By Simon WheelanThe following is an article on the US-backed coup in Georgia and its aftermath. It was first published on the World Socialist website.
Georgia’s so-called “rose revolution,” instigated in Washington and executed in Tbilisi, has not stemmed the country’s malaise. Instead, the usurping of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime with one even more firmly orientated towards Washington has intensified the struggle between Russia and the United States to dominate the strategically crucial southern Caucasus region.The geo-political significance of Georgia cannot be underestimated. It sits astride the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines, situated between the Black and Caspian seas, containing two, possibly three breakaway provinces, and borders Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia.The oil and gas pipelines, shifting Caucasus energy resources away from Russia and Eurasia towards Western markets, must travel more than 1,000 miles through three unstable countries, skirting predominately Kurdish southeast Turkey and passing within 60 miles of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, which borders Chechnya. Consequently, the geo-political struggle for control of the region has led to the resurrection of “The Great Game” as a term to describe the struggle between the Bush and Putin governments to dominate the Caucasus and Central Asia.Regional commentators have remarked upon the relative inexperience of the interim government trio of Mikhail Saakashvili, acting president Nino Burdzhanadze and Zhurab Zhvania. These three former underlings of Shevardnadze will most likely make up the forthcoming government, with Saakashvili crowned president. Their overt reliance upon the Bush administration in Washington and their plans for the reintegration of Georgia can only further destabilise the Caucasus.Saakashvili is threatening to reintegrate the province of Ajaria back into Georgia, by force if necessary. After taking power, he growled, “The revolution continues and will only be over when Georgia becomes happy, successful and fully formed.”This threat equally applies regarding the longstanding breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.Aslan Abashidze, the Ajarian governor who threw his lot in with Shevardnadze during the November elections, says the province will boycott the upcoming January 4 presidential and parliamentary elections called by the interim government.Until shortly before the November election, Abashidze and Shevardnadze were archenemies while Saakashvili was one of the then president’s golden boys. Abashidze has close relations with the Putin government, and Russian troops are stationed in the Ajarian capital of Batumi. Saakashvili is vowing to expel all Russian troops from Georgian soil.Whilst campaigning in Batumi for November’s election, Saakashvili’s henchmen clashed with Ajarian security forces. Handguns were drawn, but nobody was seriously hurt during a mass brawl.Abashidze recently spent time in Moscow with Russian political and business leaders, also visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan on Shevardnadze’s behalf before he was deposed. Rail and air links between Batumi and Tbilisi are severed. Both Abkhazian and South Ossetian authorities put their armed forces on alert once news from Tbilisi confirmed the success of the coup.In addition, the country is fraught with numerous divisions upon which demagogues can flourish under circumstances of want and inequality. Georgia’s ethnic Azeri-dominated area of Kvemo Kartli and the ethnic Armenian region of Samtkhe-Javakheti, where Russia also has troops stationed, are unstable. The breakaway province of Abkhazia is predominately Muslim, whilst the Orthodox Georgian and Russian church dominates in Tbilisi. Many South Ossetians have a greater affinity with the Russian region of North Ossetia than with Tbilisi.The Georgian economy is at serious risk of financially defaulting, with debts accounting for 60 percent of GDP. The provisional government has continued with the austerity policies of its predecessor Shevardnadze and vowed to adhere to the demands of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, not to mention Washington. The administration, its key members nurtured under the tutelage of Shevardnadze, has warned Georgians to tighten their belts and not to expect any dramatic progress in living standards.Emulating the Shevardnadze regime, the interim government shared out official posts between their relatives and close associates. Even then, some elements were dissatisfied and tension emerged between the various factions.Tensions grow between Russia and the USSince the ousting of Shevardnadze, the Russian and American governments’ struggle for Tbilisi has accelerated. Bush apparently told Georgian interim leader Nino Burdzhanadze, “If you have a problem, call the White House and we will help immediately.” For his part, the Russian president Vladimir Putin has put the new Tbilisi incumbents under pressure at every possible opportunity.US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently completed a regional tour of the Caucasus and Central Asia. He was originally scheduled to fly from Baku, Azerbaijan, to visit the Uzbeki leader Islam Karimov, but thick fog over the Uzbek capital Tashkent prevented any landing. Instead, Rumsfeld was flown to Tbilisi to visit those who, with the assistance of his government, had unseated Shevardnadze.Speaking aggressively on behalf of the new comprador regime in Tbilisi, Rumsfeld informed Moscow in no uncertain terms that it must immediately abide by the Istanbul Accord of 1999 to withdraw its troops from Georgia. To which Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign secretary retorted, “As a professional diplomat, I recommend everyone read the documents, preferably the original.” The Putin government claims to require at least a decade to withdraw from Georgian territory, and that the accord allows it to retain a smaller number of troops in the country.Rumsfeld continued by praising Georgia as “a staunch friend of the West,” commending its contribution towards the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. (Shevardnadze dispatched a special operations forces contingent to Iraq after the coalition invasion.)As Rumsfeld visited, a team of State Department, Pentagon, Treasury and National Security Council officials were already in Tbilisi consulting with the interim administration over future policies.Rumsfeld also found time to visit the Train and Equip military complex where the Bush regime has special operations and marines training four battalions of Georgian troops. Acting president Burdzhanadze took the occasion to express her deepest wish that the two-year $64 million programme will continue in the future, eventually leading to the training of a mechanised army unit. Using this foothold, the Bush administration intends to keep military advisers and troops permanently in Georgia.Meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Maastricht, just after the Tbilisi coup, at a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Burdzhanadze called for the swift withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian soil. Condemning Russia for supporting two breakaway republics and the separatist ambitions of Ajarian despot Abashidze, Powell insisted that Moscow should “respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.” The US has troops in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, in numerous Central Asian states, and of course in Iraq, only a few hundred miles south of Tbilisi.Burdzhanadze called for Georgia to be allowed to join both NATO and the European Union. In her very first speech to the nation as its new leader, she promised not to deviate from the strongly pro-Western policies pursued by Shevardnadze until his later veer towards the Kremlin.In the last few days, the government in Tbilisi has decried Russia for seeking to undermine its sovereignty by introducing a new visa for residents of Ajaria. Burdzhanadze claimed this was “one set of rules for the lord and another for the vassal,” now that Ajarians can obtain an entry visa on arrival at Russian airports whereas other Georgians must queue at the Russian embassy.Georgian security officials have also accused Russia of sponsoring saboteurs planning to attack the $3 billion oil and gas pipelines.Russia continues to assert that Shevardnadze was removed by undemocratic means. Whilst laying most of the blame at the door of Washington, Putin has also chastised the US orientation of Shevardnadze. In a cabinet meeting immediately after the Tbilisi coup, Putin spoke of how “The change of power in Georgia is the logical result of a series of systematic mistakes in its domestic, foreign and economic policies.”For his part, Shevardnadze blames, amongst others, George Soros for his downfall and called the Bush administration a “fair-weather friend”’ that ditched him when the going got tough.Moscow has demanded Georgia explain why days after the coup it permitted Russian business tycoon Boris Berezovsky to land in Tbilisi without hindrance. The Russian foreign ministry reminded Georgia of its responsibility regarding his international arrest warrant. Wanted for fraud and embezzlement, Berezovsky has been granted asylum in Britain. Travelling under the alias of a British citizen, Elein Platon, he briefly visited Ekho Moskvy radio. Berezovsky is among the oligarchs most closely associated with Boris Yeltsin who, having later fallen out with Vladimir Putin, fled the country. Berezovsky has admitted giving financial aid to rebel separatists in Chechnya.US lays claim to CaspianThe Clinton regime was instrumental in initiating US penetration into the Southern Caucasus and Caspian after capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union. Together with an international oil consortium, it aggressively courted the Caucasus regimes, especially Azerbaijan and Georgia, with vast amounts of misappropriated aid and bribes, forcing through the pipeline deals to bring oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The gas will arrive in another Turkish destination, inland Erzurum. Clinton described this enterprise as being of “vital national interest.”The Bush administration has continued where the Democrats left off, making the necessary changes as and when required. Richard Miles, who later would play a central role in Shevardnadze’s downfall after becoming ambassador to Georgia last year, was in 1993 named ambassador to neighbouring Azerbaijan. His role was to overcome inertia concerning pipeline construction contracts. His later move to Tbilisi would coincide with the deployment of US troops into Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge last year.Speaking in 1998, Vice President Richard Cheney admitted, “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”In June 2000, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College published a document entitled “US military engagement with Transcaucasus and Central Asia,” identifying the region as providing an alternative to the potentially unstable Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula for a source of energy. While some of the more extravagant claims concerning the Caspian’s yield are being questioned, the whole region, including as yet underexploited Kazakhstani reserves, add up to a potential 160 billion