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Nichols: Georgian history, culture threatened

POSTED: August 31, 2008 5:01 a.m.

My two visits to Georgia with students during the Cold War days do not make me an expert on that country. But I do have very fond memories of what I learned from the Georgian people I met.

Georgia is a small country about the size of South Carolina, located north of Turkey and south of Russia. It has its own language and alphabet.

The capital, Tbilisi, is quite beautiful with many small homes painted in pastel colors. We attended a concert of Georgian folk music and dance. One student asked if he could record the concert. "Please do. We want people to know more about our country."

At the local winery we were given samples of Georgian wine. In the last century, some special grape stock had been imported from America and was widely grown. However, more recently a fungus spread that killed most of the vines from America. So these varieties were replaced by grape stock from European sources.

Georgian history is interesting. The country dates back to two ancient kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia which were established in the Caucasus mountainous region. They fell under Roman influence in the first century AD.

The Georgians were among the first to make Christianity their state religion in the fourth century. The country unified in 1008, but was invaded by Persians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols. During the 19th century, Georgia was absorbed into the Tsarist Russian Empire.

After World War I, Georgia briefly became independent from 1918 to 1921. The Red Army invaded Georgia in 1921 and it became territory of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991 when it gained its current independence.

Eduard Shevardnadze was president from 1995 until 2003 when he was forced to resign after an election apparently had been rigged.

Mikheil Saakashvili of the National Movement party was swept into office in 2004 after the Rose Revolution of 2003, in which Saakashvili and others of his party took over Parliament carrying roses in their hands in a bloodless coup. Saakashvili is a dynamic graduate of Columbia Law School and is fluent in four languages.

From the beginning of his term, Saakashvili faced three areas that had breakaway desires that did not accept government from Tbilisi: Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In Ajaria, Saakashvili was able to restore central control. With that success in mind, he decided to try to assert more control by Tbilisi over South Ossetia and sent in government troops on Aug. 1. The Soviet Union has peacekeeping troops in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After fighting for a week in which some Russian peacekeeper soldiers were killed, Russian troops invaded. Fighting spread beyond the borders of South Ossetia.

What do the Russians seem to want? These are what I think are Russian objectives. First, they want Georgia to let the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia become independent and be given permission to join Russia if they desire.

Secondly, it seems obvious to me that Russia would like to have some control over the oil and gas pipelines that run from the Caspian Sea across Georgia to outlets on the Black Sea. Russia is a main supplier of oil and natural gas to Europe, but the two pipelines in Georgia have been beyond its influence since Georgia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Perhaps the main reason for Russian invasion is the drive by Georgia and Ukraine to become members of NATO. Already the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are full members of NATO. Article 5 of that treaty says that an attack on any member is an attack on all. So Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are now under the protection of the U.S. and all other NATO members. Russia is extremely strong in its desire to see Georgia and Ukraine not join NATO.

It seems clear that Vladimir Putin is still in control of Russia's military. He has said that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a major mistake. He seems bent on keeping some type of influence over both Ukraine and Georgia. He sees the U.S. as wanting to steal them away from his grasp.

The foreign minister of Russia has disregarded President Bush's call to respect the territorial integrity of Georgia. Many in Russia seem to believe they have just as much right to be in Georgia as the U.S. has to be in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The situation is very grave. I hope this is not a return to the worst days of the Cold War. Both the Russians and Americans need each other to remain on peaceful terms so we can work on the major problems of the world to get results we both want.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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