Is there such a thing as the
European Union? In Washington,
the State Department has been seeking the phone number for such an entity
since the days of Henry Kissinger. In Moscow,
the EU is nothing but a television prop. Since the days of Soviet foreign
minister Andrei Gromyko, regimes have come and gone, but the conviction
endures that only classical powers matter: the United
and above all Germany,
long a political dwarf but always an economic giant. As for the historians,
they’re uncertain: the De Gaulle–Adenauer and Mitterrand-Kohl relationships
did not work for long, and London’s tiffs with
Paris and Bonn
(and then Berlin)
were all the talk for decades. In the face of a global crisis, European
disunity is evident.
The original, six-nation European Economic Community
was able to overcome atavistic and ideological divergences only by focusing
on limited but crucial stakes, of which two were most important: resistance
to Stalinist expansion, and the will to have done with the economic warfare
that led to global conflicts. Have such ventures now come to an end? Europe’s
cherished “common values” are seriously damaged when a former
Social-Democratic German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder,
is named to head the Russian natural-gas company Gazprom
hardly a month after leaving office. This past January, half of Europe froze because of the Kremlin’s energy blackmail.
But there’s no evidence that Schröder protested
when his new bosses threatened to cut off the gas (via Ukraine) to
his fellow citizens; he was too busy amassing his millions.
Does Schröder represent corruption or conviction?
No doubt both lead him to revile independent Georgia,
while the Kremlin dismembers her through a barely disguised annexation of her
provinces, in blatant contempt of cease-fire agreements signed with Nicolas Sarkozy, the enterprising president of Europe.
One might object that the ordinary greed of the former German chancellor in
no way stigmatizes the whole EU—except that he remains a moral authority of
the Left among Germans, who respect their new friend Vladimir Putin and
consider the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, unstable and dangerous because he continues
to resist Big Brother’s decrees.
At the end of a short stay in Georgia (imagine Tuscany, a sea that is black
in name only, and snow-covered mountains year-round, a favorite refuge of
persecuted Russian poets such as Lermontov, if memory serves), I told myself
that if it is a sign of mental illness not to give in to the Putin-Medvedev team, then 4 million Georgians must be as crazy
as their president. They are too proud of their newfound freedom and too fond
of their culture to surrender to an empire of 140 million souls. They retain
searing memories of massive purges organized by Stalin, Beria, and Ordjonikidze, “shameful Caucasians” who liquidated more
than one of every ten citizens. Under 70 years of Soviet rule, the gardens, the
commerce, and the black market of the Caucasus fed starving Moscow
So it’s not hard to understand why the aggressive advice Russia offers
on economics and democracy is met with irony.
Beset by a vehement and fragmented opposition—probably all the more vehement
because it is so fragmented—whose only agenda is the unconditional dismissal
of the president, Saakashvili holds his ground. He
was democratically elected under the supervision of the Organization for
Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and he has worked to build a
republic free of corruption, as international observers have attested. Such a
state is a novelty in former Soviet lands, and in particular in the Caucasus. Why should Saakashvili
give in to the minority? Why shouldn’t he complete his term, as presidents do
in democracies? He allows protests, tries to negotiate, and outlasts his
opponents. In recent months, his favorable ratings have varied between 53 and
65 percent, according to independent and international pollsters. This does
not mean that there is nothing to be said for the opposition, which plays a
necessary role in every true democracy; but its intolerance reflects badly on
it, and the Russian media exploit it and carry it further, demonizing Saakashvili as the Hitler of the Caucasus (in Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase).
The charge is absurd. If only such a vibrant opposition could exist under
Putin’s regime—with newspapers, two television channels, and the privilege of
blocking major arteries and access to official buildings by setting up
political protests. In Georgia,
I saw a protest take place for two months, while the police refrained from
opening up traffic in order not to offend the demonstrators. How many minutes
would it take to arrest someone so bold as to set up a protest in front of
Palace? And who would
imagine for an instant that such a thing could be attempted in Red Square?
Independent Georgia must survive through this summer. Last year, the Russian
army positioned itself just 20 miles from Georgia’s
hour on the highway by tank. Clouds are gathering: large military maneuvers,
inflammatory media rhetoric, and a Russian veto in the UN Security Council
that interrupted the work of neutral observers. The UN and the OSCE have packed
their bags, leaving 200 observers, restricted to the Russian side. Pavel Felgenhauer, a military
specialist based in Moscow, fears that the Russian military command will take
advantage of the absence of observers in Georgia to concoct some pretext to
invade and fulfill their fondest wish—to “hang Saakashvili
by the balls,” as Putin threatened in 2008. (After all, didn’t Germany invade
Poland in 1939 by trotting out two unfortunate Polish border guards, whom the
Germans accused of “invading” the Third Reich?) Andrei Illarionov,
Putin’s special advisor until 2006, shares similar apprehensions. It’s hard
to know what to expect. Sergei Kovalev, an activist
and a friend of the late Andrei Sakharov, dissuades me from trying to read
the signs of the times. The Russian rulers are not strategists, he says; they
settle their accounts day by day, attend to their own interests, and plan
their gangsters’ business month by month and year by year. But the current
heads of the Kremlin will never forgive the young Georgian leader his crime
of pro-Western sympathies.
Can President Obama and the European Union contain Moscow’s ambitions and whims? Or will they
purchase a fallacious and precarious tranquility by sacrificing Georgia’s
independence? At stake is the very sovereignty of Europe:
its energy independence. Energy has become decisive because for Putin, gas is
now a weapon as powerful as a deterrent arsenal. Consider a popular song
performed by a military choir in Moscow.
Its chorus depicts the “radiant future” that Gazprom
is preparing: “Europe has a problem with us?
We will cut off its gas; a big smile will rise in our eyes and happiness will
leave us no more.” Similar sentiments are expressed toward the Ukraine and
its desire to join NATO, as well as toward American forces all over the
world. The Russian public loves the song.
If Tbilisi falls, there will be no way to get
around Gazprom and guarantee autonomous access to
the gas and petroleum wealth of Azerbaijan,
Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
As for the global credibility of President Obama, it will amount to no more
than the empty-sleeved gestures of someone whose arms have been amputated.