MOSCOW. (Vitaly Dymarsky, a member of the RIA Novosti Expert Council)

A sharp deterioration in Russian-Georgian relations, which have quickly turned into an irrational conflict, is fraught with dangers for both sides.

These relations were far from friendly even before the scandalous arrest of four Russian officers. But they remained in the context of political confrontation, whereby the actions of the governments (reasonable or not) did not have much effect on the population, which watched an exchange of blows (like a ban on wine or renaming of alpine areas) with some anxiety but still at a distance. Moreover, from time to time even Vladimir Putin and Mikheil Saakashvili would reluctantly reaffirm their mutual desire to settle the problems.

The reasons for the current crisis are primarily rooted in Tbilisi, which is desperately looking for ways of helping Saakashvili honor his main election promise – secure Georgia’s territorial integrity. But in the process some politicians are losing restraint, like Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, and some actions are not being thoroughly planned, like the arrest of Russian officers, which Moscow qualified as a provocation. Russia had every reason to respond. But what measures are appropriate?

Let’s recall the international experience of sanctions, say, the blockade of Cuba by the United States. The Americans obviously overestimated its effect. As a result, the Castro regime, which had not initially shared Communist ideology, quickly found a sponsor; and for decades the Soviet Union was footing all political, economic and military bills for the Cuban socialist experiment.

Or take another example – Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The world community (not only the U.S.) imposed very tough sanctions against it. But for all its dislike of the regime, it still tried to protect civilians from poverty, hunger and dying with its oil-for-food program.

I think that Moscow’s punishment of disobedient Georgia does not consider lessons of history. The whole package of measures taken against Tbilisi can only further alienate (if it hasn’t yet) Georgia from Russia. As it often happens, the efforts to influence the Georgian voters in the hope that they will wipe off the Saakashvili regime produced the contrary effect. When the Russian sanctions were at their peak, the pro-presidential United National Movement won about 60% of all votes, leading all opposition forces far behind.

Moreover, most of the opposition forces, which competed against the current authorities in the election race, rallied around Saakashvili when Moscow switched over to sanctions against ordinary Russian and Georgian citizens. These sanctions do no harm to the ruling regime. Who are they aimed against, and what impact will they have on public opinion in Russia?

I’m afraid we are in for another splash of xenophobia. Who can guarantee that given the current level of ethnic strife in our society, we will not abase ourselves as far as to start putting special marks on everything Georgian, including the Georgians themselves? Who can guarantee that the same law-enforcement bodies will be meticulous in checking ethnic backgrounds of suspects and that some hotheads will not start arresting Armenians, Azeris and all other dark-haired people who may look similar to Georgians?

Will they manage to select swindlers and criminals, who are present in every ethnic group, from those who have long become part of our life? Will Oleg Basilashvili, Zurab Sotkilava, Vakhtang Kikabidze or Valery Meladze be able to go on stage? Would they wish to? What if some unsophisticated skinhead does not even recognize them on a dark side-street and demands praise for taking part in sanctions against an unfriendly state?

Moreover, we should not forget about a special feature of our officials who carry out instructions from above with unabated perseverance, transforming them into actions that go against not only logic but also law itself. It is enough to recall the campaign to identify children with Georgian names in Moscow schools.

Such threats are not limited to the humanitarian sphere. Xenophobia (not only as regards Georgians) may easily produce technologies for pushing a strongman to power, because daily reports by the media are influencing the attitudes of the public, registered by sociological polls. It may thaw the frozen conflicts on the post-Soviet space (in Abkhazia, Transdnestr and South Ossetia), which the advocates of tough anti-Georgian methods are already urging. But as a result of this, Russia may stop being a key world player and leave the international legal arena. Moreover, conflicts may break out on the territory of Russia, which is a federation itself. In addition, the xenophobic attitudes may also affect the residents of the same Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

The political heat in Russian-Georgian relations is not likely to promote integration in the post-Soviet space. Torn apart by external and internal contradictions, the CIS is already going through hard times. Any similar conflict only contributes to centrifugal tendencies and provokes other CIS members to what Kuchma called a “multi-vector principle”, or increasing remoteness from Moscow.

As for Georgia… After all, our common Soviet past has taught us to adapt to any extreme conditions. The examples of Cuba and Iraq teach people to resist the imposed difficulties and to rally against their national leaders.

I don’t mean that Saakashvili’s challenge should have remained unanswered. But a modern state of such caliber as Russia should have other methods of self-defense, and even pressure. Such measures should not backfire. They should affect the political decisions of our “foes” without prejudicing the interests of ordinary people.