Economist: Georgia’s prospects

Oct 20 2006

Georgia’s prospects
Oct 19th 2006

Russia’s mixture of economic, political and covert-action pressure
on Georgia recalls of another stormy and scary period, in the Baltic
states in the 1990s, that changed history completely

WHEN your correspondent lived in the Baltics in the early 1990s, it
was common to pooh-pooh the prospect of NATO membership. The obstacles
seemed insurmountable: Soviet occupation soldiers who wouldn’t go
home; disputed borders with Russia; the expense; the gulf between NATO
standards and those of the flimsy and ill-run Baltic home guards-and
most of all the deafening lack of enthusiasm from the West.

But just as Russia’s economic sanctions shunted Baltic foreign
trade westwards, its insistence that letting the Balts join NATO
was "impermissible" (a favourite Kremlin word) was the strongest
proof that membership of the alliance was not just desirable, but
necessary. Russia neatly backed that up with footdragging on the
withdrawal of the Russian military, refusal to recognise the Baltic
states’ legal continuity from the pre-war period and endless huffing
and puffing about the language and citizenship laws. It all made local
support for NATO soar: when you scare people, they buy more insurance.

After a bit, the West came round, too. The Baltic states are still
effectively indefensible; two of them (Estonia and Latvia) still lack
border treaties with Russia. Yet, rather like the even less defensible
West Berlin during the cold war, they have gained a symbolic importance
that means they cannot be abandoned. (Or so they hope).

As an illustration, just imagine how different history would have
been if the Kremlin line in the 1990s had been: "Sure, go ahead and
join NATO if you want. We wouldn’t dream of interfering and we want
excellent relations with NATO ourselves anyway. Of course we will
pull our troops out as soon as we can…and we will be delighted
to sign border agreements as soon as possible, recognising your
historical continuity."

That message would have destroyed the case for NATO expansion
overnight. It is unlikely that any of the ex-communist countries
would have wanted to join or that NATO would have wanted to have them.

Now Russia is making the same mistake with Georgia. NATO’s appetite for
expanding to the eastern shores of the Black Sea is mostly minimal. The
alliance is dreadfully overstretched anyway and the last thing it
needs militarily is another small poor country which needs a lot and
(pipelines apart) offers little.

But Russia’s determination to see Georgia as part of a ‘near abroad’
over which it wields a geopolitical veto is creating the mood-already
in Georgia and soon, with luck, in the West-in which the opposite
will happen.

It is not just because bullying goes down badly. Russia has signally
failed to show the benefits of being an ally. Every country that teams
up with Russia ends up regretting it. Nobody in the Kremlin seems to
have bothered to think about loyal little Armenia, savagely hit by the
sanctions against Georgia. In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
calls Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, "worse than Stalin" and is
putting out feelers to the West. Cheap gas sounds nice initially-but
it always comes at a high price.

The stubborn attractiveness of the ‘Euro-Atlantic orientation’ is
striking given that it survives both the hideously botched occupation
of Iraq and extraordinarily selfish agricultural protectionism. It must
surely give the Kremlin foreign policy thinkers pause for thought that
for all its faults NATO has a queue of real countries eager to join
it, whereas only a handful of puppet states such as Transdniestria
want to go in the other direction.

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