August 15, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Alexander Rublev


How we tried to make friends with Mikhail Saakashvili

At present, the public opinion of the United States and Western Europe is not on Russia's side in the debate over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, started after the August 8 assault of the Georgian Army on South Ossetia’s central city Tskhinval. Our authors have already discussed the reasons for that. It is obvious that the Western media are biased, that Russia is still perceived by the Western audience through the glasses of Cold War stereotypes, that generally, the Western Philistine is poorly informed, narrow-sighted, and hardly knows anything about Ossetians and Abkhazians except that they are "separatists".

Meanwhile, the same Western media urge Russia to be self-critical, to respect the Constitution of Georgia, and admit the mistake of "excessive use of force". In fact, Russia has really committed some grave mistakes in approach towards Georgia, and they have to be admitted though it may be unpleasant.

These mistakes were committed not today, when we are saving Ossetians from ethnocide, but five years ago, when this ethnocide was pre-programmed. Regarding the short memory of global media, I have to remind of the events of autumn 2003.

At that time, the legitimate procedure of national parliamentary elections in Georgia was disrupted by what was later described as "revolution of roses". According to the official figures, the elections were won by the parties headed by then-President Eduard Shevardnadze and by Adjaria's President Aslan Abashidze. These official results did not coincide with a single exit poll, run by a US advertising company. Referring to the results of this exit poll, advertised through Rustavi-2 TV channel, the opposition parties raised a street riot, smashed into the parliament and physically kicked out the elected deputies. In order to save his life, the incumbent President had to escape, while his son-in-law was packed in jail by the revolutionists, who established their own rule, only months later legitimized by new elections in which Mikhail Saakashvili gained an astounding 96% support. This figure alone doubted the democratic character of the new regime. The subsequent deaths of Saakashvili's political rivals, Zurab Zhvania and Badri Patarkatsishvili, contributed to the portrait of a typical dictatorship.

In fact, legal vacuum has been reigning in Georgia since that time. This fact could be officially recognized by Russia, with reference to a lot of available evidence of brutal pressure of Saakashvili on Georgian politicians and businessmen.

In the midst of the "revolution of roses", not only the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia came to Moscow to express their concerns over the development, but also Aslan Abashidze who correctly guessed that the status of autonomy within Georgia, enjoyed by the Adjaria Republic, was going to be annihilated.

It was then not necessary for Moscow to officially recognize the results of the obvious coup d'etat. It was then already clear that with persons like Saakashvili, political relationship should not be established in principle. In early 2004, it was still possible to provide Aslan Abashidze with the required political and economic support. From the legal standpoint, Russia had a right for this, as the new regime was illegitimate not only according to basic principles of international law but also to the Constitution of the Republic of Georgia. Russia had a right for this also because Abashidze did not intend to separate from Georgia: on the contrary, his political party agitated for reunification of the republic.

The only political obstacle for Moscow was the view of the Western community, expressed through a powerful machine of mass media. In case Russia expressed support to the overthrown Shevardnadze or to the disgraced Abashidze, Moscow would be blamed for an assault on "democracy", represented by Saakashvili's team.

Therefore, Moscow then chose the tactics of negotiations. Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov first officially recognized the overthrow of Shevardnadze, and then the elimination of the Adjarian autonomy. Later, Mikhail Saakashvili was invited to Moscow for official talks on the level of heads of states.

At that time, Mikhail Saakashvili received generous proposals of economic assistance, and a top Russian businessman, Kakha Bendukidze, gave up his economic activity in Moscow, moving to Tbilisi in order to improve Georgia's investment attractiveness. Those agreements, if implemented for the benefit of the people, would allow Georgia to flourish – not only as a transit economy.

In case Russia was dreaming of the so-called imperial revival, these far-reaching plans could be implemented yet in the unstable period when Saakashvili yet did not control Adjaria. However, Moscow's behavior was on the contrary, emphatically friendly towards the new regime, and numerous facts of infringements on individual rights were overlooked. Moreover, Moscow did not question the right of Tbilisi for the breakaway autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow only emphasized in its diplomacy with Tbilisi that first of all, the new government should improve the economic situation and make the living standards attractive for the minorities Ц without shooting or ethnic cleansing.

This approach, though actually involving recognition of an illegitimate regime in Tbilisi and thus questionable from the standpoint of international law, was substantiated with the interests of friendly coexistence of the Russian and Georgian peoples, with regard of the fact that Saakashvili enjoyed support from a numerous and active part of the population.

But already in summer 2004, the Georgian military started firing at Tskhinval. It is noteworthy that the first shooting coincided with the opening of the Olympic Games in Athens, the interest of global mass media being attracted to this event. When Russia expressed verbal protest, Tbilisi launched a hysterical propagandist campaign, and all the promises, given by Saakashvili in Moscow months before, were forgotten within a day.

Russia's attempt to befriend Saakashvili's regime turned a most serious failure of Russian foreign policy. Instead of a pragmatic economic partner, Moscow achieved a chronic headache close to its borders. The US-educated young man, married to a Dutch lady, appeared to be a banal card-sharper.

We have to admit that we were cheated, though it not unpleasant at all. We know that Georgians, like other peoples of the Caucasus, are emotional and sensitive, and today, many of them believe to every bad word said about Russia in global mass media. However, this alone does not mean that in the current situation, we have to apologize for our intervention to save the helpless civilians of South Ossetia. On the contrary, we rely upon the conscience of the Georgian people.

We did not attack Georgia. We did not provoke Saakashvili we made attempts to deal with him on mutually acceptable terms. During the past five years, lots of Georgians got jobs in Russia, as the economic situation in their country did not improve, despite the assistance proposed by the Russian side. At the same time, Saakashvili's regime was busy spending the budget for purchasing former Soviet weapons from Ukraine and a number of other countries, and recruiting more people in the army, with the purpose Ц as it is clear today Ц of a massive assault on civilians.

We made a mistake when we believed to Saakashvili four and a half years ago. We would like to expect that the Georgian people remain friendly to the Russians, as political card-sharpers come and leave, while the neighborhood is forever. In Russian cities, local powers organize common events for Georgians and Ossetians, successfully preventing clashes in the diaspora. Political actions against Saakashvili's regime are not directed towards ethnic Georgians, and many of them express their longing for friendships Ц at the same time hoping for a change in their home country. "Could something be done to force this disgusting person to leave?" Ц a Georgian Muscovite asks Radio Vesti. Who would answer?

Meanwhile, the political campaign in the West is destined to prolong the dictatorial rule in Tbilisi. This campaign's goal is hardly related to the benefit of the Georgian people. Moreover, it is addressed not only to Russia. In case this fact is not recognized by the politicians and public of Europe, these politicians and public should not complain after the ascent of John McCain Ц the real beneficiary of the August 8 assault Ц to the post of US President.

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