Habsburg Prediction Comes True Historical Background of Conflict WHY THE CHARLESTON MERCURY WENT TO GEORGIA
On February 25, 1921, after the first three years of independence the Democratic Republic of Georgia had seen in more than six centuries, Soviet tanks rolled into Tbilisi in what was the Russian Red Amy’s
Invasion of Georgia. Though the country was inundated with Soviet forces, it would be another three years before the Georgians stopped fighting. The international community ignored the violent destruction
of this ancient Christian democracy.
Today Georgians have their independence once again, but for how long? As we prepared this article to go to press, Russian tanks and troops rolled into Georgia headed for the capital. Russian planes are bombing
Georgian towns and airports, including the capital of Tbilisi; there are accounts of attempts being made on President Saakashvili’s life.
The country of Georgia is now a war zone, facing outright Russian occupation. On Friday Georgia called for a ceasefire and withdrew its troops from South Ossetia. The Russians have ignored the path to
peace because this attack is about punishing Georgia. Otto von Habsburg predicted this attack, as we reported in the last edition.
On the day after the Russians invaded Georgia, we found evidence that hackers had entered the Web site for the Georgia Ministry of Foreign Affairs where their homepage had photographs
of President Saakashvili morphing into Adolph Hitler.
This is no surprise, as it follows reports from our intelligence correspondent, Gene Poteat, about the Russians becoming very proficient in cyber warfare and dubious post-invasion commentary from Russian military officials about Georgians instituting ethnic cleansing. It is extremely ironic that the Russians would compare
Saakashvili to Hitler, because, according to Gabriela von Habsburg: “Russia’s claim that it is protecting its citizens is the same claim Hitler made as he invaded Poland.”
The Russian use of misinformation is quite common; note the recent case in Estonia. According to a
group of Georgians now living in Charleston, an independent Russian television station polled young Russians who had grown up in the Putin era. The station asked what nation was the biggest threat to Russia. An overwhelmingmajority of the young people answered, Georgia. Then the pollsters asked them: How large is Georgia? The youngsters answered: around 50 million.
This nation, which is actually comprised of a mere five million people, will not go down without a fight.
Georgians have been fighting for their cultural autonomy since the 4th century when they became one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity officially as their state religion. At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, literally on the Silk Road, Georgia became a cultural melting pot of East and West, a host of nationalities, and though a large majority of its inhabitants have been Christian (Georgian Orthodox) for the last 16 centuries, they have coexisted peacefully with the sizable Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Catholic populations.
From the 11th century until the 13th century Georgia had its own early Renaissance or Golden Age in which scores of its legendary cathedrals were built — many out of stone resembling ornate fortifications as much as they resemble a modern day church. During this period philosophy, romantic ideals and literature, prolific trade, poetry, social policies and a standard of ethnic and religious tolerance flourished until the Mongols invaded in the early 13th century. The country of Georgia as we know it today officially gained its independence in 1991. The next 12 years saw civil war, corruption at nearly every level of authority, Russian intervention or manipulation and civil unrest. The country functioned like a broken Soviet state in the shadow of the KGB. In 2003 Mikheil Saakashvili, who according to independent polls had won the Georgian presidency, marched along with his supporters into the parliamentary building and laid roses on the ground, interrupting a speech by President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Shevardnadze had been accused of rigging the most recent election and soon resigned. Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in a celebration of fireworks and music. They had ousted a president who was not only accused of rigging the presidential elections but also of endorsing corruption that had nearly ruined Georgia’s delicate economy for the last eight years. New elections were held and Mikheil Saakashvili won in a landslide victory. He brought in government reforms on every level, from the Parliament to the police, and introduced nationalistic policies to strengthen the military and the economy and reassert Georgian control of breakaway regions of Adjara, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Saakashvili’s attempt to regain the breakaway regions angered Russia, which has begun to hand out Russian passports to citizens in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in what Georgia claims to be an attempt to annex these regions to destabilize Georgia and gain a strategic economical advantage for Russia’s oil exportation.
Subsequently, Georgia’s recent attempt to join NATO, which it hoped would eventually lead to EU
membership, has outright infuriated Russia. First Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s prime minister, and then
President Medvedev, former chairman of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil monopoly, have deployed an
increasing number of Russian peacekeeping troops to these areas on the Georgian border where they have been performing military “exercises.” Recently, while U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with
Georgia’s President Saakashvili, a pair of Russian jets flew over Georgia in an aggressive display of Russian
might; they were obviously not making idle threats.
Suffice it to say that the stakes could not have been higher when this correspondent sat down with President
Mikheil Saakashvili in the Black Sea town of Batumi.
Many people consider Saakashvili a controversial figure.
