Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Georgia throws out the Russians

Russia and Georgia are currently embroiled in a spying controversy. The drama started last Wednesday when Georgia arrested four Russian army officers. They accused them of spying for Russian military intelligence and sent police to surround Russian army headquarters in the Georgian capital. The army headquarters controls two Russian bases which are relics from Soviet times due to be withdrawn in 2008. They were still surrounded by Georgian police on the weekend. The bases, part of Moscow's Cold War defences, have themselves been a source of tension between the two states. As a result, Russia pulled out some of its officials from Georgia on Friday as the crisis mounted between the two former Soviet states.

Georgia initially charged the four Russians soldiers with spying. Georgia also sought a fifth Russian officer in connection with the alleged spy ring who was in hiding inside the Russian base. Russia retaliated by cancelled a planned meeting between the deputy foreign ministers of the two countries in Moscow due to be held on Friday. Russia then recalled its ambassador from Georgia and ordered a partial evacuation of personnel from the country. White House spokesman Tony Snow confirmed President Bush had discussed the matter with Russian President Putin but a spokesman for the latter said no third party should be involved in the row.

Pro-Western Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the 2003 "Rose Revolution". That peaceful revolution overthrew long-term president Eduard Shevardnadze whose regime was seriously tainted by corruption. Shevardnadze claimed victory in a rigged election in November 2003. As a result, massive anti-governmental demonstrations started in the central streets of the capital Tbilisi and spread to the major cities and towns of Georgia. On the day the new parliament was due to open, opposition supporters led by Saakashvili with roses in their hands seized the parliament building. They interrupted a Shevardnadze speech and he was forced to flee the building with the help of his bodyguards. Shevardnadze later declared a state of emergency but he did not get the support of the military. The Russians mediated peace talks between him and the opposition which resulted in Shevardnadze’s resignation. New elections were called in January 2004 and Saakashvili won comfortably.

Georgia’s foreign policy was proclaimed strongly pro-Western. Saakashvili’s pursuit of NATO membership is of particularly concern to Russia. He has publicly attacked Moscow, saying it supports separatists who control two regions of his country in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia has a 700km mostly mountainous border with Russia and it a troubled area. Abkhazia is on the Black Sea and proclaimed independence after a war in the early 1990s. It remains largely de facto independent of Georgia and maintains control over a large part of its territory, although it is not recognized internationally as a separate nation. South Ossetia is also a self-proclaimed republic on the Russian border. A third area, Adjara, in the south (and also on the Black Sea) has proclaimed its independence in last two years.

Despite its apparent Balkanisation, Georgians remain a strong proud nation. Georgians call themselves Kartvelebi, their country Sakartvelo and their language Kartuli. All these names derive from a legendary chief named Kartlos whose life and times were documented in the medieval Georgian chronicles, Kartlis Cxovreba. The name Georgia, used in English and many other languages is derived from the Greek word for farmer. Two years after coming into power, the Rose Revolution government enjoys high popular support and benefit from a broad public consensus over the objectives and goals of the democratic transition. But they need the support of the Western world to stop the interference from Mother Russia.

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