barrels of oil.The document recognises the threat posed by the major regional power, warning, “Russia could sabotage many if not all of the forthcoming energy projects by relatively simple and tested means and there is not much we could do absent a strong and lasting regional commitment.”Capitalising upon the 9/11 attacks, this is exactly what the Bush regime has accomplished—a regional military commitment, with bases right across Central Asia.Subsequent wars on Afghanistan in Central Asia and Iraq in the Persian Gulf underline the role of access to energy sources in Washington’s geo-political calculations. Its policies have combined economic, political and military measures in order to secure control of the South Caucasus and Central Asia.With regards to Georgia, in June this year Steven Mann, an American advisor on energy issues, had warned Shevardnadze, “Georgia should do nothing that undercuts the powerful promise of an East-West energy corridor.”In July, ex-secretary of state, Texas oil man and Bush family intimate James Baker landed in Tbilisi. Officially his mission was to end an impasse between Shevardnadze’s regime and the opposition concerning the composition of the Central Electoral Committee. Baker’s law firm, Baker Botts, boasts on its web page of how they “continue to be the leading international law firm involved in the re-emergence of the oil, gas and related hydrocarbon transportation industries in the Caspian region and has one of the most active practices in the US with respect to other types of investment in the region.”Spurned by Washington, by August Shevardnadze was leaning on the Kremlin for support. He curried favour with Moscow by signing a strategic deal with Russia’s Gazprom. Another Moscow-based company, Unified Energy Systems (UES), acquired a formerly US-owned controlling stake in Georgian power plants and distribution networks.The Bush regime responded to this infringement of their dominance by announcing large cuts in aid to Georgia. Behind the scenes they were already preparing to bring down Shevardnadze. Earlier last summer the World Bank had expressed its displeasure at Tbilisi and suspended social and energy industry programs to Georgia.In early October Senator John McCain, General Shalikashvili and Strobe Talbott were scheduled to land in Tbilisi. With their visit imminent and the pressure from Washington intensifying, Shevardnadze told reporters, “I don’t know what they are planning to do with us, are they coming to help us or to bury us?”’ They were intent on burying him.The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a Washington body headed by former Clinton Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright, sponsored the visit by McCain et al. McCain told Georgians, “We would want Georgia to become as independent as possible from Russia or any other country.”Richard Miles, by now ambassador to Tbilisi, had been actively grooming the US-trained lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili to bring about a succession. Shevardnadze walked straight into their trap by crudely attempting to falsify the results of the November 2 election. Miles was the chief of mission to Yugoslavia between 1996 and 1999. He was one of the main players in pushing the Kosovo crisis into a war, in which NATO could then intervene and crush Serbia. In 2000, Slobodan Milosevic was unseated in circumstances very similar to those that would subsequently be employed against Shevardnadze.Tactics included the extensive grooming of Saakashvili and his entourage, US pollsters, strategists, consultants and non-governmental organisations employed to defeat the ballot rigging through “parallel vote tabulations” and instant exit polls. The propaganda battle was won through extensive coverage on anti-Shevardnadze television channels like Rustavi-2.Russia doubles efforts to dominate CaucasusThe Kremlin considers Georgia and the south Caucasus much like Washington considers Central America—as its backyard. Putin has urged the new regime in Tbilisi to come to its senses and recognise the “geopolitical reality” facing Georgia. The Kremlin does not consider lightly US interference in Central Asia and the Caucasus; their investment in oil and gas pipelines that deliberately avoid Russia territory, the establishment of military bases across the region, and last but by no means least, the creation of comprador regional governments working at the behest of Washington.Russian policymakers have taken on board the lessons of recent US military interventions. Anatoly Chubai, Russia’s former privatisation chief, presently heads Unified Energy Systems (UES). In September, in a Russian daily, he wrote of the need for Russia to promote “liberal capitalism” and to construct a “liberal empire.” Adding that economically and culturally Russia is a “natural leader” of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), he insisted that it must “beef up, increase and strengthen its leadership position in this part of the globe.”On national television he cited free market economic practices and aggressive expansion as the foundation of a future Russian foreign policy. Only through their adoption and an aggressive programme to establish an empire could Russia “occupy its natural place alongside the United States, the European Union and Japan, the place designated for it by history.”During the summer Chubais negotiated the Georgia-UES deal, buying up contracts and infrastructure. The recent opening of a military base in Kyrgyzstan reinforces Chubais’s ambitions. This Russian project for a “Eurasian Union,” with its echoes of the anti-Bolshevik Prince Nikolai S. Trubetskoy’s Pan-Eurasian nationalism, brings Russia directly into conflict with