ACTON, MA -Hey, do you feel like it's been too long without a hot war in Caucasus? Something may be coming soon. Tensions between Georgia, (the former Soviet republic, not the former plantation slave state) and Russia reached a new all-time high recently. Some Russian troops are being moved to the border, politicians are puffing up their cheeks, and idiotic claims are being thrown around on both sides. The immediate crisis subsided a bit when Georgia chickened out and released the Russian officers they'd arrested on very outlandish charges of spying, sabotage and terrorism. Yet it does not feel like the problem is going away soon.
Relations between Georgia and Russia deteriorated steadily since 2003, when a popular revolt brought the current president Michael Saakashvili to power. He began a series of economic reforms (ironically, in many respect copied from Putin's Russia -for example the tax code is almost the same) combined with nationalism to recapture the ethnic provinces which were virtually independent since the early 90's. As this drive to take control of these breakaway states stalled, Saakashvili's popularity took a dive, so he pushed for more chauvinistic rhetoric and bombastic behavior towards Georgia's big northern neighbor, apparently egged on by his backers in Washington. Russia reacted more and more angrily, banning Georgian wine and mineral water-key components of Georgia's export business.
Georgians' grievances are mainly twofold. First-that Russia supports the separatist states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia maintains peace-keeping forces to keep the current status-quo (de facto independence). Second-that Russia has always oppressed poor little Georgia and continues to treat it as its colony even today.
The first charge is mostly credible; the second-largely a figment of their rich imagination.
Some peoples in Eastern Europe and Asia can rightfully claim that they were abused by the Russians. In expanding its empire, Russia never perpetrated the all-out genocidal slaughter which those god-fearing Anglo-Saxon Protestants were known to wreak on those poor heathens who couldn't be "saved" otherwise. Nevertheless, many tribes and statelets on Russia's path experienced very brutal treatment at times.
Not the Georgians. In fact, far from oppressed, they had a rather privileged position both in the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. From Bagration-one of the top generals in the Russian army during the Napoleonic wars, to Stalin and his sinister NKVD chief Beria, and more recently to Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze-Georgians were always more than well represented in the Russian elites. Georgia was one of the richest Soviet republics with by some counts its highest standard of living, higher than Russia's, all subsidized by Russia through the illogical pricing system of the communist times. Today it is one of the poorest among the post-Soviet states.
It is said sometimes that Georgians are second only to Jews in mythologizing their own history. Who does not know flowery stories about the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the exploits of David's warriors? Most credible historians now agree that hardly anything of this ever happened. For example, modern archeology very unequivocally tells that there wasn't ever a Jerusalem of the great "United monarchy" with the brilliant court of David and Solomon. In those times-the early Iron Age -Jerusalem was a poor, dusty hilltop village of 2-3 thousands inhabitants-a far cry for the great kingdom of the Old Testament.
To be fair, Georgians did have some illustrious history-a long, long time ago. The state that might pass for Georgia's predecessor could be traced to the late Roman times, and it grew in the Byzantine Empire's shadow in the early Middle Ages. Georgia had just one "Golden Age," in the 12th century A.D., between the time of the Seljuk Turks and the Mongol invasion. Afterwards it was a little-known vassalage of the Golden Horde.
Even as the Horde itself collapsed and split, Georgia rarely knew any degree of independence, and was usually divided into squabbling little principalities and frequently invaded by neighboring powers. But if the conditions during 14-17th centuries were tough on Georgia, the 18th century was downright horrible. For the entire period it was the playground of competing and warring Islamic empires -Ottomans and Persian. In addition to that the militant Muslim tribes from the north-Chechens and Lezgins (of modern Dagestan) constantly raided its territories, killed and enslaved its people by the tens of thousands.
