Can Georgia Follow Estonia's Game Plan?

Like other ex-Soviet dependents, the Caucasus country is trying to navigate a path to closer EU relations and assert its sovereignty to a domineering Russia

"The more time I spend in Georgia, the more I'm overcome by a feeling of deja vu," a former Estonian prime minister says.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili recently said that his country's problems with Vladimir Putin's Kremlin will end when "Russia accepts us as we are. The way it accepted Poland and Estonia."

His choice of those two countries is revealing. Both Poland and Estonia very quickly and very successfully navigated their way out of Moscow's orbit and into NATO and the European Union. Neither has been shy about provoking Russia when it suits their needs - even at the risk of causing the occasional Kremlin temper tantrum.

Poland and Estonia have also been extremely generous in sharing their experience and know-how with other former Soviet vassals who are seeking to make similarly successful post-communist transformations. Poland has made advancing Ukraine's NATO and EU bids a cornerstone of its foreign policy. And Estonia is working closely with Tbilisi to bring Georgia into Europe's mainstream. Indeed, former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar is advising Saakashvili's government; and Georgian officials have often cited the tiny Baltic nation's experience as a model for its own development.

"The more time I spend in Georgia, the more I'm overcome by a feeling of deja vu," Laar told Radio Free Europe in June. "A lot of what I see reminds me powerfully of the situation in Estonia round about 1993-1994," he added.

When Estonia was faced with an aggressive campaign from Moscow in the early 1990s to prevent it from embracing the West, Laar and his colleagues in government apparently decided that the best defense was a good offense.

Estonia didn't give an inch, even as Moscow egged on its Russian-speaking minority to stir up trouble. The country's leaders vigorously asserted their sovereignty, continuously demanded that Russian troops leave, and firmly oriented their foreign and economic policy on Europe and the United States.

They also undertook bold economic reforms that raised living standards for the whole society - which took much of the steam out of the grievances Russian speakers initially had.

The approach, which appeared risky at the time, worked better than anybody dared expect. And now Georgia is trying to use the same playbook. Whether or not they can pull it off will help determine what the geopolitical map of the South Caucasus will look like for decades to come.

Under former president Eduard Shevardnadze, relations between Tbilisi and Moscow resembled a predictable high-stakes game of chicken: Georgia would periodically assert its independence; Moscow would turn up the heat politically, economically, and sometimes militarily; and finally, Tbilisi would back down.

Saakashvili has made it clear he is not interested in mimicking his predecessor's pliancy. On the contrary, he seems to relish asserting Georgia's independence regardless of how much it annoys the Kremlin. The arrest, and quick release, of Russian military officers on espionage charges last month - which caused the Kremlin to go berserk - was just the latest example.

"The message to Russia is: 'Enough is enough,' " Saakashvili said recently. "The rules of the game should change. It's no longer the Soviet empire, and we are no longer a rebellious nation that is rebelling against its central government. We are an independent and free nation and should be respected as such."

Saakashvili remained defiant even after Moscow, in retaliation for the arrests, cut off all air, rail, and postal links with his country, recalled its ambassador, evacuated its citizens, and launched a massive crackdown on ethnic Georgians living in Russia. The Black Sea Fleet's recent naval maneuvers off Georgia's coast seemed not to faze him. "I don't think Russia will take such a rash step as to use military force against Georgia," he said.

NOW FOR ECONOMIC REFORMS. Unlike Shevardnadze - who owed his political survival to Moscow after Russian troops saved his regime from an armed rebellion in 1993 - Saakashvili came to power on the back of a promise to lead Georgia into the West. His very legitimacy is tied to severing Tbilisi's patron-client relationship with Russia and getting his country into Europe's mainstream. He could not back down even if he wanted to.

But Vladimir Putin, who clearly views Saakashvili's actions as a personal affront, is also showing no signs of relenting. "To our great sorrow and concern, the situation is developing in the direction of possible bloodshed," Putin menacingly told reporters at a meeting with EU leaders in Finland last week.

For Putin, who is known to carry a grudge, the Georgian president is a turncoat and an American stooge who set loose the virus of "colored revolutions" that have swept through the former Soviet space in recent years.

All of this puts the Russian-Georgian crisis in uncharted territory. With both sides digging in their heels, the slightest conflict - an incident involving Russian "peacekeepers" in Abkhazia or South Ossetia for example - could set off a military confrontation.

And as Laar points out, when Estonia managed to break free of Moscow's orbit a decade ago, Russia was weak and unsure of itself and its foreign policy was in disarray. "Russia has become significantly stronger," Laar said. "Russia's capacity to pursue its intentions is incomparably greater now than with regard to Estonia in 1993-1995."

He added that Georgia needs to do more than play tough with Moscow to preserve its independence - it also must establish a stronger economy that can withstand pressure from its larger neighbor. "Georgia needs to undertake very clear, very committed reforms to improve the investment climate," Laar said. "Without them, things will turn out very badly."

But risky as it is, Saakashvili's brinksmanship - if coupled to committed economic reform - could once and for all establish Georgia's independence from Moscow.

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