America’s designs on the region.The south Caucasus is in the forefront of Russia’s strategy to increase its leverage over those states it considers its “near abroad.” Moscow acknowledges that it intends to employ similar tactics in the rest of the Russian orbit, including the Ukraine and Central Asia states formerly part of the Soviet Union.The Russian electricity giants RAO and UES, which are majority owned by the government, have been at the forefront of attempts to establish regional supremacy. RAO has acquired large stakes in energy ventures in neighbouring Armenia and Georgia and has announced plans to export energy to Turkey and Azerbaijan.In October Chubais travelled to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to finalise the deal with its leader Robert Kocharian. Chubais holds no official post in the current Putin administration, but he met with not only the premier but also his defence minister, Serzh Sarkisian. Speaking after the deal was signed, Chubais revealed that Armenia would be incorporated into a Russian-led energy supply network consisting of 10 former Soviet republics including Georgia and Azerbaijan. UES controls 80 percent of Armenia’s power generating capacity and wants to lease and repair high voltage transmission lines that span from Armenia to Azerbaijan and Turkey. The World Bank has expressed serious concerns about this increasingly aggressive domination of the region’s energy supplies by Russia.UES does not seem overly worried by the fact that Baku and Ankara have tense relations with Yerevan. Chubais wishes to utilise the south Caucasus region as a bridgehead to the Turkish market. He has referred to Turkish opportunities as “fantastically attractive” in terms of wholesale prices for energy and development. In addition the Russian government have their eyes on other big projects like the Turkish aluminium sector and other heavy power consuming industries.Chubais is frank about the need to impose Russian power over the surrounding region, stating boldly that “Russia should be strong. Period.”Conflict over gas and oil pipelinesPossibly the most effective lever Moscow has over Tbilisi is its relationship with Georgia’s two autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and a third, Ajaria, with limited autonomy from Tbilisi. While repeatedly stating their support for Georgia’s integrity, Russia has invited leaders of all three to Moscow. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has restated that his government will continue to provide assistance to the three regions.The Russian government has warned America against any further attempts to base troops in the Caspian region. Nikolai Ryabov, Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, explained how “Caspian security problems will be resolved by countries of the region without meddling by the US, which is trying everything possible to worry a region that is thousands of kilometres from its borders.”Because of the pipelines the geopolitical significance of Georgia has grown way beyond its 5 million population. The pipelines are due for completion in 2005 and will carry a million barrels of crude oil per day from the oil-rich Azeri, Chirag and Gunashli fields of the Caspian to Turkey. The Russians oppose the route taken because it circumvents Russian soil, undermining its energy interests and influence in the former Soviet region. In addition the US-backed route competes with the Russian’s Baku-Novorossisk line, which runs from the Azerbaijan capital through Chechnya to the Black Sea port. Amongst the first phone calls made by acting President Burdzhanadze on coming to power was to British Petroleum, pledging that the interim administration would do all in its power to support the new oil and gas pipelines.Earlier this year Gazprom signed a framework agreement on supplying gas to Georgia. It could make it easier for Russia to cut supplies to Georgia during winter as they have done before, and might also allow Gazprom to steal a march on the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline by delivering its gas to the Turkish market first via the existing networks.The recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-boss of Yukos, is part of similar calculations by the Putin regime. Soon after the arrest, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defence minister, called for more state control over Russia’s energy reserves. Ivanov complained that the oil companies are not investing enough in exploring for new reserves and that the oil produced currently is down to the previous efforts of the Soviet Union. When Khodorkovsky started at Yokos it was making huge losses. It is now so profitable that Exxon-Mobil, the American oil giant, is interested in purchasing it.Russia’s efforts to dominate the energy supplies of the south Caucasus have not passed Washington by. Participants at a recent roundtable meeting on October 15, entitled “Georgia Energy Security: Potential or Peril,” urged Georgia to take back control of its energy sources. The event was sponsored by a Georgian émigré business group called the Georgia Forum. It supports Georgia’s political and economic development and better relations between Tbilisi and Washington.Brenda Schaffer of Harvard University’s Caspian Studies Program advises the Bush administration to work as partners with Moscow. She recently wrote, “Washington should adopt a policy that recognises and incorporates the key role that Russia plays and will continue to play in the area…. If Russia does not view the peace arrangements as minimally contributing to its own security, it will work to undermine them.” But such a modus vivendi is unlikely, given the voracious appetites of Moscow and Washington.