Georgia on my mind.
I was struck when I arrived in Tbilisi a few years ago, in the early hours of the morning, that the lights were blazing in dozens of stands that dotted the road from the airport to the city. This gave the impression that Georgia was booming; that the economy was vibrant and the people were entrepreneurial.
The next day, I learned that nothing in the small and ancient country of Georgia is quite the way it seems. A year after my visit a colleague from The Washington Times, Joseph Curl, also mistook the appearance of prosperity for the real thing.
The fact is that lights blaze night and day in Tbilisi because the good business people steal their electricity. Every one of the road stands is located next to a power line, and there is no attempt to hide the illegal connections. No wonder the lights stay on all night—no switches.
Georgia, like its bullying neighbor Russia, has fostered a strange indifference to law. It goes like this: laws are for the people who make laws, not for the rest of us. We just have to do the best we can.
In few countries have I felt more isolated by language than in Georgia. In most countries, at street level—restaurants and taxis–someone speaks English. Not so in Tbilisi. The first language, of course, is Georgian and the second is Russian. Happily, I was traveling with another journalist who spoke excellent Russian. Otherwise, like so many, I would have been confined to the international hotel where English was spoken.
Our first order of business was to get press passes at the information ministry. We were registered, photographed, paid a fee and were issued with press passes by an engaging young woman. My colleague, Nathan Hodge, elicited that our friendly registrar was going to a rock concert that evening and the tickets would cost about $150. We calculated that this would be many times her weekly salary and were perplexed. Georgians are poor, and government workers are not well paid. A role in the black economy? A rich lover?
Much in Georgia is unexplained. Since the Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, one those unexplained issues is how the government of Mikheil Saakashvili thought it could taunt Russia when it knew that Russia historically has been paranoid about its borders; and that its paranoia had been exacerbated by the West’s quick recognition of Kosovo and the loss of face by Serbia, a Russian Slavic ally.
Russia was poised to invade and the Georgian president lit the fuse when he sent Georgian troops to reclaim South Ossetia. Justice may have been on Saakashvili’s side, but realpolitik was not.
As long as Russia feels surrounded by American surrogates in the colors of NATO, it is going to bully where it can and use its energy superiority to try and separate Europe from the United States. Europe is 50-percent dependent on gas from Russia. Watch for European indignation to subside as winter approaches.
There is a precedent for Russia annexing chunks of its neighbors and getting away with it. Remember what happened to Finland during World War II. With the spread of mechanized warfare, Russia felt its crown jewel of a city, St. Petersburg, lying a few kilometers from the Finnish border, was vulnerable. So they began a land grab for about one-tenth of Finland, known as Karelia. This was to be a buffer zone.
After the bitterly fought Winter War of 1940, in a lopsided peace, Russia grabbed Karelia, including the second-largest Finnish city and most of its industrial infrastructure. Twelve percent of the Finnish population had to be resettled. It was a great blow to the Finns, and is remembered painfully today.
Neither candidate for the American presidency has any idea what to do about Russia. It is not an economic colossus. If it were not for energy, it would be sick indeed. It is not a competitive manufacturer in anything except vodka and nuclear power plants. It has not been able to divert its oil wealth for the betterment of its rural towns and villages, and its population of 142 million is declining rapidly.
But Russia is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and is our partner in some things that work well, like weapons decommissioning and the International Space Station. John McCain has proposed throwing the Russians out of the G-8. To what end? It has no real role in that group. Barack Obama would talk to them more. No one has courted the Russians more assiduously than George W. Bush or been as thoroughly rebuffed.
The Russian enigma will be with us a long time. As for the enigma of the Tbilisi rock concert ticket-holder, I think she was making money selling press passes to gullible American journalists who did not need them.