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From the February 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 2)

Georgia's Day After

Waiting for Ambassador Miles

Pavel Felgenhauer, Novaya Gazeta (liberal semiweekly), Moscow, Russia, Dec. 1, 2003

Ambassador Richard Miles
Ambassador Richard Miles was U.S. envoy to Georgia before the overthrow of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, and chief of mission to Yugoslavia under Milosevic from 1996-1999 (Photo: Srdjan Suki/AFP-Getty Images).
After Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime fell in Georgia, global conspiracy theories became popular in Moscow. The scenarios for events in Tbilisi were reminiscent of those in Belgrade in 2000, when Slobodan Milosevic fell. Fears were expressed that in Moldova, and possibly in Ukraine, pro-Western nationalists could overthrow regimes friendly to Moscow using the same methodology: massive protest demonstrations that would then turn into a massive, relatively bloodless uprising with a seizure of Parliament. The old government would disintegrate, and the leaders of the opposition would seize the country’s levers of power.

The former president said in an interview that the opposition came to power thanks to Washington’s support, and that hurt him terribly: “When they needed my support on Iraq, I gave it. I can’t explain what is going on now,” Shevardnadze said.

The current American envoy to Tbilisi, Richard Miles, was [chief of mission] to Yugoslavia under Milosevic from 1996 to 1999. Now, the opinion is being expressed that before going to Georgia, Miles may have prepared a successful coup in Belgrade. People also point to George Soros, the prominent American stock speculator and philanthropist, who at one time gave money to the independent Georgian television channel Rustavi 2 and funded the opposition political newspaper 24 chasa (24 Hours). True, the newspaper never succeeded in becoming popular, but everybody in Georgia watches Rustavi 2,
and that channel was a constant and strident critic of Shevardnadze’s ineffectual and corrupt regime. The authorities tried to close Rustavi 2 several times, but it did not work, and the channel really did play a very important role in the fall of the regime.

In Georgia, naturally, there were state television and loyal, pro-government newspapers. In Yugoslavia in 2000, all of television unconditionally supported Milosevic, just as today, all the Russian channels support Putin. The opposition print media were suppressed, the results of the elections were falsified, the police dispersed the demonstrators for a time, but neither force nor false
propaganda could save them.

In countries with thoroughly corrupted regimes, like Russia today, like Georgia under Shevardnadze, and like Yugoslavia under Milosevic, all the important questions are decided behind the scenes as a result of intrigues, plots, and bribes. That is why the ruling elite seriously believes that, in principle, it cannot be otherwise. When the broad masses, who are only on the receiving end of lost wars, foreign-policy failures, and unprecedented poverty—in contrast with a president and his inner circle who are growing prosperous—come out on the street with firm intentions, the elite is overcome by a stupor, conceiving of nothing more than a global pro-Western plot.

In both Yugoslavia and Georgia, Interior Ministry forces and the army refused to support the regime, and they let the demonstrators into Parliament, which became the immediate reason for the change in power. In both countries, they pay the soldiers poorly, sending them to fight in senseless, bloody anti-guerrilla wars.

In Russia, it is the same: Putin and [Defense Minister] Sergei Ivanov say
at meetings that painful military reform is behind them, that everything will only get better, whereas in the 2004 budget, for example, not only is there no money for raises, there aren’t even any funds to compensate military salaries for inflation. The half-starved troops in Chechnya, who wage a hopeless war, are a poor bulwark for a corrupt regime.

It doesn’t seem that it is Soros or some other foreigner who has forced the leadership to reduce to penury both officers and civilians. In general, that has been the practice of corrupt authoritarian regimes: More money is spent at the top, among their own, and the loyalty of both the general population and the military is maintained by small handouts and blunt propaganda.

Four hundred and twelve billion rubles (US$13.9 billion) has been allocated for defense in 2004, which in itself is quite a bit if it is spent intelligently, and if the number of armed forces and civilian personnel is reduced to a reasonable extent from the current level of about 2 million people. But in an authoritarian state—where there is no freedom of the press, independent judiciary, or Parliament, and where there is no civilian (public) control—the funds for the defense budget are inevitably pilfered, and the numbers of the army are senselessly bloated. In this way, so the rulers believe, the country looks more authoritative, and the regime more solid.

It is well-known that military people are the most well-off in consistently democratic countries. Corruption and a half-starved army are a visible sign of authoritarian regimes. Therefore, a Georgian (Yugoslav) option will become likely in Russia when everyone becomes fed up with the current government but is unable to use elections to change it. In both Georgia and Yugoslavia, an explosion of desperate bravery and protest occurred when it became clear that, because of the falsification of elections, there was no hope of lawfully changing the government.

Corrupt authoritarian regimes not only destroy their own peoples and country but also threaten their neighbors. Such states do not have reliable foreign allies. The West really did help overthrow Milosevic and did not support Shevardnadze—their old friend—in his difficult hour. Thus, the theory of the pro-Western conspiracy is not completely unfounded. Today, to the extent that the authoritarian essence of the Putin regime becomes clear, his international isolation will increase.

Last week, Europe (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) actively interfered in order to prevent the signing of an agreement between Moldova and [the breakaway region of] Trans-Dniester under the patronage of Putin, which was favorable to Russia and would have left our military contingent in the region.

The entire West, including Europe, supposedly our recent allies against the United States on the Iraq issue, will counter Russian policy in the future even more forcefully—especially attempts to integrate the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Meanwhile, in Washington, influential congressional Democrats and Republicans are publicly demanding that Russia be excluded from the G-8, and White House officials are privately expressing the most profound pessimism regarding future relations. Now, we can only wait for Ambassador Miles to be sent to us in Russia.

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