Georgians started to court Russia-the emerging Christian power from the north-since the time of Peter the Great. By the mid-18th century the expanding Russia began to consider taking these little Orthodox Christian principalities under its protection, as they were on the brink of extinction-not just as states, but as people themselves. Finally, Catherine the Great promised protection to the principalities of Kartvelia and Kahetia (the central area, around the capital city Tbilisi), taking them as subjects of the Russian Empire.
But in 1795 the Persians made a particularly brutal raid, destroyed Tbilisi and massacred half of its population. The Georgians blamed Russia for not coming to their rescue.
Perhaps Russia was to blame, but most likely its hands were full elsewhere-in the Napoleonic wars, in clashes with the Ottoman Empire on other fronts. Anyway, when Russia fully incorporated the Georgian statelets into its empire in 1801, their borders were for once secure. And ever since then, Georgia flourished: its population multiplied, many old churches and monasteries were rebuilt, and Georgian literature thrived. There was some degree of Russification, but it was relatively light, particularly by 19th century standards. But nobody has a greater sense of entitlement than Georgians, who are a very proud people. As soon as they took their sense of security for granted, they immediately started griping about "Russian oppression"-and they've never stopped griping ever since.
As twisted are the minds of all post-Soviet peoples, the Georgians are among the worst. I used to know an elderly Georgian painter in Moscow-a nice, mild-mannered fellow who used to be the honorable member of the USSR Artist's Union-a sign of distinction and privilege in those times. He longed for the return of the USSR with its "friendship of peoples," and at the same time supported ultra-nationalist Gamsakhurdia-a demagogic nutcase who was the first elected president of the independent Georgia in 1991, and who bears much responsibility for the disastrous civil wars there in the early 90's. This painter had another obvious, almost comical contradiction: his works were almost entirely devoted to Georgian history and landscapes (very nice pieces, btw, I have a few of them at home). Yet when called "the Georgian painter," he laughed dismissively: "No, I am Russian." It resembles the alleged episode with Stalin himself, who, presented with a performance of a Caucasian dance troupe, mumbled wryly, in his heavy accent: "I am da man of da Russian kooltura".
It is a funny thing, typical of many immigrants from the Caucasus. They can be aggressive towards Russians and assertive about their own ethnicity, but when meeting the likes of their own, prefer to show their "Russianness" as opposed to the other's being an uncivilized hick from the mountains. A few weeks ago a Georgian student killed an Azeri (or was it the other way around, I don't recall) with a knife at a Moscow school for his failure to speak Russian. I wonder how that fight developed?: "You dirty black-assed non-Russian churka!" "No, it is you who is a slimy, black-assed, goat-fucking non-Russian churka!":
As for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia, the situation is quite similar to Kosovo, where the US and the EU are pushing for independence and eventual takeover by a Greater Albania. If Kosovo deserves independence, why not Abkhazia or the Trans-Dniester region? Oh, because the last two want to join the "barbaric Russia"-instead of groveling in a long queue of petty Eastern European states as supplicants to the EU's largesse. This is incomprehensible and downright criminal of these idiots in Washington or Brussels.
In fact Abkhazia and South Ossetia deserve independence far more than Kosovo. Serbian forces had no trouble subduing the Kosovo Albanian insurgency, and would never have left if not for NATO's bombardment of much of the infrastructure inside Serbia itself (never missing such targets as the Chinese Embassy). Georgia lost wars to the Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists-who got comparatively very little Russian help, nothing like the 1000 daily sorties NATO employed against Serbia.
The international system is pretty fucked up in this respect. The post-WWII arrangement in Europe was based on maintaining the status-quo and permanence of all state borders. And yet what's resulted has been a proliferation of some no-man's lands-from Northern Cyprus to Bosnia and Kosovo, Karabakh, Abkhazia and others. Maintaining the pretense of the status quo has become less and less tenable. This system is probably on its last legs-so maybe it's just time to stop pretending it still works. Borders are drawn on a map to be redrawn again. Let the emerging new "Concert of Europe"-the troika of France, Germany and Russia-settle it. Just keep out those Brits and Americans-and continental Europe will be better off.