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Georgia: Another Messiah

30 October 2013

Georgia: Another Messiah

By Gwynne Dyer

“My work here is done,” said the masked man, as he mounted his horse and rode away. But he didn’t go very far away.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia doesn’t actually wear a mask, but he is mysterious enough without one. It’s never been quite clear how he got so rich – his fortune is estimated at $6.4 billion, about a third of the entire country’s annual GDP – but the real puzzle is his motives and goals. Why did he bother to become prime minister at all if he was planning to quit after only one year?

He returned home only ten years ago, after twenty years in Moscow. He built a huge and spectacular mansion in the hills above Tbilisi, the capital, and began doing good by stealth. The small Transcaucasian republic was near economic collapse at the time, and he quietly subsidised beloved Georgian artists and actors who could not make ends meet.

At one point Ivanishvili even paid the salaries of state employees when the government could not, and it has recently emerged that he paid for the massive new cathedral that now adorns the city centre. He clearly disliked the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, but he shunned politics and mostly stayed out of sight on his secluded estate like a James Bond villain, stroking his tame zebras in lieu of the statutory evil cat.

Then, eighteen months ago, he formed a political party that quickly combined with others to form the Georgian Dream coalition. Last October it won a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections and Ivanishvili became prime minister. On Monday his candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, replaced Saakashvili as president and his triumph was complete. So now he is going to quit.

Two months ago Ivanishvili announced that he would retire as prime minister as soon as Margvelashvili was installed in the presidency. Some other member of the Georgian Dream coalition will take over as prime minister, while Ivanshvili devotes himself to “strengthening civil society in Georgia as a private citizen.” Georgians must not think of him as a messiah, he says.

There have certainly been too many messiahs in Georgia’s recent history. After the old Soviet Union broke up in 1991 the first president of independent Georgia was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident and ethnic nationalist who led the country into a civil war. Georgia lost control of the ethnic minority regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under his rule, and he ended up shooting himself when surrounded by hostile militia troops.

Next came Eduard Shevardnadze, an old Communist apparatchik (he spent six years as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister) who had once gained fame as an anti-corruption crusader. Back home, however, he presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. His inner circle wound up controlling about 70 percent of the country’s economy, while most ordinary Georgians continued to live in wretched poverty.

The last messiah was Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched the non-violent “Rose Revolution” and restored democracy to Georgia in 2003. But Saakashvili also started and lost a war against Russia over breakaway South Ossetia in 2008.

The Georgian economy more than doubled in size during his decade in power, but at least a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty and unemployment remains above 15 percent. When people protested about his policies, they were met with violence and repression – so when Ivanishvili gave them a plausible alternative, they flocked to his banner.

Ivanishvili has never offered a coherent plan for Georgia or even very distinctive policies; Georgians appear to have chosen him as the next messiah simply because he has a lot of money and seems to be generous with it. And it doesn’t bother them where it comes from.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in the chaotic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and like all the other “oligarchs” who emerged in Russia at that time the exact route he took on his rise to great wealth remains obscure. All of them did it by privatising former state companies or property into their own pockets at derisory prices, but just how they managed that is rarely explained, and would usually not bear close inspection.

Never mind all that. Ivanishvili is the only Georgian billionaire, and his wealth and wisdom will save us all. In Monday’s election, his presidential candidate got 62 percent of the vote, compared to only 22 percent for the candidate chosen by the last messiah. (Saakashvili could not run for president again himself, having served two full terms.)

Ivanishvili’s decision to retire from high political office himself is less quixotic than it seems. He’s not actually relinquishing power: with loyal placemen in both the presidency and the prime minister’s office – president-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili said that he would always listen to his “authoritative friend” – he can continue to dominate affairs without having to take any personal responsibility if things go wrong.

