museum (in memory of the victims of the Turkish genocide early in the 20th century). With a nightime curfew, only two tourist groups had visited the city that summer. The Caucasus are no strangers to trouble.

There is no doubt that President Saakashvili acted foolishly in seeking to reclaim South Ossetia, which is part of Georgia's sovereign territory, by force, even if such action came after weeks of provocation little reported outside the region. But equally there can be no doubt that the Russians are now acting as both aggressor and bully in their wholly disproportionate over-reaction. They simply have not come to terms with the fact that the Soviet Union is no more, and a host of fiercely independent nations, often with Russian minorities, has grown up bordering Russia. David Clark is right to argue in today's Guardian that the West should stiffen its resolve against Russian bullying; the G8 certainly seems a good place to start, with pressure to find a solution that builds on the Georgian offer of quasi-independence for the disputed regions (including Abkhazia).

UPDATE: Georgia's President Saakashvili makes a persuasive case in today's Wall Street Journal, with a useful reminder of past Georgian restraint and a catalogue of provocation by a Russia that is supposed to have been an 'honest broker' in the region.

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