The tension heaving beneath the surface in a remote part of the Caucasus may soon explode into a major international crisis.
On one side of this looming crisis stands Russia, a former superpower that is unable to absorb the shock of losing its empire. On the other side is Georgia, a nation of 4.6 million sandwiched between Russia and Azerbaijan. While Russia regards Georgia as part of its security perimeter, the new Georgian leaders see Russian imperial ambitions as the key threat to their independence, which they won when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
So the Georgian elite under President Mikhail Shakashvili is tying to take it into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as quickly as possible. Russia finds such a prospect worrisome, especially since the Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and at least some of the Central Asian republics, are also moving towards NATO membership.
NATO membership is not the only reason why Russia is angry with Georgia.
The tiny Caucasian republic is also instrumental in countering one of Russia's major strategic cards: Its position as the vital energy route to the West. While Moscow wants all oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Basin to Europe to pass through Russian territory, Tbilisi offers the Georgian route to Turkey and the Black Sea as an attractive alternative. Much of Russia's recent return as a major international player is due to its control of the energy resources that Europe needs. Any reduction in that control would translate into a fall in Russia's diplomatic stocks.
There is a third reason why Moscow regards Georgia as a potential source of trouble. A successful pro-West Georgia, forging "privileged relations" with both the United States and the European Union, could emerge as a tempting model for a string of smaller nations that Moscow is still holding as parts of the Russian Federation.
Russia is responding by trying to cause enough trouble in Georgia to convince Washington that it is not worth its while to pick a quarrel with Moscow over Tbilisi's ambitions.
Russia is doing this in three ways.
The first consists of a clear policy of encouraging secessionist movements in Georgia. Like other republics of the former Soviet Union as designed by Stalin, Georgia includes in its borders a number of rival ethnic and religious communities. Russia is targeting three of them: The Ossetians, the Abkahz and the Adjar.
The Ossetians, who form a majority of the population in the autonomous district of South Ossetia, have kith and kin in North Ossetia that already forms part of the Russian Federation. Moscow's idea is for the two halves of Ossetia to come together in the form of a larger autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The problem, however, is that half of the Ossetians are Muslims while the other half are Christians.
Needless to say, the Muslim half is reluctant to join Russia, which has not been very kind to Muslims in Chechnya. The Abkahz and the Adjars already have their respective autonomous republics in Georgia. However, both nations resent the fact that Stalin attached them to Georgia, and aspire to full independence. Their case is not entirely without logic as they have very little in common with the Georgians in terms of religion, language, culture and ethnic background.
President Shakashvili finds himself in a difficult position: He has to rally his people against what he claims is "Russian imperialism" while he denies the aspirations of the Ossetians, the Abkhaz and the Adjar in the name of Georgian chauvinism.
Right now, however, there is little doubt that it is Georgia that faces Russian bullying and worse. New armed groups mushrooming in the dissident regions of Georgia bear Russian fingerprints on every aspect of their existence.
Russian intelligence has also been hard at work infiltrating the Georgian Army and security forces. The manhunt that Moscow has ordered against expatriate Georgians who live in the Russian Federation has also reached intolerable proportions.
In Moscow and other major Russian cities, it is not rare for the police to arrest people simply because they look Georgian. While Moscow claims it is acting to prevent the emergence of Georgian terrorism in Russia, it is clear that the real motives are quite different. Expatriate Georgians working in Russia account for some 10 percent of the tiny republic's gross domestic product. By shutting that channel of income, Moscow hopes to derail Georgia's current and impressive economic revival.
Throughout its history that dates back 25 centuries, Georgia has always been caught in big-power rivalries. For centuries, it changed hands between the Persians and the Romans. One of the first nations to convert to Christianity, Georgia was, nevertheless, incorporated into successive Persian empires until the 18th century when Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, razed the center of Tbilisi and forced the Georgians to seek Russian protection in the name of Christian solidarity. However, almost immediately, Georgians found Russian rule as oppressive as that of the Persians.
Judged by any standards, Georgia today is a success story. It has developed a credible democratic system and its economy is booming. At the same time prospects of joining NATO and, perhaps later, even the European Union gives the newly independent nation a set of common aspirations that could cement its unity.
The only cloud in this serene sky is Georgia's worsening relations with Russia. Although Moscow's "Big Brother" chauvinism and obvious bullying are intolerable, the Georgian leaders are wrong to define their legitimate national ambitions in terms of opposition to Russia. Repairing relations with Russia should be top of the agenda for the leadership in Tbilisi, even if that means slowing down the process of Westernization as promised by President Shakashvili. As an ancient nation, Georgia need not adopt the rhythm and tempo of action and reaction more suitable to newly created states. Without abandoning its national project, Georgia can and must take are not to provoke Russia, especially at a time that the once great power is experiencing a painful period of self-doubt. The European Union and NATO have a moral obligation, if not a geostrategic interest, to support Georgia against Russian bullying. At the same time, however, Georgia should not become a pawn in a big power rivalry that it cannot control. It can afford to be patient, without being pliant.