When the EU devil went down to Ge­or­gia

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY TODD WOOD L. Todd Wood is a for­mer spe­cial op­er­a­tions heli­copter pi­lot and Wall Street debt trader, and has con­trib­uted to Fox Busi­ness, The Moscow Times, Na­tional Re­view, the New York Post and many other pub­li­ca­tions. He can be reached through his we

Ukraine aside, one of the most cov­eted ar­eas of the for­mer Soviet Union is the tiny but strate­gi­cally lo­cated coun­try of Ge­or­gia, on the doorstep to the Cau­ca­sus. And a tug-of-war be­tween Brus­sels and Moscow in re­cent days shows the size of the stakes in­volved.

In 2008, Rus­sia and Ge­or­gia fought a brief war over the sep­a­ratist re­gions of South Os­se­tia and Abk­hazia, which Rus­sian troops con­trol to this day. It’s ob­vi­ous Rus­sia still cov­ets Ge­or­gia. Sev­eral times in the re­cent past Rus­sian troops have se­cretly moved bor­der mark­ers in the mid­dle of the night to shift nearby in­fra­struc­ture to the con­trol of the break­away re­gions.

As of now, Moscow ef­fec­tively con­trols ap­prox­i­mately 20 per­cent of Ge­or­gia’s sov­er­eign ter­ri­tory. En­ter, stage left, the Euro­pean Union, which poked the Rus­sian bear ear­lier this month by of­fer­ing to en­ter into dis­cus­sions to give Ge­or­gians visa-free travel to the 27-na­tion bloc. This would al­low or­di­nary Ge­or­gian cit­i­zens to travel with­out re­stric­tion through­out Europe, a very big prize in­deed.

It would be a re­ward for good be­hav­ior: Ge­or­gia has been one of the most ef­fec­tive of the for­mer Soviet Republics in fight­ing cor­rup­tion and curb­ing state power over the lives of its cit­i­zens. (I’m told you can get a pass­port in Ge­or­gia in 15 min­utes; tell that to our State Depart­ment.) Ge­or­gia is far less cor­rupt than Ukraine, for in­stance, where the strug­gle for the last two decades against oli­garch con­trol has made min­i­mal progress.

Be­ing the only ma­jor­ity-Chris­tian coun­try in the Cau­ca­sus is also a big fac­tor, for Rus­sia and the West. Strate­gi­cally, Ge­or­gia is smack dab in the mid­dle of Is­lamic State coun­try, with Turkey to the west and Chech­nya to the north. Ar­me­nia is nearby, armed to the gills with Rus­sian weapons. Yes, Ge­or­gia is very im­por­tant to Rus­sia. And don’t forget — Stalin was born in Ge­or­gia.

So the fact that the EU is of­fer­ing to al­low Ge­or­gians rel­a­tively open ac­cess is quite a big deal. Per­haps this is why the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry just this week of­fered to “dis­cuss” a sim­i­lar ar­range­ment for Ge­or­gians to travel to Rus­sia with­out need­ing a visa.

“As for the Rus­sian side, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has quite clearly stated that the pos­si­bil­ity of in­tro­duc­ing a visa-free regime with Ge­or­gia on a re­cip­ro­cal ba­sis is not ex­cluded. We re­main open to col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Ge­or­gian author­i­ties,” Rus­sian Me­dia Agency spokesman Grig­ory Karasin told RIA Novosti.

He noted that the EU visa-free of­fer would re­quire Ge­or­gia to pass ma­jor new leg­is­la­tion, while the num­ber of visas is­sues by Rus­sia’s Tbil­isi of­fice had al­most dou­bled this year.

“I have no doubts that pos­i­tive ten­den­cies will be boosted in 2017,” Mr. Karasin said.

There is the lit­tle prob­lem that Ge­or­gia, af­ter the 2008 con­flict, made it il­le­gal for Ge­or­gian cit­i­zens to cross from Rus­sia into the South Os­se­tia or Abk­hazia en­claves. Most of the world still rec­og­nizes these two re­gions as Ge­or­gian ter­ri­tory. The Krem­lin is sim­ply say­ing that this leg­isla­tive road­block has to be re­moved be­fore the Krem­lin can dis­cuss a visa-free regime with Tbil­isi.

Moscow has made no se­cret of its long-term am­bi­tion to pull for­mer Soviet republics or satel­lites back into its sphere of in­flu­ence. From the Baltics to the Balkans, the Krem­lin has made great progress. And the Western cam­paign to iso­late Moscow for its ag­gres­sive­ness is weak­en­ing. Na­tion­al­ist move­ments in France and Ger­many are cam­paign­ing to re­move the sanc­tions against Rus­sia, im­posed af­ter its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the sim­mer­ing con­flict in Don­bass.

The prob­lem is Ge­or­gia is not co­op­er­at­ing and the EU stands to make things worse in Moscow’s view by dan­gling the prize of visa-free travel. Per­haps Moscow will make fur­ther in­roads into the Ge­or­gian gov­ern­ment and even­tu­ally get the leg­is­la­tion changed so nor­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions could be es­tab­lished.

It seems the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will have a great im­pact on this sit­u­a­tion de­pend­ing on which side it fa­vors. Only time will tell for Ge­or­gia.

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