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By John Helmer in Moscow

One word explains why the United States, NATO and the European Union have obliged themselves to sit on their hands, while Russia’s defends its citizens, and national interest in the Caucasus, and liberates Georgians from the folly of their unpopular president, Mikheil Saakashvili — Kosovo.

Eight hundred years of Caucasian history explain why Saakashvili has brought such destruction and ignominy on his countrymen over this past week. Queen Tamar, the greatest of the Georgian sovereigns (1184-1213), is responsible for the habit Georgian rulers have displayed for the past millennium of treating neighbouring Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ossetia, and the Black Sea coast of Turkey as protectorates. But as Tamar also taught her countrymen, Georgian ambition always runs out of gas when the neighbours prove to be just as ambitious, richer, or tougher.

The number 300 explains what tougher means — that’s the count of Russian artillery pieces that have been deployed to South Ossetia alone, once Saakashvili despatched his US and Israel-trained troops into action at Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia. That push, according to Russian military thinking, was not intended to hold Tskhinvali for Georgia, but to destroy it, and withdraw swiftly back into Georgia — ending the South Ossetian secession by liquidating its people.

Just how tough Russia’s war aims are now — as distinct from the methods –remains to be seen. According to Georgian sources, there is no safe haven for the attackers in Georgia itself, as Russian artillery pounds Georgian military units within range; the Russian Air Force bombs every military uit and depot on Georgian territory; and the Russian Black Sea Fleet counter-fires against Georgian naval vessels off Ochamchire, the Abkhazian regional port.

For all Russians, not only those with relatives in Ossetia, the near-total destruction by Georgian guns of Tskhinvali is a war crime. The deaths of about 2,000 civilians in the Georgian attack, and the forced flight of about 35,000 survivors from the town — the last census of Tskhinvali’s population reported 30,000 — has been described by Russian leaders, and is understood by Russian public opinion, as a form of genocide. Ninety percent of the town’s population are Russian citizens. To Russians, the Georgian attack of August 8 looks like the very same “ethnic cleansing”, which the US and European powers have treated as a crime against humanity, when committed on the former territory of federal Yugoslavia.

But Russians view the international war that broke up Yugoslavia as a practice run for breaking up the Russian Caucasus, first by arming the Chechen secessionist Dzhokar Dudayev; then by financing anti-Russian terrorism in the russian provinces of Chechnya and Ingushetia; and now by the Georgian military thrust against Ossetia. Since the US and the European Union have so recently compelled Serbia to accept the Albanian takeover of Serbia’s Kosovo province, the overwhelming Russian view is that this will not be allowed to happen again. “Ossetia is not Kosovo” is a widespread refrain in Moscow today.

“If [Yugoslav president] Slobodan Milosevic should be put on trial, the opinion here is — so too should Saakashvili,” says a leading Moscow analyst.

But is it now a Russian war aim to drive Saakashvili from power? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly told US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice over the weekend that Saakashvili “must go”. Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister on a mediation mission Monday between the Georgian and Russian capitals, will hear the same view in Moscow.

The Russian argument is that, since coming to power in 2003, Saakashvili has militarized his country with US, NATO and Israeli arms, military training, and money, for no purpose except to threaten Russia, and the minority nationalities of the region, who seek the protection of Moscow — the Abkhazians and the Ossetians. Saakashvili, the Russian argument runs, has initiated military escalation over the past year, because his political base has cracked, and his domestic support is dwindling. The Georgian political opposition at home, and in exile abroad, agrees. They charge the president and his family, including the powerful Timur Alasaniya, Saakashvili’s uncle, of growing corruptly rich off the arms trade, and of seizing the country’s resource, port and trading concessions for themselves and their supporters. Alasaniya, brother to Saakashvili’s mother, holds the official position of Georgian representative to a United Nations Commission on Disarmament in New York (no relation to Irakly Alasaniya, Georgia’s Ambassador to the UN).

The leaders of the Georgian opposition nearly succeeded in toppling Saakashvili last autumn. The president was forced to impose military rule in Tbilisi, while his former defence minister, Irakly Okruashvili, publicly accused him of murder and corruption. Okruashvili is currently in Paris, where he has been granted political asylum by the French government. In June, a French court rejected Saakashvili’s warrant for the arrest and extradition of his former friend and now bitterest critic. Okruashvili is uncompromised by early career links to Moscow, unlike a number of political party leaders in Tbilisi. Okruashvili is a likely candidate to replace Saakashvili, if and when Georgian public opinion turns against the president.

But this cannot happen while Russian military operations continue against Georgian targets. Leading opposition figures inside the country, like Shalva Natelashvili, head of the Georgian Labour Party, believe they must remain silent for the time being. According to Irakly Kakabadze, an independent opposition organizer based in New York, “once the bombing stops, I believe Saakashvili will not survive.” In the spring, Kakabadze was arrested and imprisoned in Tbilisi by Saakashvili security men trying to disrupt a street protest against the president’s regime.

Public opinion in Georgia is already pinning the blame on Saakashvili for the folly and loss of the Ossetian adventure. Even before it began last week, the opposition leaders were calling for an end to the militarization of the country. However, as one opposition leader said today, the bombing has to stop — “otherwise, the Russians are making Saakashvili the victim”.

The problem for Russians is that halting the military campaign doesn’t put a stop to Saakashvili’s menaces. Nor is there any confidence in Moscow, on either side of the Kremlin wall, that Rice and Kouchner can be trusted to control Saakashvili, even if they promise to do so.

If a ceasefire is agreed this week, Georgians and Russians might then be able to agree that Saakashvili bears personal responsibility for the war that began on August 8. However, neither Saakashvili’s domestic critics, nor the Russian government, expect the Americans to abandon their man now — let alone escort him to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

With the Georgian presidential alternative Okruashvili under their wing in Paris, what the French do next may be able to bridge the gap which Saakashvili’s artillery tore apart last Friday.

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