Sean Paul over at the Agonist defended his fascination with Georgia, saying
Part of the reason is that I think Georgia is a bellwether for the future direction of Russian foreign policy. What happens or does not happen there, to my mind, will be a key indicator of what Putin will be able to do in the near future.
While his analysis is generally on the right track, one must remember that Georgia and Russia also have a unique relationship not shared by other countries that Putin may decide to direct his foreign policy might towards. These are not just two neighbours that are squabbling about breakaway provinces, they are two neighbours with a long and complex history (as well as economic and social ties) that cannot be boiled down to two border conflicts. To use a rather childish metaphor, these aren't two roommates squabbling over a phone bill as much as a long term on-again off-again relationship where the partners alternately become mortal enemies (with booty call priveledges) and wild romantic lovers (while discomfiting all their friends who don't know quite what to do about it all).
First off, the breakaway provinces. When I was in South Ossetia last summer there were Russian soldiers swarming everywhere, and they really managed to get up even the Georgians' noses (let alone the Ossetians), which seemed to put to the lie the whole "Russians are arming the local militias" thing. The biggest problem seemed to be a huge Russian army base south of Tblisi that provides many economic kickbacks to the Georgian government as well as some small benefit to the surrounding area. The Georgians we talked to in Ossetia said that the government would never stand up for them as long as they wanted the Russians to keep driving down the military highway in large convoys. I must admit, I've never heard Saakashvili say anything about the Russian military presence in Georgia proper, although that was a huge issue for many of the Georgians we met. And although we couldn't get a boat into Abkhazia, the locals on the Georgian side near Zugdidi said that they wanted nothing to do with either Georgia OR Russia, since they were all in cahoots (I wonder very much what people think now that there's a new president). Again, it didn't really seem like Russians inciting a Georgian-separatist conflict: these provinces seemed to genuinely want to be independent of both sides, and so both Georgia and Russia seek to use them as destabilizers when necessary.
One thing that everyone I talked to could agree on, all over Georgia, was that they desperately wanted Communism back, although their reasoning differed widely. For instance, the Ossetians wanted the Soviet system because then they were united with North Ossetia as merely an ethnic group living in a region of the greater Soviet Union. The Georgians in the countryside near Kutai'isi said that they wanted Communism back because Georgia got the best of everything. Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia (more stories from the Stalin birthplace museum another time) so that helped more than a little when he was alive. Since they had good weather and great soil they were also the breadbasket of the entire Soviet system. "Everyone drank our wine. We were the best, the most expensive," said the owner of Kvanchkara Vineyards one afternoon over a thermos of freshly decanted wine from a huge vat. "Now no one wants it. Things were better under Stalin. And Krushchev and Gorbachev came every summer to their dachas here." At the seaside, the resorts had been build for vacationers from all over the Eastern bloc, and now lie mostly empty and far too large for the current crop of Georgian sunbathers.
These sorts of feelings complicate the issue immensely. It's all very well for Saakashvili to say that he'll shoot Russian boats out of the water or march into South Ossetia with whatever the full might of the Georgian army is at the moment, but newspapers in this country (ie. the US) need to really take the threats from both sides with a grain of salt. Georgia is not about to jeopardize its economic or historical ties with Russia, and I don't think Russia would want Georgia closing the military highway (something quite easily done, and much discussed in the village west of Kazbegi where we stopped one day for lunch) and cutting Russia off from its strategic bases near the Armenian border. Far more pressing at the moment is economic reconstruction and foreign investment, which will hopefully be more feasible with Saakashvili than it was with Shevardnaze.
Georgia's one of those countries that should have it made. It has gorgeous countryside, the most amazing people, lovely beaches, great skiing (yes, it's true) and Tbilisi is a graciously crumbling crossroads of Asia, the Middle East and turn of the century Europe that is one of the most enjoyable cities I've ever had the good fortune to spend a bunch of time in. Yet the legacy of communism clings to everything like radioactive dust, and unlike the Chinese, the Georgians were not born to commerce. Like Sean Paul, I'll also be watching Georgia closely, and hopefully returning in the very near future.
UPDATE: Sean Paul is too sweet. Glad to see someone liked my childish analogy though...