My first introduction to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia took place in a Moscow restaurant in 1994. I, along with a group of students, were taken there by our hosts to experience the delights of Georgian cuisine and wine. The alcohol flowed freely, course after course was brought to the table. Georgian music played in the background; as it so happened, our table was on the other side of the room from a Georgian wedding reception. The bride and groom began to dance as the tempo increased, and then the entire wedding party joined in. My memory is slightly hazy, but I do seem to recollect getting up and then being exhausted as I collapsed into my hotel bed.
A pleasant evening, albeit mostly spent unconscious, is not an altogether atypical way for a love affair to begin. Georgia is one of those places I wished to visit; Tbilisi is supposed to be very charming, and steeped in history.
That dream, however, is more distant now than ever. The weekend’s news brought images of horror from South Ossetia, Gori, and Abkhazia; hitherto, Georgia’s history has been as tragic as it has been rich, and it appears that this long road is stretching onward.
There can be no doubt that Russia is in the wrong in this instance. Georgia did try to assault the separatists in South Ossetia, and this was a terrible error. If Russia had merely sent their troops in to the war zone, and secured it from further Georgian incursions, then there would be little to talk about. However, the Russians have significantly widened the conflict by bombing civilian areas in Gori, which is not within the combat zone, and also by opening a new front in the other separatist area, Abkhazia. Additionally, the Russian navy has attacked Georgian ships in the Black Sea.
Georgia has since proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire and begged for the conflict to stop, but Russia has refused to halt their incursions. Russia has made it clear that nothing less than the removal of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili will do, even though he was democratically elected.
This move not only threatens Georgia’s life as an independent nation; an important oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Europe goes through Georgia. It’s the only significant pipeline from the East that bypasses Russia. If this falls under Russian control, then Putin will have sufficient leverage to blackmail Europe. Furthermore, other nations which have shown an independent streak, such as Ukraine, cannot help but wonder if they are next.
The West is in no position to help. If this incident proves anything, it shows once and for all that the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes is an absolute failure. America has so many resources pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan that the idea of offering military assistance to Georgia is laughable at best; furthermore, Bush’s profligacy also means America is broke, and thus has no economic leverage. Dick Cheney and George Bush thundering darkly about severe consequences is the tantrum of the impotent, a flaccidity made all the more acute by the imminent replacement of the American administration.
Europe cannot help either; while the efforts of the French diplomatic corps have been outstanding, their exertions are taking place in a context where the the European Union has a variety of opinions on how to deal with this. No doubt the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs are looking worriedly at Russia’s new assertiveness and want to stand firm. The Germans obviously want to try and lessen the tension. Overall, however, Russia’s control over energy supplies makes Europe a client rather than a creditor.
There is only one nation that can possibly make Russia stop with a single phone call: China. The Chinese have so far not played a role in this crisis; however, it could very well be that they are annoyed that their Olympic “coming out party” has been darkened by this conflict. This irritation, and the opportunity for further gains in prestige could make them act positively.
To achieve this, however, the West will need an emissary. There is only one choice that springs to mind: Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia.
Prime Minister Rudd has been one of the quiet success stories of 2008; if power stems from legitimacy and intelligence, then he is stronger than many of his counterparts in charge of larger nations. He has a sizeable majority in Parliament, his popularity ratings, although they’ve taken a knock in recent months, are still high. Furthermore, he was elected in December 2007: he is at the very start of his term, not lingering in twilight. Additionally, unlike President Bush, who has managed to offend the Chinese every single time he mentions human rights, Rudd has skillfully framed the debate in terms the Chinese appreciate: having a degree in Chinese literature, history and language helps. Rudd is fluent in Mandarin (he even has a Chinese nickname, “Lu Kewen”), is well acquainted with Confucius, and once served as a diplomat in Beijing. Thus he was able to give a tough human rights speech at Beijing University without suffering damage in the eyes of the Chinese leadership; rather, Australia appears to be well regarded by Beijing. Australia also has some actual leverage: they are one of China’s largest suppliers of raw materials.
This combination of power, knowledge and understanding simply does not exist elsewhere in the West: Rudd is definitely the man to send to President Hu Jintao to ask for his intervention. That said, Rudd will need to offer an incentive. As unpalatable as it may seem, the West will likely have to suggest that peace talks take place in Beijing under Chinese mediation. This would be a powerful symbol of China’s increasing importance and the West’s increasing impotence: in other words, it’s an acknowledgment of present realities. This would be deeply unpleasant for the United States and the European Union. However, sometimes saving lives matters more than pride; and perhaps “Lu Kewen” could convince the Chinese that the partnership of one western state (probably Australia) would help any negotiated settlement to stick.
The alternative to diplomacy is grisly; the Chechens provided a model for how a small nation can wage a bloody guerilla war against Russia, and it is entirely possible the Georgians could resort to the same tactics. No one wants to see Tbilisi shot through like Groznii; no one wants to see another incident in which Russian schoolchildren are murdered as they were in Beslan. This fate can be avoided, but only if the crisis is approached with imagination, compassion, tolerance and yes, humility. One can only hope there are enough of these qualities left in West…and in the East.