- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

The bitter dispute that erupted last month between Russia and Georgia is a “perfect storm” of mutual suspicion and hostility in which both sides have their reasons for escalating the tension, regional security analysts say.

Russia-Georgia relations, never good in the best of times, have plummeted after Moscow’s harsh reaction to the Sept. 27 arrest and expulsion of four Russian soldiers in Tbilisi on espionage charges.

Russia cut mail and transportation links to Georgia and deported scores of Georgians for purported immigration-law violations. There also have been reports of intimidation of Georgian nationals and businesses in Moscow.

The European Union and the U.N. Security Council have appealed for calm, but both Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin could benefit from the clash, said Charles King, an Eastern European specialist who teaches at Georgetown University.

“The crisis is a perfect storm that serves the interests of both Russia and Georgia to continually up the ante,” Mr. King said. “They may not want war, but they could take all the steps up to war.”

Bruce Jackson, president of the Washington-based Project on Transitional Democracies, said both leaders are playing for stakes that are larger than the fate of a few spies.

“Both Putin and Saakashvili think they can derive benefits from escalation,” said Mr. Jackson, who said this week that it was “more likely than not” that there will be further deportations and violence before the crisis eased.

Mr. King said the pro-Western Mr. Saakashvili was banking on a Russian “overreaction” to boost his popularity at home and to attract U.S. and European support for Georgia’s long-term hopes to break away from Moscow’s influence and join such Western institutions as NATO and the European Union.

Tbilisi has also tried to raise international opposition to Russia’s backing of separatist movements in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves, which have resisted central control since Georgia gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in April 1991. Mr. Saakashvili’s strong stand on the so-called “frozen conflicts” has helped reverse a decline in his political popularity in the three years since he led Georgia’s democratic Rose Revolution.

In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Mr. Saakashvili slammed what he called Russia’s “unprovoked onslaught” and accused Russian leaders of trying to “smite the success story to the south.”

Mr. Saakashvili’s real audience, Mr. King said, is Washington.

“A fight with Russia keeps Georgia on the U.S. agenda,” he said. “Brinksmanship can be played with one’s friends as well as one’s enemies.”

The Georgian leader said his country “will do all that is necessary to ease the current tensions,” but on the same day, his government announced that it was postponing indefinitely talks on a deal that would allow Russia to enter the World Trade Organization.

Mr. King said Russia and Mr. Putin are equally keen to slap down Georgia, in part to punish Tbilisi for its desire to ally with the European Union and United States and in part to show Ukraine and other former Soviet states on its border the costs of pulling away from Moscow in favor of the West.

With Mr. Putin set to step down as president in 2008, his potential successors are also competing to see who can take the harder line in defense of Russian national interests in the Georgian standoff.

But Russia’s hard line is expected to come under fire when EU leaders meet with Mr. Putin next week at a summit in Finland. A draft summit statement being considered by EU foreign ministers expresses “grave concern” over Russia’s recent actions against Georgia, according to press reports.


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