Donald Maclaren: Georgia is Britain's friend - and a vital route for energy
By Donald Maclaren
09th August 2008
Georgia is an ally of the West, with aspirations to joining EU and NATO
With the stakes as high as they are and a permanent member of the UN Security Council invading a country that aspires to EU and Nato membership, this is no longer an obscure quarrel between Georgia and a parcel of territory whose minority still wishes to be part of the Soviet Union.
We in the West have every reason to pay attention and not merely to the TV pictures of burning tanks and the suffering of civilians.
The issues at stake and the outcome of the conflict will continue to have a direct impact on our interests.
Georgia is a part of Europe. It is our gateway to Central Asia and, with Russia and Turkey as neighbours and Iraq and Iran not far to the south, its location alone makes it of strategic significance.
A Georgian man cries near the body of his relative after a bombardment in Gori, 80 km from Tbilisi
It is a friend and partner in one of the most highly-pressurised parts of the world. Georgia is a vital conduit for energy supplies from the Caspian to its East and the potential of the Central Asian suppliers beyond.
There are few issues more immediate than energy security and Georgia’s fragile oil pipeline offers us one alternative to dependence on Russia.
But it is not just our sense of material security that has now been affected by Russian aircraft and armour. Something more fundamental is at risk: The integrity of a country that shares our values, that is reformist and democratic.
Until July last year I was British ambassador to Georgia. My wife and I spent three happy years there with our five children and what I found was a nation steadily working its way to prosperity.
One of our daughters, Iona, is still there, living in Tbilisi, away from the fighting, so far.
Her husband is Georgian and four months ago they gave us a grand-daughter.
For her and her family, the conflict in South Ossetia is distressing. For the people of Georgia as a whole, it is potentially disastrous.
Under the determined leadership of Mikhail Saakashvili, and with support from its friends including Britain, Georgia has gradually gained the confidence and stability it needs to become a modern state with aspirations of its own.
For now at least, this progress is at risk. The origins of the conflict lie in the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties. Two Russian-leaning provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, refused to accept their position within sovereign Georgian borders. Following civil war, their de facto status was never resolved.
The Russians, and others, put in peacekeepers. Tension remained high. In recent years and months the Russians have increased their support for the separatists, including by issuing Russian passports.
The recipients of those passports are now among the citizenry that Russia says
it needs to protect.
On the ground in the separatist regions, murder has for years been a fact of life. But a significant step was taken at the higher political level earlier this year when Russia declared its support for the separatists’ independence.
Through a series of peace plans, Saakashvili has offered wide-ranging autonomous powers to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including representation at the centre of government.
With the conflict now escalating before our eyes, such plans are being buried under rubble.
And Russia’s motivation? Surely it would be happier with a stable, modernised and prosperous southern neighbour with whom, as Saakashvili has urged, it would enjoy ‘normal, civilised relations’? In the long run, the answer to this, I believe, is yes.
But in the immediate term, more basic instincts have been at work. The collapse of the Soviet Union remains a humiliation, or at least a bad memory, for many Russians, including senior decision-makers.
If there is little they can do to reassert control over the larger Central European countries that were once governed from the Kremlin that does not mean they should take insubordination from others, smaller and closer, like Georgia.
Russia has always resisted encirclement and the idea of a Westward-leaning Georgia aggravates fears that have been a factor in Russian policy for centuries.
There are many Russians who would rather see a divided Georgia at war with itself than a strong Georgia courting America and Nato.
Long-term division is now a serious prospect. Saakashvili’s hopes for a ceasefire, for Russian withdrawal and a newly strengthened position at the head of a country with stable internal and external borders for the first time in its modern history, are pitted against Russia’s apparent determination to press deep into Georgia.
If the latter course prevails and Saakashvili is left to preside over a hopelessly divided nation this would be a shameful outcome and deeply damaging to all that has been achieved by the Georgians in the past four years.
Georgia has tried to lift itself, not to be a threat to Russia, so that its citizens, especially those in the separatist regions, have the sort of society and standards we in Britain take for granted.
We should not be forced to choose between our support for Georgia and our interests in Russia, which are also of strategic importance.
For years, Russia has told the world that it respects Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, just as it expects its own borders to be respected. It has a vital opportunity now to demonstrate this in deeds as well as words.
That way, and only that way, we will all be the winners.
FACTS ABOUT GEORGIA
Georgia's flag is very similar to England's flag (red cross on a white background) and both Georgia and England have St George as their patron saint
Georgia was formed in 1008 and was an independent nation until the Soviet Union annexed it in 1921. It became independent again in 1991.
It has a population of 5 million.
Georgia is not to be confused with the former British territory (Province of Georgia) that was then stolen and annexed by the United States 45 years after it was established.
Georgians love roasting pork on a barbecue.
The Georgians call their country "Sakartvelo" (საქართველო) and their language "Kartuli" (ქართული).
Nobody is quite sure where the name "Georgia" comes from.
Georgia was at its strongest militarily between 1184 and 1225. This was known as Georgia's Golden Age, and the country was ruled by David the Builder and Queen Tamar.
The Georgian language is written in the beautiful mkhedruli ("military") alphabet. The alphabet has 33 letters (compared to 26 in English), though around six of these letters are obsolete.
There are no capital letters in Georgian.