History Has Hijacked the Russian and Georgian States

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Byline: Owen Matthews

Dmitry Medvedev and Mikheil Saakashvili could be close allies. Both are young, dynamic leaders who trained as lawyers before going into politics. They are far more Westward-looking than their predecessors, and both are passionate about rooting out corruption and introducing the rule of law to their reluctant countrymen. But instead of cooperating, they are locked in a war only one of them can win.

In a sense, both leaders have been hijacked by history. The breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia was a festering conflict left over from the chaotic days of the Soviet Union's breakup. For nearly two decades, the Kremlin has supported Ossetia and Abkhazia, another tiny rebel enclave, as part of an old-fashioned divide-and-rule policy designed to keep Georgia weak. Medvedev inherited that policy from Vladimir Putin--and now must follow through. Medvedev has been fighting the wimp factor since he became president in May and cannot afford to look weaker than his tough mentor. So just hours after Georgian troops launched an all-out grab for the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, killing at least 10 Russian peacekeeping troops, Medvedev appeared on television looking grim-faced. "We will not tolerate the death of our citizens' going unpunished," he said, slapping his palm on the table. …