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Georgia's Election Matters as Putin's Global Threat Looms

Vladimir Putin's global offensive began in 2008 when Russian forces invaded Georgia. This week on October 8, the imperial resurgence Putin launched could receive its first serious setback when Georgians go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Pro-Western parties could retake power but polls indicate a virtual dead heat. It will be near-run thing. It shouldn't be and wouldn't be but for America's neglect of the region—really since the invasion—alongside the EU's passionless embrace. Should we care if Georgia drifts further back into Moscow's orbit? I reported on the invasion for the Wall Street Journal and, yes, we should care. It matters a lot. To understand why, we need a brief history excursion.

Putin's punishing invasion of Georgia went unanswered, provoking Georgia's ardently pro-West president of the time, Mikheil Saakashvili, to warn that Putin would strike next in Ukraine. Putin did so in Crimea. Before the sanctions could bite, he was fomenting bloodshed in Ukraine's Donbass region. Undeterred by sanctions, he entered Syria and has taken a commanding role and America’s influence has withered. Now Putin has struck at the democratic process in the US by hacking the DNC database and publicly favoring one candidate over another. At every stage, he tested the ground first with a prior outrage and, feeling no resistance, planned the next.

In Georgia, as in other places like Moldova and Ukraine, Putin didn't set out to conquer and occupy the entire country, Soviet-fashion. He didn't make the mistake of “nation-building” with slim resources. Rather he backed insurgencies in Georgia's separatist regions such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, turned them into “frozen conflicts” as they're dubbed, and waited for the central government to buckle under pressure from its exhausted citizens. He followed up the fighting by deploying his usual bag of tricks: pinprick acts of terror, trade embargoes, fuel cut-offs and the like to keep fears alive. Citizens had to choose between open-ended war or peace on his terms—available to them if they chose a Moscow-friendly leader. In Georgia, he found himself a Trump-like quisling in the figure of Bidzina Ivanishvili, an eccentric, billionaire oligarch with opaque finances who suddenly emerged as the pro-Russian opposition leader not a year before the parliamentary elections in October 2012. Naturally, Ivanishvili became a glamorous obsession for the international media (I reported on the phenom for Newsweek). During the campaign, Ivanishvili openly refused to criticize Putin, declined to “provoke” him. Putin didn't return the favor; his military launched massive maneuvers on Georgia's border and in the separatist areas they occupied. His spokesmen popped up on Russian-language channels to explain that instability in Georgia seemed likely. They were preparing to help impose peace.

Instability only seemed likely because Ivanishvili kept threatening civil unrest if he lost the election. He avowed that he could only lose owing to vote-tampering by the other side. In short, he subverted public confidence in his own country's electoral process. Meanwhile, his goons kept roughing up people during rallies. His political allies spoke darkly of too many “foreigners” in Tbilisi. He courted the Georgian church and the patriarchs came out on his side. He played the nationalist-religious card repeatedly. Then a couple of September “surprises” sealed the outcome: a sordid prison abuse video and an infant relative of opposition supporters found dead in their home. No matter that the evidence ultimately showed the video was financed by pro-Moscow mafia and the dead child's mother later repudiated her politicized accusations—all too late, long after Ivanishvili won. His party never openly rebuffed snail-pace association with the EU or NATO to this day—nor has it gotten any closer to the West.

In short, it was in Georgia that the world witnessed the first ultra-right KGB-scripted interference in foreign elections. Similar incidents followed elsewhere. In Ukraine, two days before Petro Poroshenko got elected, the vote's regulating body found its computers hacked and databases erased. By Russian hackers. In Poland, clandestine tapes of anti-Moscow politicians were leaked before elections and a nationalist political party gained power. Enough said. Currently, as the election looms, candidates opposing Ivanishvili's party are being subjected to arrests, violence and bombings. Meanwhile, Ivanishvili openly praises Stalin as a proud son of Georgia.

If this doesn't convince you of the importance of Georgia and its upcoming ballot, then picture this instead: a fully pro-Moscow Georgia sits atop a pro-Moscow Armenia and Iran. With Russian backing, the Shiite crescent from Tehran to Hezbollah in Lebanon is about to secure hegemony over much of the Middle East. Look at the map. If Georgia goes, you can write Putin's name on a bloc of territory from Central Asia, through the Caucasus down to the Mideast and out to large areas of Europe. Georgia matters.

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