The ructions over South Ossetia continue. What is going on?
The latest clash is over South Ossetia, one of two Georgian regions that fought their way to unofficial secession in the 1990s. There have been fisticuffs and tit-for-tat blockades between Georgian troops and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. Last week, Georgia’s parliament, accusing Russia of annexing its territory, called for Russian troops to get out. (As in Abkhazia, the other enclave, most South Ossetians now have Russian passports.) In retaliation for visa requirements imposed on Russian troops, the Russian embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgians.
There are two interpretations of this vitriol. One is that, accustomed to brinkmanship as both sides are, neither really means it. Both understand the need to play to a domestic gallery. That may be true of some Georgians—diplomats point out there were no ultimatums in the Ossetian resolution—but feelings in the Kremlin seem authentically bilious. Hence the other possibility, that the Georgians are miscalculating.
Like other small countries, Georgia is used to seeing its fate decided elsewhere. Zurab Noghaideli, the prime minister, says his government knows its problems must be solved by itself above all; but its strategy seems to be to attract as much attention as possible in America and Europe. That may be based on an inflated idea of how willing outsiders are to take up Georgia’s cause. They may be even less willing should the imperfections of Mr Saakashvili’s regime become still more pronounced (even though Ms Zourabichvili’s talk of “creeping totalitarianism” is exaggerated).
Ms Zourabichvili says that, should disappointment with the current course set in, the paradoxical outcome might be to drive Georgia back towards Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin could make life even tougher. Russian officers say that if they leave (unlikely, at least for now), there could be a new conflict in South Ossetia. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who visited neighbouring Azerbaijan this week, has compared Georgia’s enclaves to Kosovo.
Given Russia’s problems in Chechnya, self-determination might seem an odd principle for the Kremlin to espouse; but their problem, say the Russians, is terrorists, not separatists. “Some people just don’t know where the borders of the Russian Federation end,” says Mr Saakashvili. Unfortunately for him, the status quo in the enclaves—power to make trouble, with no responsibility—suits Russia nicely. The risk is that war may come to seem the only way forward.
The caucasus destabilising poses a huge threat to Western interests too. Any war, even small scale, would have serious regional affects. The mix of Iranian gas and oil, Azeri oil, Caspian oil, the BTC oil pipeline, Turkey, Chechnya, ethnic and religious strife – it’s a potent mix indeed.