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On Abkhazia, president’s ill-considered ultimatums create needless danger

Thursday, February 28
Does Mikheil Saakashvili want a war?

A Georgian journalist with questionable judgment wound up in Abkhaz hands two days ago, apparently detained on the wrong side of the administrative border after bribing his way into the separatist region.

In a heated declaration yesterday, President Saakashvili warned the Abkhaz that if they don’t give up the hapless reporter, he will order Georgian police to storm Sokhumi and free him.

The president’s administration could have quickly smoothed that comment over, characterizing it as emotively expressive of Saakashvili’s deep concern for the well-being of the detained. Instead, astoundingly, they issued a press release repeating the threat of what amounts to an invasion to free this journalist.

Thankfully, the Abkhaz didn’t take him up on the challenge. They downplayed his comments as ‘impulsive shouting,’ which we can only hope is an accurate assessment of their significance.

As much as the more hot-blooded Georgians may eat up Saakashvili’s chest-thumping, raising the menace of force so carelessly is deeply unsettling.

In a not unrelated parallel, Georgian journalists have a long record of irresponsible and even mendacious reporting on the conflict zones. In all likelihood the journalist in question, who was detained once before, brought this on himself. If not for the gravity of the situation, it would be darkly comic for Tbilisi and Sokhumi to butt heads over the incendiary bumbling of the Georgian media.

Why the thundering from Saakashvili? He can’t be too worried about the journalist—if the captive is truly being tortured, as Saakashvili alleged, presenting the separatists with an ultimatum is hardly the best way to ensure his safety.

But Saakashvili has bellowed the bellicose at Sokhumi before. The president, not a simple-minded man, somehow finds it sensible to tell Georgians of imminent plans to retake the breakaway regions, of the coming reassertion of Georgian Orthodox control over Abkhazian churches, and to otherwise whip up the sort of fervent nationalism which drives Georgian journalists to the stunts that provoked this whole mess.

The road to regaining Georgia’s territorial integrity is long, and there is no reason to make it more bumpy than necessary.