Money doesn’t talk; it gives commands. And it doesn’t really do democracy, either: Ivanishvili’s government has already begun arresting Saakashvili’s former ministers on various charges, and the ex-messiah himself can probably expect the same treatment once he leaves the presidency. Salvation for Georgia is still not at hand.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 12. (“There have…poverty”; and “Ivanishvili made…inspection”)

 

 

A Year After: The South Ossetian War

1 August 200 9

A Year After: The South Ossetian War

By Gwynne 20Dyer

A year ago this week, Georgia attacked Russia. It was like Jamaica attacking the United States. It was such a foolish and foredoomed act that at first most people believed the Georgian propaganda blaming it all on the Russians. Surely Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wouldn’t do something so utterly stupid. But he did – and he lost, of course.

There are two hang-overs from the week-long war that still have not cleared up, however. One is the lingering impression in the West, left over from the way that Western media reported the conflict at the time, that the “Russian bear” has turned nasty and expansionist. The other is a promise to Georgia that should never have been made.

In the year since the war, it has become clear that the Georgian attack, which sought to regain control of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, was planned well in advance. The Russians only responded after their peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia came under Georgian attack, but the Georgians won the propaganda battle.

Saakashvili painted the Russians as evil aggressors, relying on Cold War stereotypes: “Russia’s war on Georgia echoes events in Finland in 1939, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968,” he told the Washington Post in August, 2008. It fitted Western preconceptions, so the media went along with it.

So did US presidential candidate John McCain, condemning Russia’s “violent aggression” and claiming that “Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe.” Barack Obama was more circumspect, but in the midst of an election campaign he chose not to expose his flank to the Cold Warriors of the Republican Party by openly challenging their version of events.

The other problem, from a European perspective, was US President George W. Bush’s push to get Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, admitted to the NATO alliance. These countries are to the south of Russia, not between it and Western Europe, and bringing them into the Western alliance would alarm and alienate the Russians. Yet there is no practical way that NATO could defend them if they got into a fight with the Russians.

Indeed, this concern may have been the main motive behind the creation of a European Union commission to investigate the origins of the war. The commission is led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who has served in the area as an observer, and it has been gathering evidence for almost a year now. If its conclusions blame the war on Georgia, as seems likely, they will not be unwelcome in Brussels.

Some of those conclusions were leaked last spring to the German newsmagazine “Der Spieg el”, and they support the contention that Georgia deliberately concentrated its troops and launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia, with the aim of seizing control of the province before Russia could respond.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Georgian troops, all equipped with modern US weapons, attacked the South Ossetian militia and about 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops who were stationed there on the night of 7 August. Even the Georgian “peacekeeping” battalion that was also stationed in the province took part in the attack. The local capital, Tskhinvali, fell into Georgian hands within hours, and dozens of Russian troops were killed or injured.

Moscow responded quickly, and a large Russian force, including heavy armour, was sent south from the Russian province of North Ossetia through the tunnel under the main Caucasus range (which the Georgians had failed to secure) on 8 August. In one more day Georgian troops had been driven out of South Ossetia, and the Russians even followed them some distance into Georgia proper before withdrawing again at the end of the month.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow and a former confidant of Saakashvili’s, testified to the Georgian parliament last November that Georgian officials told him in April 2008 that they planned to start a war to recover Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s two breakaway regions, and had 20received a green light from the United States government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia.

Both the evidence of observers on the ground and the testimony of disillusioned Georgian officials like Kitsmarishvili are driving the EU commission towards the conclusion that Russia merely responded to the Georgian aggression. It will be helpful to have an authoritative Western body acknowledge that Russia has not undergone some fundamental change of strategy.

The EU commission, whose report has been postponed until next month, will not formally recommend against Georgia joining NATO, but the implication there will also be clear. Nobody really believed that NATO would ever fight World War Three to save Georgia, even it were the innocent victim of Russian aggression, but by attacking Russia Saakashvili got everybody off the hook.

Retired British army colonel Christopher Langton, Senior Fellow for Conflict and Defence Diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, summed it up only weeks after the war. “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“In the year…battle”; and “So did…events”)

2008 Year-Ender

22 December 2008

2008 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

If Barack Obama can walk on water, then change really is coming to the United States and the world. If there are no more big unexploded bombs buried in the world’s financial systems, then this may be just an ordinary recession. But the most telling image of 2008 was Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at George W. Bush.

