Last week, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin declared that she was willing to go to war against Russia on behalf of Georgia. Palin wasn’t talking about launching World War III on behalf of our Georgia–you know, the adorable Southern state famous for its peaches, June bugs and KKK marches–but rather for a tiny mountainous country that few Americans even knew existed before last month, and still couldn’t locate on a map if their lives depended on it–even though their lives now do depend on it.
If the polls are correct, then come this January, Palin will find herself one melanoma growth away from the presidency. So when she says she’s ready to go to war with Russia on behalf of Georgia, we better take it seriously.
What’s even more frightening is that Palin’s comments weren’t some amateurish slip-up but rather the culmination of a neocon campaign to avenge Russia’s crushing defeat of US-backed Georgian forces in August. What the neocons and McCainites want is another war–this time one in which Russia loses. And they have another brilliant plan to make it happen: transform picturesque little Georgia into the bloodiest hellhole on earth… and if that doesn’t work, then hand the button to Palin and let her bring on The Rapture.
On August 14, just as the Georgians and Russians signed their ceasefire, the pro-McCain neocon rag The Weekly Standard published an article “The Pain Game: A military response to Russia’s aggression?” calling for the Pentagon to refit Georgian forces to fight a protracted, Chechnya-style guerrilla war against Russia. The author, an old cold war goon named Stuart Koehl, admitted that pushing Georgia into a Chechnya-style guerrilla struggle against Russia would result in a “long and difficult war” and would be “messy,” because the Russians “will probably respond to this as they did to the bloodletting in both Afghanistan and Chechnya”–in other words, by killing tens or hundreds of thousands of Georgians. But that’s no skin off this neocon’s back, because if Georgia managed to hang in as long as it takes for such a war, victory over Russia could be achieved “in a way that would not directly involve US or NATO forces.” In other words, Koehl and the rest of the neocons are ready to fight Russia to the last Georgian. And that might literally mean the last Georgian, if you look at what the Russians did to Chechnya.
The idea seems to be gaining traction, as an anonymous defense analyst told a military reporter a couple of weeks ago that America should convert the Georgian armed forces into a “Hezbollah” guerrilla force for the same purpose–bleed the Russians into defeat, while we sit back and chant “Hoo-ah!”
Lost in all of these apocalyptic plans for “helping” Georgia is what the Georgian people themselves might think. How do they feel about the McCainites’ plans for turning their ancient, charming country into one of the world’s bloodiest hellholes–Chechnya meets South Lebanon by way of Afghanistan, according to the neocons’ own words. As the popular war blogger Gary Brecher explained: “Starting a guerrilla war means sentencing most of the people in your address book to a very nasty death.” Do Georgians really want that?
Last Friday, after hearing Palin say she was ready for war with Russia, I got on the phone and called some leading Georgian figures. Right away, it became clear to me why the neocons and Sarah Palin don’t want you to know what the Georgians think about their plans for Georgia.
“If America goes to war against Russia, that would mean nuclear war,” said a bewildered Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank closely tied to the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili. “As for Georgia becoming like Chechnya, Chechnya is a disaster. What the Russians have done there is a genocide, so Chechnya is not a good scenario for us. We Georgians want to live normally. No, our country is not in favor of starting an insurgency.”
Manana Kochladze, who founded Green Alternative, a leading NGO backed by the US Embassy, the European Commission and others, agreed: “Maybe there is some crazy Georgian–like my president–who would support this, just to save his seat in power. But this would be a disaster. It wouldn’t just be about Georgia and Russia and the US, but it would be about a Third World War. I hope your citizens understand that.”
She added, “I really hope that John McCain won’t win the elections. We understand all the problems we have in Georgia that have come from the Republican Party.”
In our conversation, Kochladze raised the most important issue that no one in America will talk about: Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili’s anti-democratic credentials. The false spin on Saakashvili as the Jefferson of the Caucasus has driven the hysterical talk of going to war with Russia. Maintaining this false image of Saakashvili has also been key to McCain’s candidacy, given McCain’s tight relationship with the controversial Georgian strongman.
