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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 their attempt to build a modern European state.
This historical tension reached its peak in 2008, when Russia repelled a Georgian attempt to regain control of South Ossetia, a self-declared independent state carved out of Soviet-era Georgia. Seizing the moment, Moscow then recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another region Georgia regards as its territory, and declared that it would guarantee their security.
Georgia was left feeling beaten and betrayed. It had counted too heavily on its friendship with the United States and seemed to believe, foolishly, that it already enjoyed the rights of NATO membership. Stung by being left to fight Russia alone, its military's puniness relative to its huge northern neighbor, and the loss of 20 percent of its territory in the war, Georgia decided to set out a new course.
In short, it turned away from its distant and unreliable partners in the West and instead began to focus on its regional relationships and influence. "Before the August 2008 war, we were aiming for NATO and the European Union, neglecting the region," said Ghia Nodia, the director of a new school for Caucasus studies at Tbilisi's Ilia State University. "Now, our foreign policy is more region-centric. We are trying to develop relations with Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan."
Indeed, Georgia now buys gas from Iran, is a transit point for oil from Azerbaijan, and has a free-trade agreement with Turkey. These relationships existed before 2008 but have received much more time and effort since the war, as Georgia is pushing to turn itself into a business-friendly regional hub. Taken together, these moves represent a less ambitious and more achievable post-2008 foreign policy -- but they shrink beside the giant gamble Georgia is now taking with Russia.
Saakashvili outlined his rhetorical vision of a "united Caucasus" at the United Nations in September. "We might belong to different states and live on different side of the mountains," he said, "but in terms of human and cultural space, there is no North and South Caucasus; there is one Caucasus, that belongs to Europe and will one day join the European family of free nations, following the Georgian path."
Although this speech may sound like a platitude, to Russia it came off as a threat. If Saakashvili succeeds and the peoples of the North Caucasus do indeed follow his "Georgian path" -- which, for Saakashvili, means democratization, open markets, free media, and friendship with the West -- then Russia's influence would be extinguished along its southern border.
Moscow was inevitably furious, calling the surprise lifting of visas for some of its citizens a "provocation." The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that any "attempt to divide the population of Russia into different categories contradicts the norms of civilized interstate relations."
The Russian government had spotted the likely endgame of Georgia's plan. If the residents of the North Caucasus are divided from other Russian citizens and start looking to Tbilisi for markets, money, power, and prestige, then Moscow will have to work harder to secure their loyalty. The Kremlin already funds most of the budgets of the North Caucasus republics and gives regional politicians unprecedented freedom of action; anything more would be expensive and embarrassing. Above all, Moscow's attention and resources would be forced away from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where it maintains military garrisons, thus taking some of the pressure off Georgia.
Visa-free travel to Georgia has opened up new trading markets that Russian citizens to the north of the mountains previously could not reach. In Tbilisi, Russians are coming over to buy cars at the relatively lower Georgian prices and then selling them back home. Meanwhile, the Georgian government is launching PIK, a new Russian-language satellite channel, to give Russians access to the Georgian press, much of which is anti-Moscow in its rhetoric.
Georgia's gambit, however, is not universally loved in Tbilisi. Some Georgian opposition politicians worry that Russia will use the change in visa policy as an excuse to smuggle Russian agents into Georgia and otherwise undermine the Georgian state. Besides, some argue, Georgia cannot craft a new Caucasus policy on its own. "A border has two sides, and the Russians will only allow the people they want to pass," said Sozar Subari, formerly a human rights ombudsman in Georgia and now an opposition politician.
Meanwhile, other Georgian political figures are afraid that Tbilisi is inviting the violence that plagues the North Caucasus to spread into Georgia. Over the last decade, suicide bombings, shoot-outs, and kidnappings have spread out of Chechnya and into the other republics of the North Caucasus, especially Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.
Any decline of Russian influence on its side of the mountains could spur interethnic conflict -- a possibility perhaps even more worrying for outside powers. Ethnic distrust burst into violence between Ingush and Ossetians in the 1990s, and tension is growing between Turkic Karachai-Balkars and Circassians. Both the Karachai-Balkars and the Circassians -- who live in the Russian regions of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, as well as in diaspora communities throughout the Middle East -- suffered deportation at Russian hands. These two deportations, the Circassians in 1864 and the mountain Turks in 1943-44, left behind accusations of land theft and complicity in genocide. If Georgia's policy opens the fissures of ethnic conflict in Russian territory, the results could prove uncontrollable.
But these counter-arguments have little sway in Tbilisi, where the ruling elite has little but contempt for Russia. At the moment, the Georgian parliament is discussing potential resolutions that would officially recognize the Russian deportations of the Circassians and Chechens in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as genocide, which would simultaneously enrage Russia and encourage the more hard-line nationalists within those groups.
So far, Washington appears to be dangerously silent on the provocative, and potentially destabilizing, moves of its ally. During the buildup to the 2008 war, Georgia's friends in the West neglected their duty to calm Saakashvili's government -- and they may be doing the same thing today.
Last month, I attended a conference on the Caucasus in Tbilisi co-hosted by the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. policy center that focuses in part on the former Soviet Union and has former George W. Bush administration officials on its board. U.S. and other Western academics at the conference fed Georgia's anti-Russian sentiment. Many openly compared the North Caucasus to the national republics of the Soviet Union, as if independence is just round the corner.
I spoke with Glen Howard, the president of Jamestown, who worked in the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya with Zbigniew Brzezinski. "My view is: learn as much as you can about the nationalities," he told me, referring to the disparate ethnic groups in the Caucasus, which one day, he seemed to be suggesting, may have independent homelands. After all, he said, similar things have happened. "I remember when Azerbaijan got independence, the State Department opened a two-person embassy and was looking for experts on Baku."
After the conference finished, I drove toward the Russian border. It was clear that maintenance crews had not managed to keep up with the Georgian government's strategic planning: the road was a potholed wreck. There was only a small trickle of Russian cars braving the ruts to make the journey to Tbilisi, but if the Georgians repair the road, that could become a steady flow.
It is just a few hours' drive for Ossetians, Chechens, Circassians, and others in the Russian North Caucasus to reach Tbilisi. The Georgians genuinely have the possibility of creating a capital for the Caucasus. It remains to be seen, however, if they have the responsibility to wield the power that such a role would give them.