Stirring up trouble

March 17, 2004

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir V. Putin sweeps to a brilliant victory in a stage-managed election Sunday and look what's already happening: a crisis in Georgia that could result in Kremlin control over the West's only access route to the Caspian Sea oilfields.

Mr. Putin is in a stronger position than ever after gaining 70 percent of the votes in an election that was a sham from beginning to end - though a needless sham, because of the support he actually does command from a nation content to enjoy the fruits of stability, cohesion and the economic growth that comes with high oil prices. He has made no secret of his desire to assert Russia's influence among neighboring states, and now comes what looks suspiciously like a ready-made crisis in Georgia.

Georgia's young president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power after last fall's "Rose Revolution," has been denied recognition by a region called Adzharia, which sits on the Black Sea astride the Caspian pipeline, suffers under the rule of a small-time despot who enjoys warm relations with Moscow, and is home to a Russian army base. When Mr. Saakashvili tried to enter Adzharia, his motorcade was shot at and turned away. He responded by closing Adzharia's port and airspace, but somehow that hasn't stopped the mayor of Moscow - once a potential rival to Mr. Putin but now a loyal vassal - from flying in to offer encouragement to the rebel leader.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has cautioned Mr. Saakashvili to move slowly, and no wonder. The last thing Georgia or its Western friends need at this moment is a showdown with Russia. Fortunately, if recent Georgian history is any guide, the tension may ultimately be defused before things get out of hand; a point will have been made, and that may be sufficient.

But as Mr. Putin begins his four-year term, time is not on his side - and he probably knows it. Russians are behind him at the moment because he restored order after the chaos of the 1990s, and because of the financial cushion provided by high oil prices that has allowed deeper problems to go unaddressed. Human rights issues and other inconveniences are, to the public, tolerable. It's not so far wrong to say that Russia is enjoying an updated Soviet-style democracy, which in its heyday was in fact somewhat responsive to public opinion, and not unpopular among ordinary people as long as things were going well.

Afghanistan and an economic breakdown spelled its end in 1991. Chechnya and a steep decline in oil prices could see history repeating itself. Russia seems determined to flex its muscles before that happens, and, as Mr. Saakashvili knows by now, this could be the beginning of a dangerous interlude.

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