Magazine article The Spectator

Will We Betray Georgia as We Betrayed Hungary?

Magazine article The Spectator

Will We Betray Georgia as We Betrayed Hungary?

Article excerpt

Susan Richards says that the Russian ban on Georgian wine is a whisper of the tensions that could turn into a roar - a Great Game for the 21st century

The drink of choice for Russia's thriving new middle class is Georgian wine. They love to celebrate with a buxom Kindzmarauli or a dry Saperavi. The trouble is, there is just not enough of it. The shortage has been met in the old Soviet way - by counterfeiters: up to 80 per cent of Georgian wine sold in Russia is apparently fake. This is ostensibly why Russia's chief public health official banned imports a month ago.

The scale of the counterfeiting scams in former Soviet territory is certainly vast, as is Russia's alcohol problem. It is a major factor in Russia's catastrophic demographic decline. Last year more than 40,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning alone.

But the ban will not address the problem.

For while Georgia has been clamping down on the fakers, Russia has not. Last year, Georgia's Mukuzani region produced grapes enough for 1.4 million bottles a year;

ten million bearing that label were on sale in Russia. Most of these were produced north of the border, concocted out of vodka or moonshine. Those are the killers.

But Russia's ban on Georgian wine is actually just another move in the drama which Dick Cheney stoked a month ago in Vilnius when he accused Moscow of backsliding on democracy. As someone whose family fought on the northwest frontier in the 19th-century Great Game between the British and Russian empires, I hate to watch how crudely the Western powers are playing this new round.

After 9/11 Putin horrified much of his own elite by coming out in support of America in its war against terror. It took courage on his part to face down the mentality of Russia's old cold warriors. Yet the new Republican administration did not reward his loyalty.

Assistance to Russia was cut back, and the US freed up its own security options by withdrawing from the 30-year-old Anti-BallisticMissile Treaty with Russia.

Bush argued that the ABM Treaty was no longer relevant: it belonged to the Cold War. Had the West gone on to dismantle other aspects of the Cold War framework, this would have been convincing. But the Senate confirmed the Jackson-Vanik amendment - which had tied US-Russian trade relations to levels of Jewish emigration - when it came up for review.

Then there was Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organisation. The US overrode objections to China's candidature which were every bit as problematic as Russia's candidature. China joined in November 2001. Russia is still waiting.

Towering over all this was the issue of Nato. Had the Western powers chosen to dismantle it, this would have signalled that we were no longer stuck in the mindset of the Cold War. Instead, in November 2003 the US first scripted Georgia's Rose Revolution, then went on to do the same for Ukraine's Orange Revolution the following year. Almost unreported, a US naval ship docked in Crimea as part of a Ukraine-Nato military exercise the other day, amid continuing discussions about the country's admission to Nato in 2008. The Crimea is, if you remember, still home to Russia's navy. Is this gunboat diplomacy or am I a turnip?

Now look at a map. How happy would you be with these moves if you were Russia? It regards Belarus and Ukraine not just as the near-abroad, like the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but as provinces of the same Eastern Slav territory. This is not presumption on Russia's part. It has roots in history as well as ethnicity. …

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