Jefferson he is not. A former senior US diplomat who served in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans told me, “What Saakashvili has done since coming to power–controlling the television media, rigging elections, attacking opposition protesters and driving his opponents out of the country and now launching a war against an ethnic minority–I’ve seen this before. Saakashvili is just another Milosevic. He’s the kind of guy who will do anything to stay in power for life.” It’s not like Saakashvili’s authoritarian credentials are the world’s biggest secret. Freedom House this year downgraded Georgia’s freedom rating to the lower end of the “partly free” category, placing it on par with such beacons of democracy as Venezuela–yes, that’s right, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela–and Guinea Bissau.
Georgia’s freedom index dropped below even such basketcases as Sierra Leone and Papau New Guinea, where nearly a third of the registered voters for last year’s heavily-criticized elections were found to have been long deceased. What’s more, Georgia’s slide towards authoritarianism has only gotten worse, as Freedom House reports:
Georgia’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the restrictions placed on political opposition following the November 2007 emergency declaration, and the civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the circumscription of media and expression in the aftermath of the November protests.
Georgians took to the streets to oppose President Mikheil Saakashvili in October and November 2007, turning out in the largest numbers since the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” which swept Saakashvili to power. The authorities violently dispersed the demonstrators, causing hundreds of injuries, and imposed a state of emergency on November 7. The next day, Saakashvili called a snap presidential election for January 5, 2008. The state of emergency, which remained in place until November 16, banned all news broadcasts except state-controlled television and restricted public assembly. Also in 2007, former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, a onetime Saakashvili ally who subsequently emerged as a principal political rival, was charged with corruption, jailed, and then quickly released.
That report came out a few months ago. Since then, things have deteriorated even further. The OSCE’s election monitoring arm just released a damning report about May’s parliamentary elections. As Reuters reported last week:
Ballot-box stuffing, beatings of opposition activists, biased news coverage and government officials campaigning for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party tainted Georgia’s parliamentary elections this year, Europe’s main election watchdog said on Tuesday.
And yet McCain, whose top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was paid nearly one million dollars by Saakashvili to lobby his interests, described Georgia last month as a “tiny little democracy.” Saakashvili, meanwhile, bragged that he speaks to McCain “several times a day.” One wonders, what do they speak about? Do they avoid touchy issues like the recent Reporters Without Borders report denouncing Saakashvili for stomping on the media and restricting access to the internet?
Almost all of the Georgian TV stations support President Mikhail Saakashvili and the only opposition station, Kavkasia, is having difficulty broadcasting.
One person who knows all too well how seriously Saakashvili has undermined Georgia’s democracy is David Usupashvili, leader of the Georgian Republican Party. Usupashvili used to be an ally of Saakashvili’s until his strongman tactics pushed him into opposition. Last October, Usupashvili was in Washington meeting with government officials, warning them about Saakashvili. Shortly after he returned to Tbilisi, Saakashvili sent his troops on protesters and declared martial law. “This man is very dangerous for Georgia and for the world,” said Usapashvili, whose party is pro-American and supports Georgia’s entry into NATO.
“Any aid packages from the US and EU for Georgia should be accompanied by strict conditions for democratization in our country: that means opening up the electronic media to all sides, increasing the parliament’s power [Georgia's constitution gives even more power to Saakashvili than Russia gives to its president, he says], and organizing parliamentary elections under very close observation by the OSCE. Unfortunately, the situation with Georgian democracy is so bad that we need the OSCE to administer the elections, just as we had to do in 2003.”
The Freedom House report goes further, decrying Saakashvili’s total control over the judiciary, a brutal prison system and trafficking in women. As Kochladze notes, Saakashvili’s Georgia looks disturbingly similar to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Even Saakashvili’s closest allies have turned against him. Nino Burjanadze, a major figure in Georgian politics who led the Rose Revolution with Saakashvili, quit his party this past May, criticizing his democracy credentials.
Last week, Burjanadze dropped a bombshell when she called for an investigation into how last month’s war really started–sharply implying that Saakashvili was at least as responsible as Putin for launching the war, and letting it be known that she is considering running against her former ally. “I consider it very important to hold a serious investigation into what led to those events,” Nino Burjanadze told a news conference. “The time to ask questions has come.”