His brother says that he changed his shoes after he heard that he was being sent to cover the Bush press conference: he wanted to be sure that the ones he threw were Iraqi-made. He also gave some thought to his words: “This is the farewell kiss, you dog!” as he threw the first shoe, and “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq” with the second.

He doubtless knew that he would be beaten half to death afterwards by the security guards because he had embarrassed them. Over the next 24 hours, he was tortured into a “confession” that he had been induced to attack Bush by a “terrorist”. But what he did had enormous resonance elsewhere.

This is the end of an era, and everybody knows it. It coincides with the end of a year because of the rules on presidential succession in the US constitution, but we are not just saying farewell to 2008.

In the minds of most people — a majority of Americans, and the overwhelming majority of people elsewhere — we are saying good riddance to a long period when brutal and ignorant policies reigned supreme. We are saying goodbye to George W. Bush, and Muntadhar al-Zaidi said it most eloquently.

Bush was a relentlessly partisan president who saw no harm in using his office to help his friends, but his main fault was ignorance, not malevolence. It was wilful ignorance, for he is not a stupid man, and the damage it did was immense. I have been doing this job for a long time, but I cannot remember when the departure of a major political figure from the world scene was awaited with such eager anticipation in almost every country, including his own.

We are bound to be disappointed by the change, of course. Bush did not create all of the world’s problems, and they will not vanish when he does. In particular, the global financial crisis that exploded when the Bush administration decided not to save the foundering Lehman Brothers investment bank in September still has some distance to run, and the full extent of the damage is not yet known.

A recession was due around now regardless of who was running the US government, or indeed all the governments put together. Until some genius discovers a way to abolish the business cycle, which is driven by basic human psychology, recessions are bound to occur from time to time. What frightens people is the possibility, eagerly touted in the media, that this might be not just a recession, but an actual depression.

It’s a big difference: in the case of the United States, the difference between unemployment rising to a peak of nine or ten percent before dropping back to normal after a couple of years in the recessions of recent decades, and unemployment rising to a peak of twenty-five percent and not returning to normal for ten years in the Dirty Thirties.

It’s clear that the Masters of the Universe no longer have any idea what to do, and that they are very frightened. The levers of power are no longer attached to anything, and none of their normal tricks, like dropping interest rates, seems to stop the headlong decline. But the truth is that it always feels like this on the way down into a major recession, and yet it’s usually over after about fifteen or eighteen months.

Where is the evidence that it will be different this time? The banks are in much more trouble than they usually are in a mere recession, but governments have reacted much faster than they did on the way into the Great Depression, and relatively few banks have actually gone under.

Indeed, there are those who think that this time governments are over-reacting and making things worse. One of those doubters is the German finance minister, Peer Steinbrueck. “The same people who would never touch deficit spending are now tossing around billions,” he said last week. “The switch from decades of supply-side politics all the way to a crass Keynesianism is breathtaking” — and it is raising national debt to levels that “will take a whole generation to work off.”

You can’t accuse the Bush administration of a foxhole conversion to deficit spending, because it ran huge deficits as a matter of course. But in the rest of the world conservative governments, and even “socialist” governments, really tried to balance their budgets, and often succeeded.

Now they are all Keynesians, desperately hoping that big government spending will pull their economies out of a nose-dive because they can’t think of anything else to do. Keynes is probably the right point of reference, but nothing is going to pull these economies out of their nose-dive for a while. You can’t short-circuit a recession; you have to go though the misery one month at a time.

The good news is that the G7 economies are not shrinking faster now than they were going into the last three recessions (early 80s, early 90s, early 2000s), which suggests that what is coming will not much worse than those were despite the severity of the banking crisis. If that is t he case, then most countries should be seeing an upturn by mid-2010, and even the United States (where recessions tend to be worse) by the end of that year.

This suggests that the current frenzy of deficit spending may indeed be more than is strictly necessary to keep the world from sinking into a depression, but nobody wants to take that chance. Least of all Barack Obama, who seems well aware that a big crisis, real or perceived, creates opportunities for major change.

