Letter From Tbilisi: Toward a United Caucasus

A New Georgian Gamble in the Caucasus?

Courtesy Reuters

The Ossetians, long Russia's closest allies in the Caucasus, have plenty of reasons to dislike Georgia and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili. They are one of the few groups living on both the Russian and Georgian sides of the Caucasus Mountains, and they have fought two wars against Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the second of which ended with Russian troops pouring into Georgia to defend them in 2008.

In late November, Alan, a stocky Ossetian man, was waiting to cross back to his home in Russia at the Georgian customs post at Upper Lars, a red-roofed complex overhung by cliffs crowned by a medieval fortress. He was no longer among those Ossetians who detest Saakashvili -- though he could still not quite bring himself to utter the Georgian president's name. "Say thanks to," he said, pausing and flicking his head southward toward Tbilisi, "him."

Alan had not been to Georgia since the border was closed in 2006 and was grateful to Saakashvili for giving him the chance to see his brother who lives there. He was a beneficiary of a new Georgian policy, announced in October, granting visa-free travel to residents of Russia's half of the Caucasus Mountains. (Previously, Russian citizens in the North Caucasus had to travel to Moscow, hundreds of miles in the wrong direction, to apply for a visa and fly to Georgia; now they are free to simply drive the few hours to Georgia whenever they want.) Georgia's surprising and unilateral step has left Moscow flapping for a response.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has taken great offense at what it sees as Georgia's defection from its orbit. Georgia, for example, has pushed to join both NATO and the European Union. In Moscow's view, the Georgians and the Russians had been brothers since the eighteenth century, when Russia agreed to protect its fellow Christians in Tbilisi from invading Muslims. Georgians, however, see it differently, saying the Russians occupied their country in 1801 and interrupted

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