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Hands off Georgia

Yeltsin's selection of Putin as his successor surprised many Kremlin watchers. Putin's rise to power may have seemed meteoric, even inexplicable. But it fit a plan laid out years before Putin entered national politics. Putin had a vision of what Russia should be and an unwavering belief in the lightness of that vision. Now he was in the driver's seat, surrounded by competent people he could trust. He had the ability to diagnose and solve problems. And he didn't give a tinker's damn what anyone thought of him.

We now know he was lucky to have popped into his position at the top at just the right time; arriving even a few years earlier or later would have made his rise far more difficult, if not impossible. But he always knew what he wanted and the best path to get it.

As we have seen, Putin moved early to define himself in the eyes of the public with his no-nonsense handling of Chechnya. Then he showed who was boss in Russia by taking down some of the previously untouchable oligarchs and domesticating the others. In doing so, he also took charge of Russia's energy sector, according to plan. It was the base upon which he intended to build the modern counterpart of Peter's empire. He seized control of the oil fields by digesting Yukos and placing Rosneft, Gazprom, and other energy companies in the hands of his loyalists.

It was in his long-term interest to maintain close ties with (if not domination of) many of the former Soviet states as well, since they held so much of the energy and infrastructure assets that were needed for his plan.

Georgia in particular had always been a thorn in Russia's side. In past centuries, it had repeatedly entangled Russia in conflicts with Iranians and Ottomans. More recently, it pursued an energy policy that conflicted with Russia's and sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1991, Russia recognized Georgia's independence, which it had gained through the demise of the Soviet Union . But within the Georgian Republic, there was friction over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two autonomous zones whose populations had long been cordial to Russia and did not speak the Georgian language, and whose forebears had fought against Georgians for centuries. They wanted to break away and be recognized as sovereign states.

In 2003 came the Rose Revolution, which deposed the autocratic Eduard Shevardnadze (a Georgian native and formerly Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev) as president of Georgia.

Shevardnadze's administration had been strongly pro-Western. The country accepted financial and military aid from the United States, signed a strategic partnership with NATO, and declared an ambition to join both NATO and the European Union. Notably, Shevardnadze made a $3 billion deal with Western investors to build a pipeline to carry oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey, in competition with portions of the Russian pipeline network.

There had been several attempts on Shevardnadze's life, and some people blamed at least one of them on Russia. They may have been right. Not only was Moscow offended by Shevardnadze's ties to the United States—which welcomed him as a counterbalance to Russian influence in the Transcaucasus region—but the Russians also believed he had supported terrorists in neighboring Chechnya while Russia had been at war in that region.

Throughout Shevardnadze's reign, Georgia suffered from an epidemic of common crime and rampant corruption, especially among senior officials and politicians. His closest advisers, including several members of his family, were accumulating enormous wealth; the inner circle may have controlled as much as 70 percent of the economy.

While Shevardnadze himself was not accused of profiteering, many Georgians held him guilty of shielding corrupt supporters and of abusing his powers of patronage. Add in stories of rigged elections, and Georgia became a brand name for dirty deeds.

Eventually, Shevardnadze's erstwhile benefactors in the United States grew tired of pouring money down a rat hole. Not only did they give up caring whether he stayed or went, but they also began pushing for greater democracy and honest elections. For once, Moscow and Washington were more or less aligned.

Shevardnadze went. But the Rose Revolution was anything but a march of the flower children. It was largely orchestrated by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which play a large political role in this part of the world.

Georgia's 1997 Civil Code had made the registration of NGOs relatively easy, and they operated with few restrictions. Not surprisingly, they proliferated. By the end of 2000, the number of NGOs in Georgia was estimated at 4,000. Not all of them were political, of course. But those that were political had strong financial backing from outside the country—as Western support shifted from the regime to the opposition—and a significant number had leverage with parliament. Though few members of the public directly participated in them, NGOs were instrumental in rallying the people to challenge Shevardnadze.

The showdown came after the parliamentary elections on November 2, 2003. The following day, protestors in the capital of Tbilisi cried fraud and labeled the new parliament illegitimate. The crowd slowly grew to over 100,000 demonstrators (3 percent of the country's entire population) demanding Shevardnadze's resignation. It all ended 20 days later, on November 23, when Shevardnadze stepped down.

Nearly everyone had something to celebrate, because the Rose Revolution had come without bloodshed. Even though Shevardnadze had sent soldiers into the streets, they had refused to shoot anyone.

Notably, Putin declined to intervene, despite Georgia being a close neighbor and despite the ongoing tension over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Without question, his Soviet predecessors would have moved in quickly to squash the first sign of dissent. Not Putin. He's hardly reluctant to project military force, but the decision always comes from calculation and never from reflex. He carefully calculates the costs and risk of acting, and weighs them against the likely benefit to the homeland. He's also constrained by a genuine, if not absolute, respect for the law; he prefers to act within it, or at least within his interpretation of it. Thus, unless there is a compelling need to intervene, he'll stand aside and let matters play out.

Nevertheless, it is best not to poke him in the eye, as Georgia found out four and a half years later.

Hands on Georgia

Conflict began, unsurprisingly, over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two would-be countries—mindful of the recognition given Kosovo after its own declaration of independence—had submitted requests to Russia and other countries, and to international organizations, asking to be treated similarly.

In April 2008, Putin (then prime minister under President Medvedev, but still pulling all the strings) announced that Russia would consider recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Violence escalated through the summer, as separatists in the two regions fought for independence, bolstered by Russian military support, while Georgia, which wished to join NATO, received aid from the West.

It was yet another proxy war, but with this kicker: Gazprom was considering the construction of a gas pipeline to Abkhazia.

In any event, Russia recognized the two countries in August 2008, and that precipitated the Russo-Georgian War. Georgia sent troops to South Ossetia to reclaim its territory. Russia sent troops to oppose them and launched airstrikes the next day.

It was a brief conflict, ending in a ceasefire after just 12 days. Casualties were few, although hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced. Georgia lost nearly one-fifth of its territory and 6 percent of its population, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued on their way as Russian-recognized sovereign countries.

Note that Putin didn't commit to full-scale war, nor did he try to annex Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He merely maintained the status quo through a measured military response.

Postwar, he (through then-President Medvedev) worked to replace confrontation with cooperation. Despite lingering bad feelings, in November 2011, Georgia and Russia agreed to a Swiss-mediated proposal for monitoring the trade between them. It was good fence-mending, with a bonus for Russia. Smoothing relations with Georgia allowed Russia to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Membership in the WTO requires a consensus, and Russia needed an "Aye" from Georgia.

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