McCain, however, is so deep in bed with the increasingly unpopular Georgian strongman that he will do whatever it takes to keep word of Saakashvili’s Putin-like record a big secret. Usupashvili recounted a disturbing and revealing episode from McCain’s famous trip to Georgia in August, 2006, which shows just how blind–willfully or otherwise–McCain is to Saakashvili’s authoritarian nature.
That year, Georgia’s local elections were to be held in December. But on the day that McCain arrived in late August, Saakashvili signed a secret presidential decree calling for local elections in forty days. According to the Georgian election laws, the decree should be published immediately, since parties only have two days to submit their candidate list.
“Instead, Saakashvili kept the decree in his pocket, without telling anyone, including McCain,” said Usupashvili. “Saakashvili introduced McCain as ‘the next president of the United States,’ while McCain praised Georgian democracy. Meanwhile, he kept the presidential decree in his pocket for two days, which is against the law. We were only able to register our candidates at the very last second, thanks to help from people I knew in some ministries who kept the door open for us.”
I asked Usupashvili if he’d ever met McCain or Scheunemann; he only indicated that he once met Scheunemann at a party. It was clear that McCain has intentionally avoided contact with Georgia’s pro-democracy opposition. That’s what one million dollars in lobbying fees will get you.
Given this spin-free account of the real Mikheil Saakashvili, what we have is one of the most absurd apocalypse scenarios imaginable: McCain and Palin are ready launch World War III and turn us all into moose burgers in order to support a Mini-Me version of Vladimir Putin against the real Vladimir Putin. Because you know, Mini-Me is just so darned cute!
So who benefits from this (besides Randy Scheunemann’s client)? The same old sleazy goons as always. This year, Big Oil companies have donated three times as much money to McCain’s campaign as they have to Obama’s. And as for the lipstick-glossed drill-’n-kill pitbull, according to Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, “No one is closer to the oil industry than Governor Palin.”
The issue of “conflict of interest” takes on a new and apocalyptic meaning when you consider the role of energy giant BP in all of this. Palin’s husband has spent most of his adult life, eighteen years, working for BP. The company is even more important to his wife, as BP owns Alaska’s (and America’s) largest gas and oil fields. BP hates Russia at least as much as their tools Palin and McCain: the company has been locked in a nasty battle over its 50 percent stake in Russian energy giant TNK–BP’s stake in that company is key to BP’s stock price. If BP loses TNK to Putin’s goons, then billions could be wiped off the stock price. That’s something to go to war for.
Meantime, BP all but controls Georgia thanks to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, in which BP is the largest stakeholder. As Manana Kochladze explained, the pipeline was supposed to bring in huge benefits to average Georgians, raising the country out of its dire economic straits. Instead, “very little if any of those revenues have gone to social programs or environmental protection. Instead, the military budget has massively increased to 25 percent of the state budget. The BP pipeline has militarized the country.”
One provision of Georgia’s agreement to allow the BTC pipeline to pass through its territory was that Georgia is obligated to protect and secure the pipeline–which, Georgians allege, was bombed by Russian pilots during the August conflict.
“From the beginning, we said that Georgia would pay more defending this pipeline than we’ve received, and now look at our situation,” Kochladze lamented.
Another figure tied to BP is, surprise surprise, Randy Scheunemann. He earned handsome fees lobbying for BP in 1999-2000, during McCain’s first run for President. More recently, Scheunemann lobbied for the Caspian Alliance, which represents one of the oil majors that pumps oil into BP’s pipeline.
From BP’s perspective, things look very grim. It’s in danger of losing its largest source of booked reserves via its stake in Russia’s TNK. And now with the war, investors are worried about the BTC pipeline. What better way to kill two birds with one stone than by fomenting a war that would bleed Putin’s Russia until the regime finally collapsed–thereby securing BP’s position in both countries. No wonder Big Oil is throwing its weight behind the McCain-Palin ticket. Those two understand the meaning of “Better dead than having BP in the red.”
This article first appeared in The Nation.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond (Soft Skull) and The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia (Grove).
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