The president’s opponents accused him of bullying the opposition and media in the most recent Parliamentary elections, attempting to shutdown Georgia’s last independent television station, not following
through with all the reforms he promised and not getting rid of some members of government who some
assume to be ex-KGB dinosaurs. To some, especially those with Russian sympathies, Saakashvili is too close
to the U.S. and Europe, and he is allowing Georgia to be used to further NATO’s missile defense system. To his supporters, which right now are a large majority of Georgians, he is exactly the type of strong leader that
Georgia and the surrounding areas so desperately need.
His relationship with the West, his progress toward NATO (though recently set back), his expansion and
improvement of the Georgian military and his successful economic expansions and his aggressive government reforms set Georgia on a path toward achieving its optimal economic and security potential. Whether they like him or not, since Saakashvili came to power the streets of Georgia were safe at night (at least until Russia began bombing them), police officers no longer demand bribes and Georgia’s economy is growing in spite of the Russian boycott of Georgian exports and their hike in oil prices. Another positive is that government reform, whether fast enough or not, is at least happening and on the table for discussion.
For such a controversial figure, Mikheil Saakashvili is an extremely likeable guy. He studied law at Columbia
University and George Washington University and practiced law in the United States as a human rights
lawyer before he returned to Georgia at the request of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili is
built in massive proportions — his laugh is almost goofy and inescapably contagious. He is laid back and charismatic at the same time, a hard man not to like. At the last minute, he asks us to move the interview out side on patio because, “It’s turning out to be a very nice day.”
While he changes out of his suit into a bright purple shirt and a pair of corduroys — I have no idea why, we set up our equipment on the patio and his snipers set up their rifles on the rooftop behind us. I conduct the
interview against a backdrop of the Black Sea in the city of Batumi. Now this is extremely pleasant, but to get here we have driven all night without sleep from the capital city of Tbilisi, where we were originally told the interview would take place. At least this was the plan as of our midnight flight to Georgia from Istanbul the day before. The change of plans is a result of Germany’s desire to restore good relations with the country it recently vetoed from joining NATO — after previously urging it for months not to retaliate to Russia’s provocations as Georgia would soon be a part of the collective defense system with allies that would “have its back.” Unfortunately at the last minute, after Putin’s threats to increase gas prices, France and Germany turned their backs on Georgia (who would have thought?), leaving the U.S. as the lone and ignored voice of support for Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership. Had they been allowed NATO membership Russia would not be attacking. Between now and December when NATO is to review its decision will prove to be a very violent fall.
On the same day as our interview, Germany sent its Foreign Minister Frank- Walter Steinmeier to meet
with President Saakashvili. One of the main topics of discussion was the repatriation of the some 250,000
ethnic Georgian refugees who were driven from Abkhazia following the Georgian- Abkaz conflicts, in which
Russia supported Abkhazia in the region’s ethnic cleansing of Georgians, seeking to shift the population out of its Georgian ethnicity to one more easily controlled by Russia. Leaving the city of Tbilisi, we pass by what appears to be a second city on the outskirts of the capital comprised of indistinguishable heartbreaking skyscraper slums housing hundreds of thousands of impoverished ethnic Georgian refuges who were driven from Abkhazia during this conflict. President Saakashvili doesn’t comment on his meeting with Steinmeier, nor does he need to as little progress was expected. Needless to say he seems relieved even delighted
to sit down and speak to this correspondent and the camera that has the potential to see his message (in many ways a cry for help and democracy) into American homes. You see, Americans are still cool in Georgia.
Perhaps “cry for help” is the wrong phrase. Georgia is not looking for a free hand out nor are they cowering
behind an American flag. They are standing up and looking to the United States for an ally. Reciprocation is
probably a more appropriate word choice. Up until last Friday, when Georgia had to withdraw its troops for it’s
own defense, there were 2,000 Georgian troops fighting side by side with American forces in Iraq.
There were only two countries with more troops in Iraq than Georgia: the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The U.K., our greatest ally, has a population of 60.6 million people, and right
now they have 4,000 troops in Iraq. Georgia has a population of 4.6 million, and they had 2,000 troops fighting our battles. The United States has 154,000 troops in Iraq, which is five percent of our population. Georgia had sent 4.4 percent of its population to fight beside us for the same cause. On August 10 U.S. planes began to fly them home, as their own planes would have been shot down. Georgia was never asked to contribute what it did; they did so on their own accord. President Bush practically had to beg Gordon Brown not to reduce the U.K. contribution to 2,500 as they had planned.
When asked why President Mikheil Saakashvili has done this, he cites “our shared values” and that, “We
believe in all the same principles that the United States believes in. I think there is a lot at stake in Afghanistan and Iraq. We feel it here in our region. Every time American troops have some set back in Iraq or indeed before they ever went into Iraq, every time Saddam Hussein caught a boost felt important … we felt hit in our region. We felt problems back home. You know this is all interconnected. It’s easy to think, if you live in a comfortable house in the West, that this doesn’t concern you.
