Fear and Loathing in Russia and Georgia

Mikhail Saakashvili's victory in Georgia's presidential election was the predictable culmination of November's "Revolution of the Roses," which forced Eduard Shevardnadze to step down after more than a decade in power. A more complicated question is what Georgia's northern neighbor, Russia, should expect from the new power triumvirate of Saakashvili, Nino Burdzhanadze, and Zurab Zhvania.

Despite Russia's post-Soviet malaise, it has influenced Georgia's internal development at virtually every turn--including Shevardnadze's resignation, which was mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov--so how it perceives Georgia's new leaders is of crucial geopolitical significance. The three Georgian leaders declare bilateral relations a high priority, and in Russia, too, there is widespread hope that their victory will help repair ties between the two countries.

But there is also concern about the previous occasional anti-Russian statements of this new generation of leaders, and fear that President Saakashvili might launch a military campaign to bring the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's rule. As Russia's arch-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky put it, "At least Shevardnadze was still our man," while the new leaders "will flood Abkhazia and South Ossetia with blood."

Although most Russians do not share this view, Russia is obviously concerned with the security threat that it faces from the South Caucasus--a threat that escalated sharply during Shevardnadze's rule. Most alarmingly, Chechen rebels enjoyed considerable freedom of operation in Georgia, creating supply bases on its territory and receiving medical help in Georgian hospitals before slipping back into Russia.