In 2003, Georgia underwent a Rose Revolution that swept Eduard Shevardnadze from power. But in the street demonstrations that raised up Mikhail Saakashvili, Moscow saw the fine hand of Bush's "democracy project." Since then, Moscow has seethed, as Saakashvili has pulled his country steadily toward the EU and NATO.
In late September, Saakashvili went a bridge too far, arresting four Russian officials as spies. President Vladimir Putin denounced the arrests as an "act of state terrorism with hostage-taking," calling them "a sign of the political legacy of Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria." Beria, who headed the NKVD secret police under Josef Stalin, had come out of Georgia, as did Stalin.To ease the crisis, Georgia released and expelled the Russians. But that failed to satisfy Putin, who recalled Russia's ambassador, cut air and rail travel and postal lines, ceased to issue visas to Tiblisi, imposed an embargo, began to expel Georgians from Russia and conducted naval maneuvers in the Black Sea off the coast of Georgia.
Since the 1990s, Moscow has supported secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who wish to break free of Georgia and rejoin Russia. Putin has lately met with the leaders of both regions at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Moscow also maintains Russian peacekeeping troops in both.
This confrontation is between unequals. Georgia, a poor country of 5 million, is dependent on Russia not only for the remittances of its sons and daughters who work in Russia, but for the revenue from its exports of wine and mineral water, and for gas and electricity.
Russians, resentful at perceived Georgian insolence and American meddling in their backyard, support Putin's cracking of the whip. But Putin may have unleashed a strain of nationalism he could find difficult to contain.
Says Nikolai Svanidze, a leading Russian TV personality of Georgian heritage, "This anti-Georgian campaign ... has led to a wave of xenophobia, which is very dangerous in a multiethnic state."
Saakashvili appears wholly dependent upon the restraint of Putin and Moscow. For Georgia's friends in the European Union and Washington seem impotent or unwilling to take his side. The EU is held hostage by its dependence on Russian oil and gas as winter impends. Bush, beset with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and collisions with Iran and North Korea, has shown no desire to take a stand alongside Tiblisi against Moscow.