Looking Into Saakashvili's Caucasus Soul

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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's main aim in the war was to restore Georgia's territorial integrity. In this respect, he suffered a complete defeat.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's goal in the war was to strengthen his personal power and gratify his feelings of personal animosity for Saakashvili. In this respect, he emerged as the clear victor.

Saakashvili was more than just a president; he was a reformer. Under his rule, the police didn't take bribes, government assets were sold in fair and open tenders, corrupt bureaucrats were fired and taxes were lowered. Saakashvili pulled Georgia out of its swamp and paved the road for the country to become a part of Europe. He modernized his country much like Peter the Great. It was precisely Saakashvili's success and ambitiousness that lay at the root of Putin's strong dislike for him.

This amazing young nation had only one defect: uncontrollable revanchism. In the Georgian Interior Ministry, bureaucrats hang maps of Abkhazia in their offices. They speak of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, in the same way that Zionists spoke of Jerusalem: "It's ours and we must get it back."

In that sense, however, Georgia has clearly set itself apart from Europe. It would be hard to imagine German bureaucrats hanging up maps in their offices of Konigsburg, which was renamed Kaliningrad after it was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945. Even Serbia was able to forget about Kosovo -- albeit grudgingly -- because they had a larger goal: to become a part of the European Union.

But the Caucasus is not Europe. It is dominated by a strong sense of tradition, where every ethnic group traces its historical homeland back to the 11th century.

There is no doubt that Saakashvili was provoked into taking military action against South Ossetia. Under the leadership of Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia was heavily financed and supported by Russia with one goal: to fight Georgia.

In May, when Russia was about to initiate a military advance into the Kodor Gorge in Abkhazia, Saakashvili made every effort to avert an armed clash between the countries. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza traveled to the region countless times to try to find a peaceful solution. Moreover, U.S. President George W. Bush phoned President Dmitry Medvedev, and when a Russian Air Force jet shot down a Georgian drone over Abkhazia, the issue was discussed in the United Nations. Because of all these efforts, war was avoided. It was clear that Saakashvili had no desire to provoke a military conflict with Russia at that time over Abkhazia. Saakashvili could have done the same in South Ossetia. But this time he didn't call Bryza. Instead, he bombarded Tskhinvali with truck-mounted Grad missiles.

This was not, however, the reckless, stupid decision of a raving leader, as Russian political analysts repeatedly assert. There is no leader quite like Saakashvili in the Commonwealth of Independent States. He is quintessential Caucasus, an ancient and archaic region with a macho culture and traditional credo that "honor is more precious than life." Through the modern, newly minted exterior of Georgian statehood, these conservative national traits stick out like grass through the asphalt. The Caucasus permeates Saakashvili's soul.

Russia clearly provoked Saakashvili, and the Georgian president succumbed to this instigation. Instead of carefully weighing his response, he acted impulsively -- much like a Chechen insurgent who is driven into a corner with no other choice but to attack. But Saakashvili is not a besieged Chechen field commander. He is the president of a free country, and he must overcome the Caucasus mind-set that shapes the way he runs his country and the way he responds to Russia.

The end result is a tragedy of historical proportions for Georgia. It is as if Israel had lost the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.