Georgians look for the silver lining

Times Staff Writer

Many of this small onetime Soviet republic’s most dreaded nightmares have come, suddenly, to pass.

Its expensive, fledgling military has been crushed. Russian soldiers stand on key chunks of its territory. Two separatist enclaves have declared independence -- and been recognized by Moscow, the region’s vast and resurgent power broker.

And so it seems improbable that a note of optimism should continue to tinge the talk in this strafed country. But among the leaders of a land that has been washed for decades in waves of war and refugees, there is a sense the game isn’t over yet -- and that events might still turn to their benefit.

The brief war that erupted here this month was a crucial turning point, they say, that showed the world the danger of contemporary Russia. Georgians now speak of themselves as a sort of sacrificial lamb whose travails will lead to greater international isolation of Russia -- and bring about better circumstances not only for Georgia, but also for other Western-leaning countries in the region such as Ukraine.


“If it took the lives of our military and our civilians to get the Western world to the thinking they are now arriving at, we’d consider the losses justified,” said Alexander Lomaia, Georgia’s national security advisor. “We have paid a very high price for this understanding among Western partners, but we also believe this price will be rewarded.”

The payoffs in question range from the material to the ideological. Georgia is expecting hefty cash contributions from the West, especially the United States, to repair war damage and mend its battered military. The Pentagon is assessing the needs of Georgia’s broken military, but for now U.S. officials say they are focused on humanitarian aid.

Georgian leaders are also infused with fresh hopes of finally joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a long-deferred dream of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In the past, the United States has lobbied for both Ukraine and Georgia to begin the process of entering the alliance, but Europe has been cool to adding the former Soviet republics -- especially Georgia, with its shaky military and simmering blood feuds with the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


“I think maybe Europe made an honest mistake and miscalculated the danger posed by Russia to Europe and to the free world,” said Giga Bokeria, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister. “After this very transparent move, I think there is a much bigger awareness.”

In an attempt to exert control over a breakaway region, Georgia launched a large-scale military operation in South Ossetia early this month. Russia answered by sending tank columns, warplanes and thousands of troops over the border to crush the Georgian military and occupy swaths of Georgian land.

Russian officials insist that they intervened on humanitarian grounds to stop the slaughter of South Ossetians. Similar justifications were invoked by Moscow after recognizing the independence of both separatist republics this week, in effect diminishing Georgia’s borders.

Aside from a torrent of angry rhetoric, the West appeared helpless to prevent Russia’s intervention in Georgia. In public, Moscow has shrugged off the condemnation of the international community, and indicated Russia’s readiness to endure greater isolation, if necessary.


Among Georgians, conventional wisdom holds that Moscow sought to destabilize Georgia’s U.S.-backed government; scare other former Soviet republics away from the West and prove to the world that Georgia is an inappropriate candidate for NATO membership.

But the strategy will make Georgians even more resistant, analysts predict.

“Georgia will never forgive Russia for what they have done,” said Tornike Sharashenidze, international affairs program coordinator at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. “Georgia will never move toward Russia.”

Saakashvili, a bitter foe of Moscow and a politician of spotty popularity at home, appears to have been politically shored up, at least temporarily. The presence of Russian soldiers on Georgian turf cast a crisis mood over Tbilisi, the capital, hushing virulent opposition that has dogged the president during much of his time in office.


“Now he’s a symbol of anti-Russia resistance in the post-Soviet space. He defended the interests of his small country,” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “Russia’s behavior has helped him.”

Georgia appeared determined Wednesday to greet Russia’s recognition of sovereignty for the separatist republics with a studied shrug. From analysts and politicians alike, the response was flat: Russia is alone, they said. Few other countries will ever recognize the rebel regions as independent nations.

“Eventually Russia will be forced to leave, and those states will be a part of sovereign Georgia,” Bokeria said. “Once Georgia is a part of Europe, that will happen.”

As the heated rhetoric continued, the broader struggle between Russia and the West was evident in the waters of the Black Sea. Moscow has objected this week to the U.S. deployment of warships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgian war victims. Georgia and the West, meanwhile, accused Russia of maintaining a grip on the Georgian port of Poti. A U.S. carrier bound for Poti abruptly shifted direction Wednesday in favor of a port farther south.


Ukraine on Wednesday signaled its unease over the Georgia conflict by threatening to raise the rent on Russia’s Black Sea naval base, leased by Moscow in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. Since the fighting erupted, Ukraine has staked a position of solidarity with Georgia.

“This is punishment for bad behavior,” Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, said in a telephone interview. “Georgia is a country which does not fit the Russian vision of a good neighbor. And so this is a lesson also for Ukraine.”

NATO membership has long been a thorny debate in Ukraine, a nation torn by its loyalties and historic ties to Russia on the one hand, and its Western-leaning ambitions on the other. But the Georgia war meant that Ukraine must join NATO, or risk the same fate, Sushko argued.

“We don’t have any real guarantee of territorial integrity,” he said. “Russia is a bigger country with a bigger military capacity. The only answer is collective security.”