Putin Tries to Depose a Neighbor

By Richard Holbrooke
Friday, August 8, 2008 8:57 PM

In this opinion column, originally published Nov. 27, 2006, Richard Holbrooke wrote about Vladimir Putin's efforts to overthrow Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili -- and what's at stake. Yesterday, tensions between Russia and Georgia escalated, with troops clashing over the separatist province of South Ossetia.

TBILISI, Georgia -- While the United States is otherwise preoccupied, this small former Soviet republic has become the stage for a blatant effort at regime change, Russian-style. Vladimir Putin is going all out to undermine and get rid of Georgia's young, pro-American, pro-democracy president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Putin is assuming that the United States, overwhelmed by Iraq and needing Moscow's support on North Korea and Iran, will not make Georgia a "red-line" issue and that the European Union, fearful of endangering energy supplies from Russia, will similarly play it down.

Much is at stake: Putin's long-term strategic goal is to create a sphere of Russian dominance and hegemony in the vast area the Soviet Union and the czars once ruled. If he succeeds in bringing down the most independent and pro-Western leader in the former Soviet space outside the Baltics, he will have gone a long way toward his goal. Also at stake: President Bush's "freedom agenda," stability in the Caucasus and the European Union's attitude toward a small European country on the edge of the world's most volatile region.

Putin's methods are brutal. He has expelled at least 1,700 Georgians since October, cracked down on Georgian-owned businesses, made repeated statements about preserving the Russian market for real Russians and demonized Georgians as a criminal class. He has doubled natural gas prices two years running and cut off all direct rail, air, road, sea and postal links between the two countries. Russia has also waged an aggressive international disinformation campaign to raise doubts about Saakashvili -- I have heard astonishing, wholly undocumented charges about his alleged corruption and his "hot-headed" style in Berlin, Brussels and even Washington. In Tbilisi today, you can hear an ugly word for this that rises out of the depths of 19th-century Russian history: pogrom.

In fact, the 38-year-old Saakashvili represents almost everything the United States and the European Union should support. He led the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution that overthrew the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. He then opened the country to Western investment, presided over a dramatic turnaround in a once-hopeless economy, and instituted massive reforms of the police and civil service. While these efforts have not been perfect -- Freedom House and other nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern about an overly cozy relationship between the government and the main media, for example -- Georgia has climbed further up the World Bank's latest annual reform survey than any other country.

In 2004 Saakashvili peacefully seized control of Ajaria, one of the three areas that, with Moscow's encouragement, refused to accept Georgian rule after the crackup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ajaria, which lies on the Black Sea, has since become a booming tourist center. Now Saakashvili has his eye on regaining two remaining "frozen conflict" areas in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where impoverished breakaway regimes, heavily backed by Moscow and Russian troops, claim to be independent countries.

Despite international resolutions that affirm the territorial integrity of Georgia, it will be difficult for Saakashvili to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia, especially without strong Western support. Putin would be happy to fight for them again if necessary and to overthrow Saakashvili if possible.

This is not just a strategic issue. It is also deeply personal: Saakashvili as David and Putin as Goliath. Their face-to-face meetings have been electric with anger. When President Bush brought Georgia up with Putin on the margins of the Asian-Pacific summit in Hanoi last weekend, Putin went into a rant, as he does every time the subject arises. His tirades may be designed to discourage further discussion, but for the most part it is, according to people who have heard Putin, real, irrational anger.

Bush's visit to Tbilisi last year was a triumph; today the main road from the airport into the city is proudly named President George W. Bush Street. Bush and Saakashvili genuinely like each other, and there is hardly a country left in the world where Bush is still so popular. Saakashvili's best American friends are Sen. John McCain, who has made support of democracy in the former Soviet Union a major theme, and George Soros, who helped pay salaries for the bankrupt Georgian civil service system in 2004. This cannot please Putin.

But why the relatively muted international response to Putin's outrageous behavior? The main reason is Washington's weakened state as a result of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. This is Putin's moment, especially with oil prices high. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Washington needs Moscow more than Moscow needs Washington. During the 1990s President Bill Clinton used America's undisputed primacy to enlarge NATO (Saakashvili wants membership, of course) and conduct successful military actions in Bosnia and Kosovo over Russian objections. Today, by contrast, Russia has threatened to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would give Kosovo independence and has spuriously linked Kosovo's status to that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The European Union and the United States must make the continued freedom and independence of Georgia a test case of the Western relationship with Russia. Putin must learn that we will not sacrifice the interests of a small country that has put its faith in Western values for the sake of energy supplies or U.N. votes. If Bush's freedom rhetoric has any meaning, let him prove it in Georgia, not just with polite calls for mutual restraint, but with real pressure on Moscow and the assembling of a united front with the European Union to make clear to Putin that he must cease his attempts to destabilize Georgia and overthrow Saakashvili. In the age of Iraq we must show that our nation can continue to have influence elsewhere in the world and that we will not abandon our friends or our values.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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