Debating Georgia's fate -- right here in Canada

National Post (Canada)

15 September 2008

By Jerry Grafstein

For the first time since violence erupted in Georgia this summer, Russian and Georgian parliamentarians soon will sit down to discuss the conflict between their two countries face to face -- and it will be happening right here in Canada: This week, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) conducts its fall meeting in Toronto. Georgia and Russia are both part of this 56-member organization.

In the lead-up to this meeting, some historical background would be instructive so that Canadians can understand all that is at stake.

Georgia sits at the heart of the Caucasus, bestriding the physical fault lines between Europe and Asia, a land bridge linking the Black Sea and the oil-rich Caspian Sea. The country's Christian heritage dates to the third century, when the region's ruling house was converted by a slave girl. Georgia is home to Christianity's second oldest church, which still celebrates its ancient rites.

In the 12th century, Georgia broke free as a vassal state from its Byzantine overlord and flourished as a nascent multicultural kingdom, blending the Church with Jewish, Turkish, Persian and Arab influences. Later, during the Napoleonic period, Georgia was annexed by the Russian czar.

At the outset of the Russian Revolution, Georgia and other areas along the Russian border in the Caucasus grew restive. In 1917, the Bolsheviks declared themselves in favour of these independent statelets -- but, of course, had something else in mind entirely.

Vladimir Lenin appointed Joseph Stalin to his first Soviet political post in 1919 as the commissioner of national minorities. Stalin quickly devised the policy of establishing relationships with local commissars loyal to the inner circle of Communist Party rulers in Moscow. Stalin then organized a branch of the Bolshevik Party in each state -- a chilling rival to each fledgling nationalist government. The strategy worked: In 1922, Georgia officially joined the U. S. S. R.

Georgia is a small place, filled with many historic landmarks. About two kilometres from Tskhinvali, the site of the recent outbreak of violence between Ossetians, Georgians and then Russians, for instance, lies the city of Gori. It was in this picturesque, hilly Georgian town that Stalin himself was born, grew up and received his early education as a seminarian. Gori's town square is still named after Stalin, and a small museum is dedicated to Stalin's life. Many locals still admire the man: In Georgia's recent elections, in which I served as an international observer, I was surprised to discover that the Communist Party ran candidates who adorned their party posters with Stalin's picture.

Long-standing territorial disputes have bedevilled Georgia since it broke away from Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse of the early 1990s: Georgia considers the areas of Abkaziah and South Ossetia to be Georgian provinces, but both have substantial populations loyal to Russia. Ajaria, too, an area in southwestern Georgia, has fought for independence. In 1991-92, these areas witnessed conflict between pro-Russian,

Russia, too, started flexing its muscles -- and was outraged when Georgia decided to build a pipeline that would allow Caspian oil to skirt Russian territory. As skirmishing between South Ossetian rebel forces and Saakashvili's Georgian troops became more intense this summer, Russian forces moved in, taking all of South Ossetia and even destroying infrastructure in the Georgian heartland. Abkaziah, too, was overrun by Russian forces. Despite international agitation, Russian troops remain in these areas to this day, and Russia's parliament has recently recognized both Abkaziah and South Ossetia as independent states.

The international community appears divided on what to do next. Military intervention is out of the question. But U. S. Vice-President Dick Cheney last week travelled to Georgia and promised a billion-dollar aid package. The International Monetary Fund, for its part, has committed to a $750-million loan. America has also indicated it intends to resuscitate Georgia's depleted military resources.

Russia, too, has suffered unintended consequences from its demarche in the Caucasus. In the last few weeks, the country has seen roughly $20-billion worth of capital flee the country. The Russian stock market is shaky and sliding, affecting Russia's burgeoning middle class. Another unintended side effect resulting from Russia's recognition of Abkaziah's and South Ossetia's independence may be the stoking of separatist aspirations in other territories within Russia itself, such as Chechnya.

Starting at the OSCE PA meeting on Sept. 17, all of these issues will come under discussion. For the first time, Russian and Georgian Parliamentarians will debate these issues in an open forum.

Two of the main questions to be faced: Will the Cold War re-emerge? What new international arrangements can be devised to avoid such a fate?

As host nation, Canada might take the lead by offering to head a team of international observers and monitors, including OSCE parliamentarians, to observe and oversee the promised Russian withdrawal, and deal with pressing humanitarian concerns in both Georgia and the breakaway provinces. Russia, as an active member of the OSCE PA, may have less objections to an OSCE initiative of this nature.

With Georgia still on everyone's mind following this summer's violence, now is the time to act. And Canada is in a good position to lead the way.

-Senator Jerry S. Grafstein served as deputy head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) at the Parliamentary Election Observation Mission to Monitor the Presidential Election in Georgia on Jan. 4, 2004. Senator Grafstein is vice-president of the OSCE and president of the Liberal/Democratic/Reform Group of the OSCE (PA).

Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.



Nat Parry

Head of Communications and Press

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