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Q&A on WTF Is Going on with Russia And Georgia, Part I: Who Started It?

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[Warning: This is the first of a two-part series and they're both REALLY long. If you have little patience, intelligence, interest in what's going on in the Russian/Georgian conflict, or think that Russia took over Atlanta, this isn't for you. If, however, you've been paying attention to this, are trading energy futures and/or are loaded up on BRIC countries -- and Russia is the 'R' in BRIC -- you're going to want to read this.]
If you've been following the news this past weekend, the real story wasn't Michael Phelps or even jillion-dollar extravaganza opening ceremonies in Beijing. Rather, it was the flare-up between Russia and Georgia. If you haven't heard, there's a lot of oil and natural gas in that area and the Russians bombed (though missed) a major pipeline. Nonetheless, oil prices continued to drop today, but the question is: What's going on there? Are the markets overreacting or under-reacting?
To get a handle on it, I asked three experts on the region for their input in a Q&A format. Each has a different approach to the situation but, surprisingly, they have similar conclusions. This broken up into two parts: first, 'Who Started It?' and, second, 'What's The World Going to Do About It?'.
After the jump, the forum begins.

Our experts are:
Alex Grigor'ev-Roinishvili is the Executive Director of the Princeton-based Project on Ethnic Relations, an international organization involved in resolution of ethnic conflict and post-conflict management. He holds degrees in history and international affairs from leading US and European Universities and is a recognized authority on the Balkans and especially the countries of former Yugoslavia. Experienced dealing with ministers and organizations of several countries in the region, he is fluent in Russian, Georgian, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Albanian, and English among other languages.
Julie Roginsky received a master's degree in political science, with an emphasis on post-Soviet economics, in 1995 in order to make her Russian parents happy. Since it has taken 13 years for someone to actually ask her opinion on something related to post-Soviet economics, she had to find real employment in the meantime and works as a Democratic political consultant and is frequently seen on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.
Daria Vaisman is a journalist who lived in Georgia for several years, where she was also an analyst and worked briefly in the Georgian Government. She is currently writing a book on US foreign policy in the former Soviet Union.
1.Who started it?
Alex Grigor'ev-Roinishvili: "In every ethnic conflict each side is right (and that is about the Georgian-South Ossetia conflict, I am not talking about Russia yet). It is hopeless to go into ancient history or even into the Soviet times. Georgia's abolishment of South Ossetia's autonomy under then President of Georgia Gamsakhurdia was a major turning point in angering the Ossetians and for launching their latest separatist movement. Russia's role from the very beginning was not the one of a peacemaker but an active defender and supporter of the Tskhinvali criminal war-lord regime. In fact, a number of people who are in charge in the self-proclaimed state stem from Russia's security structures. In the last decade the Russians have issued Russian passports to the majority of South Ossetia residents (same is true for Abkhazia). It was very easy for the Russians to justify the attack -- its citizens have been attacked. Never mind Russia's official recognition of Georgia's borders. The level of Russia's preparedness for the action last week suggests that Russia was getting ready for such a scenario and the question was not if but when. Georgia, on the other hand, has never seriously acted on negotiating a settlement with South Ossetians. There has never been a genuine offer to negotiate or a plan. The military was preparing as early as 2006 when the then Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili promised that he would celebrate Christmas in Tskhinvali [South Ossetia's capital]."

Julie Roginsky:
"De jure, the Georgians. De facto, the Russians."

