Dispatches From the Edge: Georgian Plots; Fury in Asia

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday April 23, 2009 - 07:01:00 PM

Georgian plot?  

At the bottom of the recent demonstrations that have packed the capital city of Tbilisi with tens of thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is an investigation by the European Union (EU) as to who started last summer’s war between Georgia and Russia. According to a report in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, “A secret document may prove that the Georgian president had planned a war of aggression in South Ossetia.” 

The Russians charge that Georgian troops launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia last Aug. 7, while Saakashvili claims that Georgia was merely defending itself from an invasion by 150 Russian tanks through the Roki Tunnel connecting South Ossetia with North Ossetia. The latter is part of Russia. 

But an investigation by the EU has uncovered “Order No. 2,” dated Aug. 7, that says Georgia was not defending itself but acting to “reestablish constitutional order” in South Ossetia. The EU is closely examining an Aug. 7 television interview in which Georgian Gen. Mamuka Kurashjvili used just those words. President Saakashvili announced Aug. 8 that “Most of South Ossetia’s territory is liberated.” He did not claim that Georgia was acting in “self-defense” until Aug. 11. By that time, Russian troops had driven the Georgian Army out of South Ossetia and were within 31 miles of Tbilisi. The war lasted five days. 

The general’s remarks, reports Der Spiegel, “indicate that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was not repelling ‘Russian aggression,’ as he continues to claim to this day, but was planning a war of aggression.” 

The EU commission questioned the Russian deputy head of the general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, who said that the Russians had intercepted Order No. 2, and that it indeed contained the phrase about reestablishing constitutional order. “If the order, which Russian intelligence intercepted, is authentic, it would prove that Saakashvili lied,” says Der Spiegel.  

The investigation found that Georgia had massed 12,000 troops and 75 tanks on the South Ossetian border for the Aug. 7 attack. The Russian tanks did not transit the tunnel until Aug. 8. While the commission is also critical of the Russians for meddling in South Ossetia and not preventing South Ossetians from destroying some Georgian villages, “the EU investigation seems to be more of a problem for Tbilisi than for Moscow,” according to Der Spiegel. 

The Georgians refuse to turn over Order No. 2 to the commission, claiming it is a state secret. And Georgian Minister Temur Yakobashvili charges that the investigation is being funded by Russian gas giant Gazprom. The commissioners, who reject the charges, are Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini and former German ambassador to Georgia Uwe Schramm. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer advises the commission. 

“More and more former allies of Saakashvili are now blaming the authoritarian president for the war and calling for his resignation,” says Der Spiegel. Indeed, Nino Burjanadze, who helped lead the revolution that put Saakashvili into office, and Irakli Alasania, former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, are leading the opposition demonstrations. 

So far, Saakashvili has not unleashed the police as he did in breaking up similar rallies in 2007, but he arrested 10 opposition members on the eve of the current demonstrations, accusing them of planning a violent overthrow of the government. The charge is based on a secret tape that records a man identified as a “coordinator” for Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement-United Georgia Party saying that the former speaker is planning to provoke violence. Burjanadze denies knowing the so-called “coordinator” and says he has no position of authority in her organization.  

Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003, says he has no intention of resigning and will finish out his term in 2013. But demonstrators say they will not disperse until he steps down and calls an early election. 

The beleaguered president says he is willing to negotiate with the opposition. However, most of the people camped out in front of the Parliament say that the call for “talks” is a ploy. “He says things like this only for the U.S. and Europe,” farmer Amiran Tsertskhladze told the New York Times, “but no one here believes he really wants dialogue.” 

Sobering thought for the week: Only the opposition of Germany and France kept the Bush administration from adding Georgia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) back in 2007. While the Obama administration is not currently pushing for Georgia to join the alliance, the country’s membership is still on the agenda. Had Georgia been a NATO member during the Russia-Georgia War, it would have triggered Article 5 of the treaty requiring member states to come to Georgia’s aid—and NATO might have been snookered into a war with Russia.  


Asian storm 

According to a lot of mainstream thinking, Asia is weathering the current economic meltdown. “Asians are taking the economic collapse far more calmly than many in the West,” writes David Pilling, Asian editor for the Financial Times. The region he says, “brims with confidence that its time has come,” and it is operating under the assumption that, “when the dust settles, wealth and power will have edged decisively east.” 

Pilling may be right about the rise of the east, but things are not nearly as rosy as he paints them, and there are restless clouds on the horizon. 

“As goods pile up on wharves from Bangkok to Shanghai, and workers are laid off in record numbers, people in East Asia are beginning to realize they aren’t only experiencing an economic downturn but living through the end of an era,” says Walden Bello, a senior analyst at the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South, president of the Freedom From Debt Coalition, and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines. 

The current crisis is due to the global crisis of capitalism, but most Asian economies are particularly hard hit because they bought into a scheme by the World Bank back in the 1970s. The plan was to raise living standards without redistributing wealth—thus challenging local elites—by turning countries like South Korea and Taiwan into exporting machines, where economic growth would lift the poor out of poverty. 

At the same time, the United States was pressuring Japan to revalue its currency to make Tokyo’s products more costly, in order to cut the trade gap between the two nations. Japan complied, but its domestic labor costs increased as a result. To keep its status as the world’s top exporter, Tokyo began pouring tens of billions into the rest of Asia to take advantage of low wages in places like China and Vietnam. The strategy was to produce low-cost goods, and ship them to Japan, then Europe and the United States. “This was industrial policy and planning on a grand scale,” says Bello, “managed jointly by the Japanese government and the corporations.” 

The export machine did indeed raise living standards all over Asia, but it ran on the endless appetite of U.S. and European consumers. As long as Americans could get easy credit—and they could, as long as China and Japan bought up hundreds of billions of U.S. Treasury bonds—everything was hunky-dory.  

Until the housing bubble popped, and the bottom fell out of the credit market. The fallout has been catastrophic: “China’s growth in 2008 fell to 9 percent, from 11 percent a year earlier. Japan is now in deep recession … South Korea, the hardest hit of Asia’s economies so far, has seen its currency collapse by some 30 percent relative to the dollar. Southeast Asia’s growth in 2009 will likely be half of that in 2008,” says Bello. 

Although economic growth did alleviate some poverty, the gap between haves and have-nots actually expanded over the last decade. Between 2000 and 2006 Asia grew at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world, but, as the Financial Times points out, that hardly meant the end of penury. 

“Many of the people in the region were still suffering from serious poverty. More than one billion people, representing almost 62 percent of the region’s labor force, were still working in the ‘informal economy.’ Some 900 million were living on less than $2 a day. The International Labor Organization found that 308 million of these people were living in extreme poverty—less than $1 per day. 

According to Bello, some 20 million Chinese have lost their jobs in just the last few months, and there are no industries to soak up the growing army of the unemployed. The economic crisis has also forced millions of Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers to return home to markets that high unemployment drove them to flee. 

Rising poverty rates and joblessness are already leading to protests in Vietnam, and “Korea, with its tradition of militant labor and peasant protest, is a ticking time bomb,” says Bello. 

In the Financial Times, Pilling writes, “Asians are stoical…nor have the people yet turned with a vengeance on incompetent politicians or negligent regulators.” 

You wouldn’t want to put a lot of money on that stoicism to endure.