On Friday, a car bomb blew up three civilians and eight Russian soldiers, including a senior officer, in the disputed South Ossetia region of Georgia. Russia blames the Georgian secret service for the blast, saying they are trying to destabilize the fragile ceasefire while the Georgians (rather less believably) say the explosion was a false flag operation - that Russia blew up its own peacekeeping troops in order to blame Saakashvili's government and to give an excuse for delaying an expected pullback of Russian troops. However, the Georgian interior ministry spokesman who made the counter-allegation offered no evidence that the Russians had any actual plans to delay their pullback.
It's a messy incident, one that shows the Caucusus conflict is far from finished creating tensions both in the region and globally, and also offers more opportunity for observers to question just how trustworthy and truthful Saakashvili's regime is being. The original midnight all-out attack on his own region's capital which started the whole current confrontation might be reason enough for some - Colin Powell certainly seems to be in that camp - but now Georgian opposition members are also calling attention back to last years elections and widespread abuses of both opposition members and the press.
Saakashvili had widespread support even among the opposition immediately after the August war with Russia, but the country's domestic problems were quick to resurface, said Salome Zurabishvili, who previously served as foreign minister under Saakashvili.
"The balance has shifted," she said. "The main problem for Georgia is a lack of democracy."
..."He is building an authoritarian regime here," said Levan Gachechiladze, an opposition candidate for president earlier this year who finished second with about 25 percent of the vote. "The West closed its eyes because they were not ready . . . to change their so-called democratic star."
And human rights observers agree:
Human Rights Watch released a report on the incident in which it said that the West previously had ignored "warning signs that the government was not only failing to live up to the principles of the rule of law and human rights it espoused during the Rose Revolution, but taking many serious steps to undermine these principles."
That included "quick resort to use of force by law enforcement agents," the report said.
Sozar Subari, the Georgian government's human-rights ombudsman, has documented what he terms severe human-rights abuses by government forces as well as elections in which police intimidated voters on a widespread basis and a corrupt elite that's allowed to use state offices to its own ends.
In several cases, Subari said in a report to parliament, armed men in ski masks beat up the administration's political enemies. He named two high-profile cases in 2005 and 2007. Subari said it was clear that the attackers were being protected from prosecution in such a way "that implies the involvement of several high-rank(ing) officials."
All this is a far cry from the Mccain campaign's rosy view of the Georgian leader. Both Mccain himself and his chief adviser Randy Scheunemann are very close to Saakashvili and have continually boosted the conflict as a fight between democracy and authoritarianism. Maybe not so much.
But if there are questions to be asked about Georgia's democracy, you won't hear them from the Presidential candidates. During the foreign policy debate, Obama said that he and McCain "agree for the most part" on Russia and how the US should respond. Which leaves open the question of where US/Russian relations might go under a new incumbent at the White House. Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, was pessimistic.
Unlike the conflicts of the Cold War, the confrontation between Russia and the United States today is not driven by a desire to destroy each other and lacks a clear goal. Russia demands that the West recognize it as an equal and respect its interests, but it won't specify those interests. It's likely they include expanding Russian control over Ukraine, but it is inconceivable that the Kremlin would say so publicly. Meanwhile, the demand that Russia "behave" and adhere to international norms raises important questions: Is punishing Russia America's top priority, a goal to be pursued even if it means putting European security at risk? Is the resolve to punish Russia driven only by U.S. national interests, or is there another, irrational element?
...Relations between Russia and the United States have entered a dangerous stalemate. America can't accept Russia's aggressive posture, but U.S. anger is only making things worse. The risk of Russia slipping toward an isolationist course and a militarized economy is growing. Events of the 20th century indicate that in the long term, Moscow's own irrational pursuits may prove more baneful to Russia than any foreign adversary. But in the short term, Russia's neighbors as well as European security could be at great risk.
I would add that in America too, an aggressive posture and irrational pursuits seem to be the order of the day. There are obvious reasons for both candidates to play up a "resurgent Russian menace" - no-one ever lost votes in America by appearing hawkish. And of course the neocon lobby which McCain is wholeheartedly part of loves the notion of perpetual threat of war for the "shock and awe" effect it can have on pushing through legislation conceived in the neocon ideological love for the military option and hatred for the trappings of international consensus. But the long-term the current surge of nostalgia for the days when the former Soviet union was the Evil Empire is also hurting American interests - particularly securing loose nuclear material, perpetuating arms control treaties and keeping an option open for supplying (or evacuating) troops in Afghanistan if relations with Pakistan break down entirely.