Thursday April 1, 2004
In 1918, when Lord Balfour was foreign secretary, he said: "The
only thing which interests me in the Caucasus is the railway line
which delivers oil from Baku to Batumi. The natives can cut each
other to pieces for all I care." Little has changed in world
geopolitics since the end of the first world war, when the Black
Sea port of Batumi in Georgia was briefly under British rule.
Although an oil pipeline from Baku to the Mediterranean port of
Ceyhan in Turkey is planned, it will take years to complete. When
it is built, it will deliver oil exclusively to the American market,
but for the time being Caspian oil still trundles across the Caucasus
to Batumi in trains.
This is why, in Sunday's partial rerun of last November's parliamentary
elections, the world's media concentrated exclusively on the prickly
relations between the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the autonomous
region of Adjara, of which Batumi is the capital. This is in spite
of the fact that Adjara, unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has
never declared independence from Georgia. The standard-issue media
fairy-tale pits a democratically elected Georgian president, Mikheil
Saakashvili - who overthrew his predecessor Edward Shevardnadze
in a US-backed coup last November - opposing an authoritarian
regional leader in Adjara, Aslan Abashidze.
This is not how the Georgians see things. In an interview with
a Dutch magazine, Sandra Roelofs, the Dutch wife of the new Georgian
president and hence the new first lady of Georgia, explained that
her husband aspires to follow in the long tradition of strong
Georgian leaders "like Stalin and Beria". Saakashvili
started his march on Tbilisi last November with a rally in front
of the statue of Stalin in his birthplace, Gori. Unfazed, the
western media continue to chatter about Saakashvili's democratic
credentials, even though his seizure of power was consolidated
with more than 95% of the vote in a poll in January, and even
though he said last week that he did not see the point of having
any opposition deputies in the national parliament.
In Sunday's vote - for which final results are mysteriously still
unavailable - the government appears to have won nearly every
seat. Georgia is now effectively a one-party state, and Saakashvili
has even adopted his party flag as the national flag.
New world order enthusiasts have praised the nightly displays
on Georgian television of people being arrested and bundled off
to prison in handcuffs. The politics of envy and fear combine
in an echo of 1930s Moscow, as Saakashvili's anti-corruption campaign,
egged on by the west, allows the biggest gangsters in this gangster
state to eliminate their rivals.
History is repeating itself: it was on the back of an anti-corruption
campaign that Shevardnadze became first secretary of the Communist
party in Georgia in 1972. Following his stint as foreign minister
of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, he returned to his former
fiefdom, which he ran as a brutal dictator from 1992 to 2003.
He was as assiduously lauded by the west then as his protege and
successor is now.
And as for the operetta "revolution" staged against
Shevardnadze's regime last November, it has allowed a changing
of the guard within an unchanged power structure. Not only was
Saakashvili minister of justice under Shevardnadze, but the thuggish
Zurab Zhvania, the prime minister, had the same job under Shevardnadze,
during which the worst abuses of power (now denounced) occurred.
The head of national security is the same, and all the members
of the former president's party have converted to the new president's
party. Shevardnadze's old party has disappeared.
That November's "revolution of roses" was stage-managed
by the Americans has been admitted even by the new president himself,
who has said that his coup could not have succeeded without US
help. Abashidze also confirmed it on Saturday in Batumi, when
he said that his discussions with the American ambassador to Georgia,
Richard Miles, had convinced him that nothing can happen in the
country without a green light from Washington. Georgia, Russia's
backyard, and the country used as a base by the Chechens, is now
as thoroughly controlled by the US as Panama - and for much the
same reasons. As in Central America, economic devastation has
been the handmaiden of political control, reducing what was previously
the richest Soviet republic to a miserable, pre-industrial subsistence.
As we know from Tony Blair's visit to Libya, the west is happy
to make alliances with dictatorships if strategic interests dictate.
Georgia certainly qualifies on that score. And events in the Caucasus
are connected to events in Iraq. Because of the intensity of Iraqi
resistance to US and British occupation, oil is not flowing from
there as freely as had been hoped. Hence the imperative quickly
to secure other sources of cheap fuel for America's gas-guzzlers.
In Libya as in Georgia, western support for dictators, in the
name of strategy, may be the oldest trick in the book. But it
is also the most short-sighted.
· John Laughland is a trustee of the British Helsinki Human