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In the small South Caucusus nation of Georgia, the pace of change over the last few weeks has been enough to take your breath away. Just last month thousands of students were celebrating in the streets of Tbilisi, singing praises of the “bloodless revolution” that unseated Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze. In a seeming about-face, yesterday the autonomous Georgian province of Adzharia announced that it would be boycotting participation in the Jan. 4 presidential election. This latest development has dealt a painful blow to the opposition movement, which had been gaining momentum the country, and has only underscored the level of factionalism and disorder that plagues this nation.
It would be easy to dismiss this small, weak country in a region that is easily forgotten in the context of our more pressing crises. But Georgia’s troubles are significant for two reasons that have been at the top of lawmakers’ agendas for a while: energy dependence and terrorism. If the United States is serious about reducing its dependence on Middle East oil, its best prospect is this unassuming Caspian nation, which could hold the key for our future in oil and natural gas. But more importantly, if Georgia continues on its current track of escalating infighting and rebellion, it will surely become a haven for terrorist groups, attracted by the weak law enforcement and rich resources—a situation no one in the world can afford.
While the United States is engrossed in other foreign policy commitments—from floundering negotiations with North Korea to the perilous occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan—it should not overlook the fact that the Caspian region is gripped by a bloodless coup that stands to push the region off the precipice into political meltdown. The potential for chaos reigning in Georgia must be stemmed and the first step is to prevent Russia’s lust for Georgia’s pipeline from throwing the country in further disarray.
Over the past several decades, the Russian government has made dangerous incursions into Georgian affairs in an effort to keep the central government weak so that it can exert its own leverage, both economically and militarily. Moscow has effectively prevented fomer president Shevardnadze from unifying the country by granting Russian citizenship to entire Georgian states on their shared border; and has been known to cut off the nation’s gas supplies in the middle of winter for political reasons when Shevardnadze did not cooperate. And if the economic pressure didn’t get the message across, two Russian “peacekeeping” battalions deployed in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions on the Georgian side of the border served as a 723-kilometer reminder of the Kremlin’s presence.
But the region is crucial not only for its resources, but also because political turmoil there could prove a much graver threat than rising energy prices. With an unhinged Georgia, the Caspian region could become an area of highly centralized terrorist activity. Indeed, the Russian government has already connected political insurgents in Chechnya to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. The fear in some circles is that a crisis in the Caspian states would make Georgia and its neighbor Chechnya very attractive homes for terrorist organizations looking for limited government interference, just as al Qaeda did with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Georgia seems like a particularly vulnerable country in this respect. As highlighted by the announcement yesterday in Adzaharia, Georgia is more of a disconnected confederation of states than a country. Like Afghanistan, many of the leaders in regional provinces have far more authority than the government in Tbilisi and view the central authority with varying degrees of skepticism. In order to prevent terrorist activities from formenting in Georgia, the leading candidate for president, Mikhail Saakashvili, if elected should concentrate his efforts on shoring up the Tbilisi control and reducing the influence of regional leaders.
Georgia’s future depends on whether Russia can resist the urge to play a role in Saakashvili’s efforts to transform the country. Saakashvili, who is likely to win the election in January, is an American-trained lawyer, but he is inexperienced and he may be susceptible to Russian efforts to instill a malleable atmosphere in Tbilisi. Given the economic incentive for Russia to exploit the region’s resources, and the security concerns in neighboring Chechnya, it seems unlikely that Russia will see Saakashvili’s ascent as any significant reason to change their oppressive policy toward the region. This makes it even more important for the United States to exercise leadership quickly, before Russia can browbeat another hopeful Georgian leader into submission.
In a region that has long known only conflict and pain, any transformation is difficult, but now is the best time to act. The United States must ensure Georgia can achieve stability and become more than the sum of its (fractious) parts.
David M. Kaden ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.
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