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Monday, January 23, 2006

Crisis in Georgia: Hysteria and Bacchanalia

Explosions yesterday in southern Russia cut off the supply of natural gas to Georgia. There has been some panic about whether homes would go without heat, but there are apparently enough reserves to keep things going with partial rationing. There was a massive run on space heaters, but now it looks like the electricity won't be so reliable, either.

The question on everyone's mind is, why did this happen?

Actually, that's not true. Foreigners are wondering why this happened. Most Georgians are not, because they have no doubt that it was sabotage by Russia. Georgians have been manipulated by Russian policy all their lives, and they are more than ready to believe Russia could blow up its own energy facilities in order to make a point.

There are plenty of reasons why this explanation, as outlandish as it seems at first glance, makes sense:

  1. It's hard to believe that the explosions--four over the course of Sunday, separately affecting natural gas and electricity supply--were not coordinated attacks. But
    who would gain? Possibly Chechen terrorists, who have struck nearby towns in Russia before. But Chechens have never seen Georgia as an enemy, and have never threatened Georgia. And Chechens would have claimed responsibility right away; so far, no one has.

  2. Russian state-owned energy utilities have suspiciously cut off gas to Georgia in the dead of winter in the past, and most observers agree that these were moves intended to instill respect for the power of Georgia's former master. This outage comes in the middle of an uncharacteristically cold period in the region.

  3. Tensions were already high regarding the future of Georgia's relationship to Russia as an energy consumer. Georgia and Russia are in heated negotiations right now over the possible acquisition of much of Georgia's internal gas distribution infrastructure by Gazprom, the Russian state-owned utility; Georgia's offers so far have been declared too selfish and restrictive by Russia. Also, before the Ukraine energy fiasco a few weeks ago, Russia similarly hiked the gas price way up on Georgia, which prompted widespread anger.

  4. This is in the context of Russia's support for Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and, in particular, South Ossetia. Russia has been under increasing pressure from the United States to remove its "peacekeeper" forces from these regions, which are little more than a way to continue to occupy its former subject, Georgia. This blast--which occured in North Ossetia, just across the Russian border--will surely provide further evidence that Russia needs a military presence in the area.

Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili is under pressure in this type of situation to act defiant and not helpless. It's still surprising, though, that he has accused Russia of outright sabotage. He told the Times that "We don't think it is accidental in any way... The places where it happened, the environment in which it happened, the history in which it happened--this all looks like a policy decision." He even accused Russia of recently making veiled threats.

Of course, Occam would remind us that it probably isn't Russia, and that these accusations are likely just paranoia. But then again, to paraphrase Kurt Cobain, even if Georgians are being paranoid, that doesn't mean that Russia didn't orchestrate the bombing.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to Saakashvili's statement with their own, declaring that "The desire to find external enemies to justify one's own helplessness in establishing a normal life in one's country has never led to anything positive." Ouch. But high-stakes international standoffs not only good opportunities for bitter accusations--they are also moments perfect for levity! Someone at the Russian FM couldn't help but adding that Georgia's government was guilty of "hysteria and bacchanalia"--which, as the Times pointed out, is a reference to Georgians' fondness for wine. Ba-Zing!! They don't teach that kind of brilliance in diplomacy school.