Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shots fired at Georgian, Polish presidents

Reports out of Georgia are that a motorcade carrying Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his guest Polish President Lech Kaczynski was shot at while the two were visiting an outpost along the disputed border with South Ossetia. No one was injured in the incident that the two presidents quickly blamed on the Russians.

"Frankly, I didn't expect the Russians to open fire," Saakashvili said at a press conference afterwards. "The reality is you are dealing with unpredictable people. They weren't happy to see our guest and they weren't happy to see me either."

If it's true, the shooting is a serious event in an already troubled region. And that's the problem, "if it's true.”

The problem with Misha (Saakashvili) in the Russia-Georgia conflict this past summer is that his version of the truth didn't always match up with the facts. During the war Saakashvili claimed that Russian forces were bombing the airport in the capital Tbilisi, had attacked the important oil pipeline that runs through Georgia from Azerbaijan to Turkey and, most dramatically, he and an aide dove for cover from an air raid during an outdoor press conference in the city of Gori. Problem was that the Russians never bombed the airport; never attacked the pipeline and the skies were empty during the air raid (the reporters on hand didn't know what to make of Misha when he suddenly leapt for cover). So why the lies? Because Saakashvili is a media-savvy guy and what better way to build support for Georgia in the international community then to feed into the ongoing narrative of plucky little Georgia being savaged by big, bad Russia?

Even the Georgians themselves were unsure of what happened at the border on Sunday. Some members of the entourage backed up Saakashvili's story, though at least one lawmaker, Marika Verulashvili, said that the shots came when the motorcade approached a Georgian police checkpoint - meaning the shots could have come from the Georgians themselves.

The timing of the event is also a little suspicious. It came on the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution - the mass public protests that drove Georgia's old autocratic regime out of power, and swept in Saakashvili, and it happened in the presence of the Polish president, himself a fierce critic of Russia, so there’s quite a lot of symbolism at play.

But whether Russian or Ossetian forces fired the shots, or if this is another tall tale from Misha, it's not helpful in the current situation. I was at a panel discussion two weeks ago about Russian-Georgian relations and one of the panelists put the chances for a second war between the two countries was about one in three. Incidents like this certainly won't help bring tensions down.
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