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Wednesday, November 14

A Georgia expert wises up the hayseeds in Western governments

Saakashvili demolished both the neo-classical building that had housed the Imperial Russian gendarmerie and a district of Armenian houses to make way for his new palace. Georgians noted the contrast with his claims in 2003 that he only needed a "three room apartment," but the neighboring nations heard his apologists say that the new government's massive re-ordering of old Tbilisi only "affect Armenians, Azeris, Kurds and foreigners."
Gideon Rachman has pointed out that the annual budget for the U.S. Department of State is $10 billion a year, in contrast to the Department of Defense budget of $460 billion, which means "The entire State Department costs less to maintain than just one of the US's eight carrier battle groups."

The question is what State would do with a bigger budget -- or to put it bluntly, how much more trouble would State get into?

I'm all for increasing annual funding to the US foreign office during this very complex era, but not until I have seen clear evidence that State has learned to spot when they've been lured into a game of Three Card Monte.

The only trouble spot in the world where I've seen such evidence is in Iraq, where after years of stumbling around State wised up and worked closely with the US military's clever circumvention of the central government there.

It's not enough to promote democracy or 'American interests' in the world. It's a matter of training your eyes to be quicker than the card player's hands in regions of the world where corruption and bad faith are synonymous with government. The case of Georgia is an instructive example. So, here I present the entire article written by a sharp-eyed expert on that country, and who gives very sound advice. State, take copious notes.
The West should stop picking losers by Mark Almond, International Herald Tribune, November 12

The tear gas has cleared from Tbilisi streets, but the political crisis in Georgia is not resolved.

Even President Mikhail Saakashvil's surprise decision to call early presidential elections for Jan. 5 merely offers his country an increasingly tense eight-week run-up to what on past form will be an election that settles nothing.

The Georgian political class has yet to throw up good losers or magnanimous winners. Since independence in 1991, Georgia has not seen a president serve out his term. The first post-Communist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, an emotional Georgian nationalist, was overthrown only eight months after winning 87 percent of the popular vote.

His successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, took 92 percent of the vote. Western well-wishers were anxious to promote stability in the post-Soviet Caucasus, so they happily endorsed Shevardnadze's election, despite the lack of an opposition candidate. After all, wasn't he the man who ended the Cold War and opened the Berlin Wall?

But as Shevardnadze got older his Soviet ways began to show. The Tbilisi street toppled him in 2003.

The beneficiary of that outburst of "people power," Saakashvili, was endorsed by 97 percent of the voters, and the West ardently welcomed a bouncy 35-year-old who could speak English and knew how to speak our political language.

Trained as a lawyer at Columbia University, with a Dutch wife, he waxed eloquent on how to rescue Georgia from its decline into ever deeper poverty and corruption. Anything Western advisers could say, Saakashvili could say clearer.

Last week the world saw the "rose revolution" dissolve in tears and police beatings that even Saakashvili's Western admirers found hard to stomach.

Saakashvili and his rose revolutionary team averaged 34 years old. Sadly, youth is no inoculation against corruption. Quite to the contrary, thirty-somethings across the Caucasus have grown up knowing nothing other than the corruption of competing clans.

Born into Leonid Brezhnev's decaying Soviet Union, the Saakashvili generation barely had time to finish military service (as a border guard, in Saakashvili's case) before the Communist system collapsed and the in-fighting to control the spoils of post-Communism.

Anthropologists would not be surprised that formative years in the Caucasian cockpit of corruption under Brezhnev and Shevardnadze bred ambitious people who knew to spin a plausible line when it came to attracting Western sponsors. Saying what Big Brother wanted to hear was ingrained in Soviet people.

Honest or hard work was not the way to fame or fortune in the Caucasus. The collapse of Communism shifted the Caucasus states from the Second to the Third World, which exaggerated the negative aspects of late Soviet-socialization.

Like many failed regimes dependent on foreign aid and playing one power off against another, Georgian politicians learned to pre-echo what Uncle Sam and the Eurocrats think. Some of it they meant. Our knee-jerk Cold War suspicion of the Kremlin made their Russophobia seem natural. But playing up nationalism even when it has a real emotional basis is not the way to stabilize a society, not to stabilize its regional relations.

Anti-Armenian and anti-Azeri rhetoric worried the near neighbors. Saakashvili demolished both the neo-classical building that had housed the Imperial Russian gendarmerie and a district of Armenian houses to make way for his new palace.

Georgians noted the contrast with his claims in 2003 that he only needed a "three room apartment," but the neighboring nations heard his apologists say that the new government's massive re-ordering of old Tbilisi only "affect Armenians, Azeris, Kurds and foreigners."

Whereas the authoritarian Aliev clan running neighboring Azerbaijan has enough oil revenue to fund a stable state system and many Azeris have jobs, Georgia's much-praised reforms have boosted unemployment and mass migration. The only surviving industry from Soviet days seems to be massaging the statistics.

The oil pipeline across Georgia to Turkey from the Azeri oil fields in the Caspian has been a nice cash cow for the Georgian government and its appointees, but it hasn't provided any boost to the rest of the economy. In fact, now that the Baku-Ceyhan project is finished, lay-offs - not new jobs - are the result. Part of the political infighting in Tbilisi is to control the transit fees.

The West has a long history of misguided efforts to promote democracy and economic reform. Ninety years ago, two giants of British imperial policy debated intervention in the Caucasus.

Lord Curzon insisted that a British presence in the Caucasus was essential to keep the Russians out and facilitate nation-building: "We are talking of staying in the Caucasus to put the people on their feet there."

But Arthur Balfour counseled against placing too much hope in the capacity of Western neo-colonialism to do anything beyond protecting its economic interests: "If they want to cut their own throats why do we not let them do it? . . .We will protect Batum, Baku, the railway between them, and the pipeline." In the end the Red Army's advance put paid to Curzon's hopes and Balfour's cynicism.

Nowadays no one seriously expects the Russian Army to cross south of the Caucasus again. In fact, while Saakashvili was denouncing Russian meddling, the remaining Russian troops in Batumi on the Black Sea were being withdrawn ahead of schedule.

Georgia suffers from Russia's economic boycott, not any meddling by the Kremlin in its politics. Sadly, the zero-sum game of Georgian politics is something the natives are perfectly capable of playing without foreign interference.

Worse still, Western efforts to pick model reformers have failed twice. Backing Shevardnadze and then Saakashvili produced only "reform in one family" rather than spreading the benefits of democracy and the market to the population at large.

Instead of hoping third time lucky, Washington and the EU should step back from trying to pick a winner in the coming elections, who most likely will only make ordinary Georgians losers again. We should remember the Georgians don't forget the West's mistakes even if we do.

Mark Almond is a lecturer in history at Oriel College, Oxford, and a frequent election and human rights monitor in Georgia since 1992.

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