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How the West was Lost: Stories from War Torn Georgia

“i hope i won’t b dead by tomorrow :)” ended an emailed letter from my Georgian Keti in Tbilisi. Writing from her apartment overlooking Freedom Square in the heart of the country’s capital on Monday, she detailed the chaos occurring outside her window and the sense of fear over an impending Russian invasion. The distress is palpable. I lived in Tbilisi in 2006-07, and it’s terrifying to consider the beautiful mountain city filled with Russian tanks. Reading her account, the wording served both as a stark reminder of what’s at stake for the Georgian people and as an insight into the current form that crisis takes.

When I received the email it was nearly midnight in Georgia. I picture her typing furiously, worried of cyber attacks that might cut off the internet. Russia as a country has reinvented itself over the past 17 years. A far cry from the backwardness of the Soviet Union of my parent’s youth – where an unlicensed photo copier posed a grave threat to the nation’s propaganda machine and tampons were left off shelves by the clueless all-male central planning committee, modern Russia has become quite adept at harnessing the media and technology to support nationalist endeavors. Equipment is widely available to the tech savvy populace, and old KGB methods have been adopted and updated by ultranationalist hackers, most recently in attacks over the past few months on Georgian government Web sites. The most striking of which replaced the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website with a collage of Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili coupled with Adolf Hitler.

Saakashvili as Hitler website hack

“russioan troops are coming to tbilisi, Misha [Mr. Saakashvili] is almost crying on TV,” the message continued. “god I am scared to death, i don’t want to be the colony of Russia.” Many Eastern Europeans have been worried about just such a scenario for some time. In this case, Russia has used support of Georgia’s break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a pretext for what many fear are larger designs on the independence of the former republic as a whole. The current events, sparked by Georgia’s dispute with South Ossetia, have been building since February of this year, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Supported by the US and EU, the move angered Serbia and its ally, Russia, leading many in Russia to declare that Russian integration of Georgia’s provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be just as morally and politically justifiable. For the many in the West celebrated Kosovo’s act of self-determination, they are now faced with the question of which side they are on in the current conflict.

But the more pressing question at hand is what are Russia’s aspirations? For the past several years, there have been smaller territorial provocations in every cardinal direction.

Another friend, Marie, who was vacationing when the fighting started, documented her lengthy return to the capital. “I managed to take money from my plastic card and after 3 hours all the cards in geoergia were blocked, if not that money I couldn’t pay for travelling, because everybody refused to take us home, only one man agreed and he asked for 100 from each person. So I paid 100 lari (about $67 in a country where the average monthly salary is a fraction of that) to get from West part of Georgia to Tbilisi.”

This expansion began with laying claims to the national identity of many from the former Soviet Republics. In early 2006, Russia severely limited the number of migrant workers allowed to operate within the country, shortly thereafter erasing barriers to Russian citizenship. This effectively turned a large labor force from former Soviet Republics into Russian citizens with Russian passports. In the context of Russia’s current conflict with Georgia, it means that in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where many people have Russian passports from time spent working in Russia, direct intervention could be justified on the grounds of protecting its citizens. But the implications extend beyond Georgia.

Imagine if the United States were to grant all its illegal aliens full amnesty. For people who come to the US to work (and send money home) it would then be easier to become a citizen than to obtain a temporary work permit. What if the US then used this as an opportunity to point out inhumane conditions in the maquiladoras just south of the border. “American citizens are suffering human rights abuses and need our help.” The US could then invade – and absorb – northern Mexico on the pretext of helping its new citizens.

In reality, territory expansion is no logner a priority for the US government, and a lively public debate on immigration makes this scenario highly unlikely. However in Russia state-and oligarch-controlled media have prevented a full debate on the citizenship issue, and there is political capital to be gained in the eyes of the Russian people by any moves to restore the country to its former superpower status. And this has been accomplished in a series of moves,

To the West, Europe turned a blind eye. Claims that Minsk had been illegally siphoning off oil from Russian pipelines meant a full scale shut down on production. The resulting effect on Germany’s own oil imports provoked the German Chancellor and European Union president at the time, Angela Merkel, to denounce the pipeline closure. Despite stating that the actions “destroyed trust” in Russia as an energy supplier, little was done to reprimand them. With Europe’s largest reserves of natural gas, the world’s second largest reserves of coal, and control over the pipelines reaching into it, it is not surprising that the levels of international outcry seemed somewhat reserved.

In the East too, as a member of United Nations Security Council, Russia joined China to veto a U.S.-sponsored resolution calling on Myanmar’s military junta to stop the persecution of minority and opposition groups. The act was notable as the countries had not joined together to cast a double veto since 1972. Their argument was that human rights violations were not the purview of the Security Council unless they endangered regional or international peace and security, which Myanmar, according to them, did not.

Even to the North, earlier this year Russia had laid territorial claim to the North Pole by planting a flag on the territory otherwise recognized by international law.

The south has been the least lucky. In Georgia , like many countries, independence from the Soviet Union meant years of turmoil. On the ground this has meant institutionalized corruption and a failed energy privatization plan leading to rolling blackouts. Some areas of the capital had as little as 5 hours of electricity per day, putting a noisy and nasty diesel-powered generator inside every home and business.

This was until fall 2003, when Mikhael Saakashvili was swept into power by the discontented masses in a bloodless coup known as the Rose Revolution. To the West, he went by the nickname “Misha” and served as proof that these former Soviet colonies could and would become future democracies. Ukraine followed shortly thereafter with the Orange Revolution, Kyrgyzstan with the Tulip revolution and talks were underway about which country would be next and under the auspices of what color. Denim Revolution in Belarus? Pomegranate for Armenia?

To Russia, he served as proof that their former republics could align with the West, thus threatening their sphere of influence. The Baltic countries and Poland had already entered the EU and Ukraine NATO. At each point, Russia warned of repercussions.

“the whole diplomatic corps is in tbilisi, Putin wants to kill Misha and let Giorgadze (the anit-Western opposition leader) rule the world.” While the feelings from inside the country prepare Georgians for the worst, what’s the rest of the world’s reaction to this event? China, obviously upset over losing headlines, called for a ceasefire in honor of the Olympic games. Stern words have been exchanged with US leadership that finds itself too entrenched in other conflicts to offer stability. And while the leaders of several former Soviet Republics visited Georgia as a show of solidarity, no one else has.
If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it then I’m nervous about the future, given how little attention has been paid to Russia’s recent actions. “i hope that they will not cut the internet but anyway i am writing you everything in details,” Keti wrote me, a reminder of last fall’s Buddhist monk-led protests in Burma, when the military brutally clamped down on peaceful demonstrations, simultaneously shutting off the internet and all communication to the outside world. My Georgian friends have learned the lesson – Keti and others have been sending updates since the start of the invasion.
But while Georgians have remained ever mindful of the lumbering giant to the north, how well has the West tracked Russia’s actions? Now we face a situation a humiliated former superpower is poised to regain its former place by playing by its own rules. And if Russia has learned that unilaterally invading oil-rich countries to oust dictators who pose a threat to their people is legitimate, then Georgia’s neighbor to the east – Azerbaijan – should be planning a better fall-back plan than the one Georgia had.

“I spent the whole childhood in fear because of the civil war in 90’s and the war again now???? I don’t want to live here, I come to this world once so I don’t want to spend the whole life in fear. I am sick and tired of politics,” ends an email I received from Marie upon waking up this morning. I’ll see what tomorrow brings.

This originally appeared on Salon.com.

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