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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Russia needs a strong and friendly Georgia

RIA Novosti

MOSCOW (Vyacheslav Igrunov for RIA Novosti) June 16 - The agreements on the closure of Russian bases in Georgia, which were reached after dramatic negotiations and moves, have cast a fresh light on Russia's role and future in the Caucasus.

The bases were a relict of the past, when the Georgian army was nothing more than a group of volunteers, if not opportunists, who could not guarantee the country's security.

At that time, Eduard Shevardnadze was fighting for real power against paramilitary leaders Ioseliani and Kitovani, whose supporters had overthrown Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian president, installed Shevardnadze in the presidency and launched an inglorious war with Abkhazia, which cost Georgia dearly.

Georgians viewed the Russian bases as a promise of help should the weak Tbilisi authorities lose their grip on power, especially given that the first Georgian president retained his legitimacy and the situation in western Georgia remained tense. Shevardnadze saw the bases as an instrument of psychological pressure on the anarchy-bent colleagues, which helped him to strengthen the regime.

Much water has flown under the bridge since then. Shevardnadze consolidated Georgia, won the support of the West and convinced the Americans to provide professional training to Georgian troops. Shevardnadze, and all other Georgian politicians for that matter, no longer needed the Russian bases for solving their problems. On the contrary, they became a constant reminder of the irrevocable loss of Abkhazia and the humiliation of Georgia. The less Russia did to restore the integrity of Georgia, the more the Georgians wanted to get rid of that obstacle, and even threat.

But the methods of doing this chosen by the "old fox" Shevardnadze produced the opposite results. The hospitality shown to Chechen fighters and the anti-Russian rhetoric in the Georgian parliament and overseas led Russian politicians to assume that only military presence would ensure the security of the North Caucasus and respect for Russia's interests in the South Caucasus.

In fact, many people in Russia view Georgia only as an instrument of ensuring security. The Georgian economy has nothing Russia cannot get from other countries. Reciprocal trade was minuscule even in the "good old times," and Russians gradually forgot about Georgia's lavish nature and its vacation potential. As for cultural ties and the common past, they are interesting only to a small group of Moscow intellectuals. In this harsh and pragmatic world, sentiments are not a motive of state policies.

And yet, Georgia is a crucial element of Russian security.

The conflict in Chechnya, which threatens to spread into Dagestan and Kabardin-Balkaria, is the starkest example of Russian problems in the North Caucasus. Ingushetia, unstable as it is, could be involved in a confrontation with North Ossetia any day, while Karachayev-Cherkessia has been plagued by tensions for years.

These are only some of the threats facing southern Russia. Smoldering hostility is gradually forcing ethnic Russians out of nearly all Caucasus republics. Russians have ceased to be the regulators of relations, the neutral arbiters of ethnic quarrels, and a stabilizing factor. Sooner or later, the only Russians in the Caucasus would be the troops deployed there to restore order. This is clearly a horrifying prospect.

Accordingly, Russia needs a friendly and strong Georgia. A weak Georgia represents a constant threat of mercenaries infiltrating the North Caucasus, a rest and recreation base for bandits and a training camp for insurgents. An unfriendly Georgia would become a frontline area for different intelligence services and an obstacle to Russia's relations with Armenia, its only reliable ally in the region.

Fortunately for Russia, destabilization in the North Caucasus and the withdrawal of Russia from it would threaten the stability and integrity of Georgia. Georgian politicians may not be fully aware of this now, but they will see the bitter truth sooner or later.

Fortunately, the United States, which would like to weaken Russia's influence in the Caucasus, knows that an escalation of tension and new conflicts in the direct proximity to Asia Anterior would create additional problems for it at a time when it has nearly driven itself into a deadlock in Iraq.

It was thanks to the restraining influence of the U.S. that Saakashvili's campaign in South Ossetia was curtailed without provoking an armed clash. The interests of the U.S. and Russia coincided in that one instance. But it would not be like this all the time.

The United States, which is at the peak of its might, will inevitably lose its positions as the global dominator because Europe will grow stronger and, more importantly, China will ascend to new heights. Russia can play a crucial part in this game as a potential ally of both sides. This is why the U.S. wants to control the oil-bearing Caspian area. And if it needs to destabilize southern Russia to attain this goal, it would not stop at sacrificing the interests of Georgia, just as it had betrayed the long-term interests of Israel by invading Iraq.

Accordingly, Georgia and Russia should admit that they have common strategic interests and abandon confrontation in the name of cooperation. Saakashvili should stop his aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric and unfriendly actions, while Moscow should stop being an aloof observer of Georgia's trouble. It should offer genuine partnership to Tbilisi in the solution of its problems and become a guarantor of a mutually acceptable settlement in Georgia.

It appears that Moscow is becoming aware of this need.

Vyacheslav Igrunov is the director of the International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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