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Trouble in Georgia

The ex-Soviet republic and Russia are at odds over a restive region -- and over NATO, and the WTO.

May 05, 2008

It's tough to pay attention to wars that haven't yet broken out in places we can't even spell. But Russia and Georgia are moving precariously close to war over the separatist Georgian republic of Abkhazia, a gorgeous strip along the Black Sea where Georgian leaders would like to see rows of swanky tourist hotels. But that won't happen if Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has a say in it -- and unfortunately, he does.

The Georgians have been aggressively pro-Western, and they believe (probably correctly) that Putin wants to punish them for their attempt to join NATO. All Putin needs to do is to give Germany, the swing vote on NATO expansion, an excuse to keep rejecting Georgia. Provoking Georgia into fighting with Abkhazia would do the trick nicely.

Whatever his motives, Putin's provocations have been nothing short of outrageous. Last month, Tbilisi charges, a Russian MIG-29 shot down a Georgian drone over Abkhaz airspace. Because Abkhazia is within Georgia's borders, that would be an act of war by Russia. Moscow denies it, and even suggests that the drone must have been downed by a MIG from a NATO country. If that turned out to be true, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer vowed to eat his necktie.

Next, Putin sent a parade of "peacekeepers" in armored personnel carriers down the streets of the Abkhazian city of Sukhumi last week. Russia is allowed to have up to 3,000 peacekeepers in Abkhazia to enforce a 1994 cease-fire between Georgia and its restive territory. But it sent more troops last week without informing Tbilisi, in violation of its mandate.

Georgia is fighting dirty as well. It has vowed to block Russia's ascension to the World Trade Organization, something any single member of the exclusive international club is empowered to do. That has rightly infuriated Moscow. Keeping Russia out of the WTO is certainly not in the U.S. interest. And it's an invitation to Moscow to accept a standing offer from Iran to join forces and form an anti-Western trade bloc of their own.

Georgia is aggrieved. But if it ever does expect to join NATO, it must behave better than Putin. Its heavy-handed tactics in Abkhazia have fueled the separatist movement, and its last presidential election was a sham. Washington should keep putting pressure on its Georgian ally to hold a clean parliamentary election this month, seek a peaceful settlement with Abkhazia and drop its WTO threat. In return, Putin needs to show he respects the sovereignty of his formerly Soviet neighbors -- whether they join NATO or not.

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