It is therefore possible that Obama’s election, and not the financial meltdown, was really the key event of 2008. One of the longest, tightest presidential races in American history has produced not only the first non-white president, but a president who, thanks to his innovative fund-raising methods, is almost uniquely free of the usual debts and obligations to special interest groups.

For a time — possibly a quite extended period of time — Obama will be free to do what he thinks is right, and to justify it in terms of the crisis. His cabinet and other high-level appointments suggest that he will make few initiatives in foreign policy, limiting himself perhaps to speeding up the timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq that has already been forced on President Bush, but that domestic affairs will see a whirlwind of change.

Health care, education and welfare are all areas where Obama can and probably will push through reforms that have been stalled for several decades, but it has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that environment — climate change, to be specific — will be the area to see the most radical policy changes. The United States, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is about to switch from being the main obstacle to global action to being its chief proponent.

Obama is not only going to change the laws in this area to encourage emission cuts. He is going to spend the money, justifying it as dual-purpose expenditure that both creates jobs and serves a genuinely useful purpose.

It’s still unlikely that there is enough time to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto accord that mandates adequate cuts in emissions internationally by the current deadline of 2010, but if Obama is as serious about this as he seems, it could be done by the end of his first term.

So there’s a bit of unadulterated hope. In other domains and regions, the picture is more mixed, but it is not all dark.

In the Americas, Cuba fumbles its way towards a post-Castro future with much anxiety but no violence beyond the usual state-backed oppression. (Here is a place where the Obama administration could ease the transition greatly by ending half a century of US sanctions.) The various left-wing regimes of South America also stagger onwards, free for once to succeed or fail on their own without US intervention.

Three Andean countries almost stumbled into war in March after Colombia raided a camp of FARC guerillas on Ecuadorian soil and Venezuela leader Hugo Chavez joined the left-wing leader of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, in mobilising troops on the Colombian border. The United States did not encourage Colombia to pursue the conflict, however, and after a week everybody made up and went home. For all of Hugo Chavez’s histrionics, the United States never intended to attack his regime directly even under George W. Bush’s leadership.

Africa below the Sahara has had a deeply discouraging year. The resurgent fighting in eastern Congo was showing signs of expanding into a major war involving lots of foreign troops by year’s end, and the Darfur war in Sudan was no nearer to resolution. Ethiopia began pulling its army out of Somalia in December, but not before reigniting the Somali civil war, and Somali pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden and further south became a serious hazard to shipping.

Zimbabwe sank into wretchedness, cholera and despair as Robert Mugabe clung to power. In Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki and the real winner of the country’s rigged election of December, 2007, Raila Odinga, managed to forge a power-sharing government in April (Odinga became prime minister), and began to repair the damage caused by the bloody post-election riots, but Mugabe could not do the same.

Instead, the 84-year-old despot betrayed the power-sharing agreement that he had signed with the real winner of Zimbabwe’s election last March, Morgan Tsvangirai. Most of Zimbabwe’s neighbours has refused to bring real pressure on the old thug to quit, though Botswana gallantly offered to host  a  government-in-exile.

South Africa, having seen its president of the past nine years, Thabo Mbeki, unceremoniously removed from office by his own party, the African National Congress, awaits the election next year of his certain successor, Jacob Zuma, with some apprehension. (Kgalema Motlanthe, the current president, is only keeping the seat warm for Zuma.) Many fear that Zuma will drag South Africa into a swamp of corruption and rabble-rousing populism, but it really is too early to judge how he will behave as president.

The big development in the Middle East was the relative fall in violence in Iraq, combined with the emergence of an Iraqi government confident enough to insist on a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops. But the prospective victory of Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu in the forthcoming Israeli elections practically guarantees another long period of Arab-Israeli confrontation and expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Various governments fretted aloud about Iran’s alleged drive for nuclear weapons, but the legal grounds for the complaints were as flimsy as the unity of the complainers. Whatever Iran has in mind, it can safely get on with it. Pakistan made a shaky transition from the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf to a civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, in the course of the year, although nobody would accuse the governing coalition of parties of being either coherent or stable. And Afghanistan remains mired in a civil war with extensive foreign involvement The third major terrorist attack on Mumbai in fifteen years in November pushed Indian patience to the breaking point, as once again there was evidence of sponsorship by Pakistan-based extremist Islamist groups.