It does concern all of us. And, I believe, the more successful the United States is, the more successful all of us will be. “Where does America come into all this? We are not a ‘pro-American’ government.
We are just a government that wants to build a free society like there is in America. We believe in all the
same values. I believe in the creative energy of the people.
I believe in democracy. I believe in freedom of speech.
I believe in the freedom to express yourself … and to unleash the energy that is in every human being, and that is everything that I learned from America. You mentioned that I went to Columbia and then George Washington University in D.C. a few blocks away from the White House. The things that I picked up there were [things] that I believed in my childhood, I was raised that way. Because the previous generations who raised me were longing always for freedom, but they weren’t lucky enough to live most of their lives in an independent country. Now we not only have a country that is formally free. We can make a country where every individual is free. From that point of view of course we derive energy from the Founding Fathers … and
the framers of the [U.S.] constitution.” The president explains that he has the Federalist Papers in his office and that he goes back and reads them “because that is something that really matters … those principles are relevant for a small country and for the rest of the world.”
When asked about recent tensions with Russia, Saakashvili explains that the Russians are going after
American interests in this reason, “By saying that America is encroaching on them, what they mean is that democracy is encroaching on them. And the D- word is something that is quite an irritant for some people there … and the other reason why they went after this is that Georgia may be the standard bearer of democracy in this part of Europe in this part of post- Soviet space.” He explains that Russians fear that Georgia is spreading the “the main germ of democracy in the neighborhood of Russia.
“The stakes are high and the situation pretty precarious.
Everyday I wake up and say the situation can’t get any worse … I think they are testing the patience of Georgia and some countries in the West … This is not about standing up for Georgia, it’s about standing up for the values.” Of course there is the matter of location. Georgia’s position on the Black Sea between Russia and (Armenia and then) Iran is both a blessing and curse. He explains, “The point is that Georgia is
the main route for alternative supplies for the Western world. Now if Georgia falls, there is a bottleneck here …
they will have to go through Russia, and Russia will become a monopoly … it’s a brutal and pragmatic reality
and everyone should wake up to it.” If President Saakashvili could pass back one message to people in the U.S., it would be this: “At this stage when we ask what Americans should know about this situation, I think something that is really crucial here is that American prestige is at stake.
American interests and the interest of democratic worlds are at stake here … Essential values for the West are
endangered here. And this is exactly the moment when those values and principles need to be protected. People should stand up for this … you also made us believe in it [freedom] because we are also children of democracy.”
In the Georgian language there are three words for “yes” and one word for “no.” They would be pleased with just one English “yes” to NATO membership or further American support. It’s not even more American troops
that they want; it is public awareness. They want their story to be told. They know sometimes it’s hard to listen to a country on the other side of the world surround by “blank-istans.” But these people have more in common with the United States, than it does with some of its closest allies.
This is because they have founded their country on a dream and on a system, which we have successfully for the last half-century spread around the world because we believe in that democracy. The question is:
Are we responsible for those who take a stand in pursuit of that dream? Do we have an obligation to prove it
more than just that — that it can be a reality, even a state of security and stability? Yet they expect nothing and resent even less. They would be happy with just a simple “yes.” Of course it’s never that easy, nor is it quick. But these are very positive people; they have a faith that is many centuries old. They are not
going to give up, which makes the potential tragedy all the more heart wrenching. They are willing to fight to
death for what they have, without U.S. or European support a Russian invasionwould result in such a scenario.
The theme of the interview is “How high are the stakes right now?” Saakashvili does not discuss the possibility of Russian troops in Tbilisi, because acknowledging the possibility would be a show of weakness. The truth is, the stakes could not be higher. Russia has secured the Winter Olympics for 2014. It is watching China very closely.
It is well aware that the sooner it settles its conflicts, the less likely the situation in Georgia might resemble
Tibet. Russia knows that people in the United States are preoccupied with an election, with Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton and now John Edwards’s zipper. Russia knows that the U.S. military is over-extended. Russia
knows that at the end of the summer all the Germans and many other Europeans go on mholiday for weeks at a time.
Russia knows that while on holiday they are less likely to pay attention or even care about what happens in what seems far away. Gabriela von Habsburg explains all this to me as we drive back to Tbilisi.
“So you are telling me that ‘A Crush on Obama’ and the German summer holiday could result in the Russian
invasion of Georgia?” “That is exactly what I’m telling you.” She was right, as proven with Russia’s attack.
If the impression is that the world’s back is turned, then this unique little pocket of faith, democracy and hope may very well be swallowed by a Russian neocolonial machine. But this is also about the power of the press, of a simple story, of individuals who can make a difference.
Because if that story gets told and retold enough, if Moscow believes that Americans and Europeans will not stand for such a loss, then that simple notion says more than all the troops in Iraq. It is time that story is told. May it spread faster than McCain’s latest campaign video — at the speed of YouTube, American gossip and freakish celebrity fascination.