Georgia and Russia
The mouse that roared
Oct 5th 2006 | MOSCOW
From The Economist print edition
Georgia nips its northern neighbour, and gets a clout in return
SPY scandals are usually gentlemanly affairs that end in discreet expulsions. But the latest Russian-Georgian row has erupted openly. It began when the Georgians arrested four Russian officers, accusing them of belonging to a military-intelligence unit and recruiting Georgians to a spy ring. President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, denounced “an act of state terrorism with hostage-taking” and later talked of “blackmail”. He even accused Georgia of emulating Beria, Stalin's secret-police chief (both Beria and Stalin were Georgian).
Russia has severed all air, sea and land links to Georgia, and is to end postal services and money transfers. Each act was presented as a bureaucratic response to Georgian misbehaviour—late payments, unsafe practices and so on—but the blockade, coming after Georgia released the captured “spies” and after bans on Georgian wine and mineral water for alleged impurities, is looking like economic war. Georgia may now block Russian entry into the World Trade Organisation.
The Georgians are miffed over Russia's broader meddling, notably its support for separatists in the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “The message of Georgia to our great neighbour Russia is: enough is enough,” said Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili. “We can't be treated as some second-rate backyard to some kind of re-emerging empire.”
For their part, the Russians suspect that the whole affair has been staged to raise Georgia's hopes of joining NATO. “They are clearly trying to pinch Russia where it hurts most, to provoke us,” said Mr Putin, who talked darkly of Georgia's “foreign sponsors”. The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, linked the arrests directly to NATO's agreement to start an “intensified dialogue” on Georgia's entry. And Sergei Ivanov, the defence minister and a possible successor to Mr Putin in 2008, accused unidentified NATO countries of illegally supplying weapons to Georgia.
Mr Saakashvili knows that his country can never join NATO, or claim full sovereignty, if it does not resolve the stand-offs with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this will be impossible so long as Russia backs the separatists. The temptation for him may be to provoke Russia even more, counting on Western support. Russia-baiting has made his party popular ahead of this weekend's local elections. But he needs to be cautious. A military assault on Abkhazia or South Ossetia would be ruinous, since Russia has issued passports to most people in the provinces and promises to protect “its” citizens. Moscow may also formally recognise the two regions' independence if Western governments give Kosovo independence from Serbia.
Besides, Mr Saakashvili has a plateful of domestic problems that can only get worse under the Russian embargo. Just last month Georgia claimed to have crushed a coup plot by a Russian-backed fugitive politician. More prosaic forms of pressure are available—such as last winter's mysterious explosions inside Russia that cut off gas and electricity supplies to Georgia. In a new cold war the Georgians could be in for a truly chilly winter.