History Has Hijacked The Russian And Georgian States

Dmitry Medvedev and Mikheil Saakashvili could be close allies. Both are young, dynamic leaders who trained as lawyers before going into politics. They are far more Westward-looking than their predecessors, and both are passionate about rooting out corruption and introducing the rule of law to their reluctant countrymen. But instead of cooperating, they are locked in a war only one of them can win.

In a sense, both leaders have been hijacked by history. The breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia was a festering conflict left over from the chaotic days of the Soviet Union's breakup. For nearly two decades, the Kremlin has supported Ossetia and Abkhazia, another tiny rebel enclave, as part of an old-fashioned divide-and-rule policy designed to keep Georgia weak. Medvedev inherited that policy from Vladimir Putin—and now must follow through. Medvedev has been fighting the wimp factor since he became president in May and cannot afford to look weaker than his tough mentor. So just hours after Georgian troops launched an all-out grab for the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, killing at least 10 Russian peacekeeping troops, Medvedev appeared on television looking grim-faced. "We will not tolerate the death of our citizens' going unpunished," he said, slapping his palm on the table. As he spoke, columns of Russian tanks rolled across the border into South Ossetia and Russian jets bombed a Georgian military airbase near the capital, Tbilisi.

Saakashvili also can't afford to lose. He came to power in 2004 promising to bring back the rebel provinces. But as Moscow has grown more assertive, its support for the breakaway Georgian enclaves has also grown—and the chances of Tbilisi's ever recovering them has shrunk. Most citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been issued with Russian passports and are eligible for Russian pensions. In April, after NATO caved in to Russian pressure and declined to give Georgia the clear invitation to membership it wanted, the Russian Duma passed a law authorizing official ties with the rebel republics. Saakashvili seems to have decided that time was running out to recover the lost provinces. "The assault [on Tskhinvali] was a gamble," says one senior Western diplomat in Moscow. And it may have given Kremlin hawks the excuse it needed to bloody the Georgian Army's nose and destroy Saakashvili's chances of re-election. Now it seems one of the brightest young leaders of the former Soviet space is on course to destroy the other.

History Has Hijacked The Russian And Georgian States | News