Few believed that the new Pakistani government (which had just launched a peace and charm offensive towards India) was sympathetic to these groups; many doubted that it could get them under control. At year’s end, Indo-Pak relations were again in the deep freeze.

In Sri Lanka, the government launched yet another “final offensive” against the separatist Tamil Tigers in the north, and this one has actually been making some headway on the ground. Dozens died in nationalist demonstrations against the Chinese regime in Tibet in March, and tens of thousands died in the cyclone that struck southern Burma in May. Nepal dumped its king and became a republic in May, and in August the Communist/Maoist leader Prachandra became prime minister.

Suharto, the former dictator who ordered the deaths of at least half a million Indonesian Communists in the 1960s, invaded East Timor in 1975 and caused at least 100,000 deaths there, and stole billions of dollars from the Indonesian state, died peacefully in Jakarta in January.

He was never punished for any of it, but at least Indonesia is now a democracy. Thailand, regrettably, is no longer a democracy, although the forms persist. Right-wing demonstrators backed by the army, the courts (and perhaps by the king) brought down two legally constituted governments in two months, and the new regime will have to change the electoral rules to exclude a lot of voters before it dares to call an election.

China’s Sichuan province was struck by a powerful earthquake that killed at least 69,000 people in May, but three months later the Olympics in Beijing were a spectacular success, leaving London (site of the 2012 Olympics) to wonder whether it should try to match the sheer choreographed spectacle of Beijing or aim for something on a more human scale. Reports that North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il, was ill or dead began to surface in September, but the truth of the matter is still not known. Japan had another change of prime minister, but nothing else changed.

In Europe, the big news was the war in the Caucasus that erupted in August when Georgia tried to seize the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, one of two ethnic minority areas that have maintained their separation from Georgia ever since the latter got its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

In order to conquer South Ossetia, Georgia had to kill or expel the Russian peacekeeping troops who were stationed there. Some might see the disparity in the size of the two countries (4 million Georgians, 140 million Russians) as a serious obstacle, but Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was not deterred. The Georgian assault on South Ossetia in early August, however, was easily repelled by the Russian army, which seized control of large parts of northern Georgia after the Georgian troops broke and fled.

A cease-fire stopped the shooting after five days, and Russian troops had all left Georgia proper within two months, but Moscow did recognise the independence of South Ossetia and of Abkhazia, another ethnic enclave that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Some circles in the West believe that this war proves that Russia under Prime Minister Putin has expansionist goals, and the Bush administration and several Western European governments promised to bring both Georgia and Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, into NATO. But the tangled facts on the ground argue for a more measured judgement, and enthusiasm among NATO nations for this course of action is visibly shrinking. There is no reason yet to believe that the West and Russia are committed to a new Cold War.

Elsewhere in Europe, the most exciting political events were the Spanish election in March (Socialists keep power), the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in July (off to The Hague for trial), Greenland’s vote on increased autonomy in November (yes) — and, of course, Ireland’s rejection of the new European Union constitution in a referendum in June.

Europe has gone from the world’s most violent continent to its most placid, and most Europeans are quite happy to have it that way. (In the end, after Brussels made a few face-saving promises not to impose on Ireland measures that nobody ever intended to impose on it anyway, the Irish government agreed to hold another referendum on the constitution next year.)

And one last big thing. In January, 2008, oil reached the $100-per-barrel mark for the first time; in mid-July it touched $147 per barrel; and by late December it was back down below $50 per barrel. This extreme volatility is exactly what is predicted by most models when we are at or near “peak oil”, and it is entirely possible that we are there now.

If not, we will certainly be there within a decade.

