The Kremlin's Tibet

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Almost daily we hear of a new incident in Abkhazia or South Ossetia -- an explosion, murder or random shelling. Moscow accuses the Georgian military of provocation, and Tbilisi responds by blaming Moscow. And this is just a fraction of what is really going on because we don't have full access to everything that this happening in these separatist regions.

But from we do know, the battle has moved to the skies. Russian military aircraft recently violated Georgian airspace (if you can consider the sky above the self-proclaimed separatist regions as belonging to Georgia). Tbilisi threatened to shoot down any offending aircraft in the future. How will the situation develop further?

Does either side in have a plan for what their next move will be in this standoff? If Georgia wants to return the separatists to their own jurisdiction (although it is difficult to believe that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would give their allegiance to Tbilisi), then what is Moscow's plan for Abkhazia, where most of the population holds Russian passports?

Some observers think the Russian elite want a war with Georgia in order to increase Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's power base once and for all -- perhaps even to bring the "Medvedev project" to an end and return Putin to the presidency.

It is true that some members of Russia's political elite despise Georgia and consider it an artificial entity with no historical right to exist. Moreover, when Georgia was a part of the Russian empire, and later the Soviet Union, it did not contain South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's plan to join NATO and his generally pro-Western orientation are a big and sharp thorn in the side for many in Moscow. The very idea of NATO expanding to members of the Commonwealth of Independent States is unthinkable for them because it goes against the basic geopolitical mindframe formed during the Soviet era. In their minds, NATO is now no less hostile and alien than it was during the Cold War, and for Georgia -- and worse still, Ukraine -- to join the alliance would be the last straw for Russia's ability to tolerate Western expansion in its sphere of influence.

The 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi is one of Putin's most ambitious pet projects, and the government is pumping huge sums of money into it. Many in Moscow think that it would be unwise to let the Abkhazia question remain unresolved until that time. But they have one misgiving: Any conflict over Abkhazia would be used against Russia.

As far as the summer games in China are concerned, many Western nations are willing to look the other way at China's poor record on democracy and human rights because of China's weight and influence in the global arena. Criticism of China on a government level in the West has been largely muted, or at the most, watered-down.

Not so with Russia. If things continue the way they have been going in the West's relations with Russia, it will be much more difficult for Moscow to weather the Olympic storm when 2014 comes around. It is highly likely that the West will play the Georgia card against Russia.

Saakashvili is certainly doing his share to heighten the conflict as well. The Georgian president is hot-tempered and ambitious, and he cannot come to terms with the fact that he may be losing two of his country's regions.

The conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi will become a serious test of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency. The question is whether this rapidly escalating conflict will bury all of his plans for modernization -- and his presidency as well.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.