Ozarks native and Georgetown professor Charles King has graduated to a more majestic landscape: the Caucasus Mountains and the Eurasian borderlands between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
King's newest book, “The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus” (University of Oxford Press, hardcover, $29.95), arrived in February, before the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia. But it still provides a timely overview of the region that puts the recent situation into historical perspective. It reminds us of the explosive potential of the Caucasus as a whole, both within Russian and without, and suggests also that, American policymakers' proclamations to the contrary, Georgia is a democracy more in name than actual fact.
Tensions between Georgia and Russian have been barely manageable since 2003, when Soviet holdover Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted from the Georgian presidency by popular protest and Columbia University–educated Mikheil Saakashvili was elected to take his place. Part of Saakashvili's appeal was his promise to restore the backwater of South Ossetia to Georgian control; the region has been de facto independent since the early 1990s, when, with the help of Russia, it resisted attempts to incorporate it into the Georgian state. Saakashvili tried to make good on his pledge in August, but was firmly rebuffed by the Russian military.
One of Saakashvili's miscalculations was that the United States would give Georgia meaningful assistance — not just “We are all Georgians” platitudes — if Russia gave it trouble for the attack. The blunder was not unjustified. Rhetoric from U.S. politicians has been fully supportive of Saakashvili and not at all of Russia. Saakashvili is president, in fact, in no small part because he benefited from American democracy-assistance programs. This aid was openly given and not limited to the cultivation of new leadership; as King writes, the U.S. gave Shevardnadze's Georgia $1 billion for purposes including anti-corruption and economic development.
If Georgia is a democracy it is because the past two presidential administrations have spent so much time and money trying to make it one. For most of its 200-year past, the modern Georgian state has been a client of other countries. It formed expressly to receive Rus-sia's protection from Persian and Turkish encroachment; the Soviet Union incorporated it as a Soviet Republic. And while it has had genuine movements of freedom — most notably in the early 1920s, when its moderate socialist government was crushed by Stalin — none of those are relevant to the politics of today's Georgia.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, King notes, Georgia was best considered a city-state centered on Tbilisi, the capital. It had a countryside that the government could not — and still cannot — provide with full-time basic services such as electricity. In January, Saakashvili won after shutting down a major television station that wasn't in his camp. If this makes Georgia seem like a hellhole, it's not; it's a beautiful place with hospitable people. It just happens to have drawn a short straw when it comes to political development.
King's book is an overview of the Caucasus as a whole, not just Georgia, and the histories of the two other post-Soviet Caucasus republics retain the same broad outlines of fragmentation and strife: Armenia, where squabbles between members of a widespread dias-pora engendered violence, and Azerbaijan, a petrostate dictatorship that has engaged in war with Armenia over yet another separatist region. Mountain territories that became part of Russia fared little better. The best known is Chechnya, a province that resisted Russian brutality — and committed plenty of its own — long before Russia devastated its capital, Grozny, in the 1990s.
King is hopeful that Georgia will one day develop a true democracy. Indeed, it is the most promising of the three Caucasus states to emerge from the post-Soviet rubble. But recent events do not make Georgia look like a democracy any more than it did at its founding in 1801. And that conforms to the region's historical pattern. People of the ethnically fragmented Caucausus have always had to bol-ster themselves by playing larger powers off one another. The United States is just the newest entrant into the game.