Daria Vaisman:
"A good question. To use a political science term, the proximate -- the immediate -- cause of the conflict was Georgia taking control of South Ossetia, which was bound to make the Russians crazy. But the distal cause -- the real reason this happened -- is that Russia has been waiting for just this kind of opportunity to weaken Georgia for ages. "
2. No, really -- Who started it? Who can we blame when we're talking about it at a cocktail party trying to impress people with how much we know?
AGR: "You would really impress your party friends if you can produce a solution to this problem and not just talk about it."
JR: "It depends on the length of the cocktail party and how hard you are trying to impress your date. If the person you are trying to impress is of strong-to-medium-attractiveness and stronger-to-medium attention span, try this on:
Russia's President Vladimir Putin has spent the past decade vowing to restore what he considers Russia's rightful place on the world stage. The Russian felt humiliated by the West's actions with respect to Serbia in the 1990s and more recently by the fact that its former satellites Georgia and Ukraine were actually applying to be members of NATO. Clearly, having NATO nations on its borders is unacceptable to the Russians, who insist on hegemony among the former Soviet Republics.
In the meantime, ethnic minorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been chafing under Georgian rule and have asked for Russian help. After periodic fighting between South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Georgia, Russians sent in peace keepers. The Russians also used the West's recognition of Kosovo as an excuse to say that the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should get the same treatment as the Kosavars, who declared independence from Serbia, Russia's Balkan ally.
Arguably at Russian instigation, South Ossetian separatists provoked the Georgian army into invading them. This gave Russia the excuse to send its military and Black Sea fleet into first South Ossetia and then directly into Georgia and to declare war on Georgia. "
DV: "The Georgians are to blame for being hotheaded and for not thinking out their game-plan; the Russians are to blame for taking the retaliation to a level so disproportionate that it seems more shocking by the hour."
3. What's the real reason Russia is sending troops into South Ossetia?

AGR: "To shrink the pro-Western and especially pro-American advance in its neighborhood."
JR: "The real reason is threefold:
a) To teach the Georgians and other former Republics like Ukraine a lesson in who's in charge in the region and the consequences of ignoring that fact.
b) To teach the West, including the European Union and the United States, a lesson to the limits of Western power.
c) To effectuate a regime change, if possible, in Georgia, since its president is a young, western educated, pro-U.S. democrat who has had a notoriously poor relationship with Putin."
DV: "Russia has a long history of weakening its former colonies that have West-leaning ambitions by tampering with their ethnic minority populations. It started way back with Stalin, in fact. Russia sees South Ossetia as part of its sphere of influence, and the Ossetians themselves felt much closer to Russia than they did the Georgians, whom they feared since Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s."

4. Is Russia trying to prove they're a superpower here or are they just really annoyed with Georgia?

AGR: "Both. Plus secure its interests geopolitically and economically, especially with regards to energy."
JR: "Both. They are, in fact, an economic superpower in ways few others are. The country is awash in petrodollars. From an economic standpoint, one-third of Europe's natural gas comes from Russia. The Russians have come close to bombing -- though have not yet destroyed -- the only oil pipeline in the Caucuses that bypasses Russia altogether and which provides oil to Western Europe. Russia is fully aware that Western friendship towards Georgia exists in large part to break Russian dominance and control over Caspian Sea oil and gas exports, since Georgia is a major transit hub of oil to Western markets. As a petrostate, Russia naturally finds this unacceptable. From a political standpoint, Russia fully knows the West needs Russia too much on issues such as Iran to come to Georgia's aid in any way other than rhetorically."
DV: "Both. What better way to flex your superpowers than to exhibit such unmediated annoyance? A geek may be just as angry as a bully in a schoolyard fight, but only one of them gets to show it."

5. It has been posited that Russia's interest is really to knock off Georgia's oil and gas pipelines, thereby getting rid of a major competitor for Caucasian energy. What do you think? Is that plausible?

AGR: "Geopolitics is much more important here."

"Yes, this is absolutely plausible. The goal is either to knock out the pipelines or to show that it could knock them out at any moment in order to get the West to respect Russia's regional dominance. As it is, oil prices rose over the weekend in part because shipments of oil from two Georgian ports have been suspended since Saturday due to fighting in South Ossetia."
DV: "I definitely don't think that was Russia's motivation. First of all, Georgia is only a transit country; the source of gas and oil is Azerbaijan, which has a relatively good relationship to Russia. That's not to say that Russia is happy about BTC [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline] -- it fought against it bitterly in the 1990s, when the Clinton Administration first proposed building the pipeline with the intention of breaking Russia's energy monopoly. But Russia is good at staying within an inch of international acceptability, which is to say that in their minds, going after Georgia is one thing, spooking Western investors another. In New Russia, business is business."
Next up: Part II: "What's The World Going to Do About It?"



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