But this does not necessarily mean regular oil shortages and permanently high prices, because a parallel down-shift may be getting underway in the demand for oil. The United States is about to get serious about greenhouse gas emissions, and that means that US oil use is going to fall. A lot of other countries are already on that track, and more will follow. If they all get it right, then oil will be neither scarce nor expensive — and nobody will care much about it anyway.

The Goose and the Gander

29 August 2008

 The Goose and the Gander

 By Gwynne Dyer

Three weeks ago, when the Georgian army foolishly invaded South Ossetia and the Russian army drove it back out, I wrote that we shouldn’t worry about a new Cold War. An old journalist friend in Moscow immediately e-mailed me saying that I was wrong, and I’m beginning to think he was right. The preparations for a new Cold War, or at least a Very Cool War, are coming along quite nicely.

On 27 August Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, flew into Kiev to say that “the Georgia crisis has provided a rude awakening. The sight of Russian tanks in a neighbouring country on the 40th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring has shown that the temptations of power politics remain.”

By recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Miliband said, Russia has ended “the post Cold War period of growing geopolitical calm in and around Europe.” So Ukraine and Georgia, formerly parts of the Soviet Union, would be welcome to join NATO, formerly Russia’s great enemy. Oh, and one other thing. Russia bore “a great responsibility ” not to start a new Cold War.

On the same day Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, was in Denver to make the point that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, lacked the judgement and the experience to deal with a crisis like the “invasion of Georgia.” He then proceeded to speculate that the next move of “the Soviets” might be to invade Poland. Well, why not? If we’re going to have the Cold War back, we might as well have the Soviet Union back too.

And so to Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who raised the stakes on the following day by speculating that the United States government had encouraged Georgia to attack South Ossetia in order to provoke a crisis. “The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army….The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino dismissed the allegation: “To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate – it sounds not rational.” Unfortunately, it sounds all too rational to Putin, who is widely suspected of having started the second war with Chechnya in order to win the Russian presidential election in 2000.

Indeed, it would be a perfectly rational (if utterly immoral) strategy if the Bush administration were trying to boost John McCain’s chances in November. Persuade the American public that it faces a great threat by starting a new Cold War, so the argument goes, and they’ll turn to the candidate who is old enough to have fought in the Vietnamese side-show during the first Cold War.

But I don’t believe that the White House told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to go ahead and grab South Ossetia, counting on the Russians to counter-attack, smash the Georgian army, and scare Americans into voting for John McCain. The Bush administration would not have betrayed its favourite Georgian so callously. The truth is probably that Saakashvili, having been promised NATO membership, attacked South Ossetia on the false assumption that the United States would threaten war with Russia to back his play.

Now Russia has enraged the West further by recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway territory, Abkhazia. This is no real loss for Georgia, which has never controlled them since it got its own independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The local ethnic groups fought off the first Georgian attempts to conquer them in 1991-92, and the “ethnic cleansing” by both sides in those wars ensured that the Ossetian and Abkhaz minorities would never again accept Georgian rule.

Yet for the past sixteen years Moscow did not recognise their independence. Russia has always insisted on preserving the territorial integrity of states, because so many of its own minorities might be tempted by separatism if it were legal for unhappy ethnic groups to just leave a country. If South Ossetia can secede from Georgia, why can’t North Ossetia secede from Russia?

When the major Western countries, having occupied Serbia’s Albanian-majority province of Kosovo in 1999 to stop the atrocities being committed there by the Serbian army, finally recognised Kosovo’s independence last February, Moscow was furious. This was a precedent that could unleash international chaos. Well, now it has accepted that same precedent for South Ossetia and Abkhazia — although Hell will freeze over before it agrees that the same principle might apply to, say Chechnya.

As the former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Sir Ivor Roberts, said last week: “Moscow has acted brutally in Georgia. But when the United States and Britain backed the independence of Kosovo without UN approval, they paved the way for Russia’s defence of South Ossetia, and for the current Western humiliation. What is sauce for the Kosovo goose is sauce for the South Ossetian gander.”

There is still no good reason to have a new Cold War, and I still think it won’t happen. But as the politicians posture and the stupidities accumulate, I’m less sure than I was that it won’t happen.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“White…War”)