The topic of Georgia has certainly dominated the headlines over the past few days. Sharply-worded statements from senior officials, a rare unanimity among Duma faction leaders, targeted police raids, and the general campaign on television have borne fruit. “Georgia is now our enemy number one,” says the Vedomosti newspaper.
In a poll done by the Bashkirova and Partners agency, Georgia was perceived as the most hostile country: 35% of respondents said so, compared to 28% naming the United States as Russia’s chief enemy.
However, according to Vedomosti, many of the widely-publicized measures Russia is taking to spite Georgia can hardly be described as appropriate, or even reasonable.
The most striking example, in this sense, is the police crackdown on the Georgian diaspora in Russia.
Interior Ministry departments have shown themselves to be amazingly well-informed about the activities of ethnic organized crime groups. In Moscow, they’re shutting down casinos which have suddenly been discovered to belong to “Georgian crime bosses.” They have arrested a certain “crime boss” of Georgian origin (other sources say it’s “a group of Georgian hitmen”). In the Orel region, according to press reports, “a gang of car thieves” has been detained.
But that’s not all. The authorities have started harassing Georgian guest-workers.
Vedomosti comments: “The problem is whether the potential consequences of these actions have been considered.”
On the one hand, those responsible apparently assume that “money from organized crime coffers and the pockets of guest-workers eventually trickles into the safes and vaults of the Georgian Central Bank.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly told the Vremya Novostei newspaper that Moscow’s sanctions are aimed at “putting a stop to illegal money channels which are flowing in large quantities from Russia to Georgia.” Lavrov stressed that Russia is “very concerned about increasing militarization” in Georgia, partially funded by money from “criminal sources.” According to the Foreign Ministry, Tbilisi is buying up Soviet-made and Russian-made weapons in Central and Eastern Europe, although the original sales contracts did not permit those weapons to be re-sold. Lavrov said that Georgia’s “preparations for war” are only partially funded by the Georgian treasury, with most of the money “coming in via various channels, including some illegal channels from Russia.” Lavrov said: “We don’t wish to assist war preparations. We don’t wish to arm the Georgian people or indirectly encourage those who are calling on the Georgian people to take up arms and set off to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Tskhinvali.” Vremya Novostei notes that Georgian Defense Minister Iraklii Okruashvili made a comment to that effect a few months ago, talking of celebrating New Year’s Eve in the South Ossetian capital.
On the other hand, says Vedomosti, “how will it help defend Russia’s interests to have the families of Georgian construction laborers, drivers, and traders deprived of their incomes?”
The policy of launching a crackdown on Georgians in Russia is “not only cynical, but stupid,” according to Vedomosti: “If Russia is serious about fighting the current rulers of Georgia, it ought to refrain from alienating the Georgian diaspora. Rather, it should establish close official and unofficial contacts with the diaspora,” because “if we treat Georgian workers and businesspeople well, this would certainly become known in Georgia, and would make us appear to advantage against the backdrop of the Georgian government’s agitated actions.”
Undoubtedly, says Vedomosti, “increasing money transfers and other correspondence from Russia to Georgia would have a greater impact on Georgian public opinion than banning such transfers, and would make it possible to support the opposition even if relations are broken off entirely – as the Cuban diaspora in the United States has done.”
However, this sensible advice seems to have come too late. Russia’s clumsy actions have already caused pro-government and opposition forces in Georgia to close ranks.
Newsru.com notes that at the local government elections held in Georgia on October 5, it became clear that the ruling party, National Movement, has managed to pick up extra points over the past few days of escalating Russian-Georgian confrontation.
Even Georgia’s parliamentary opposition has spoken out in support of the government, says the Novye Izvestia newspaper. On October 4, just before the elections, Georgian Republican Party leader Tina Khidasheli and Georgian Conservative Party leader Koba Davitashvili called on all political parties and community organizations to participate in a joint protest: a human chain around the almost-deserted Russian Embassy.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, told the Interfax news agency that although “anti-Russian hysteria might give Saakashvili a boost in the municipal elections,” the real purpose of “the Georgian leadership’s anti-Russian actions” is to “internationalize the conflict with Russia, expel the Russian peacekeepers, and speed up the NATO membership process for Georgia.” (Quoted in a Newsru.com article.)
Meanwhile, Vremya Novostei quotes Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who made a direct connection between the arrest of Russian officers and the Georgian president’s visit to the United States. “This latest escapade – seizing our officers,” said Lavrov, “happened straight after NATO’s decision to grant Georgia an intensive cooperation plan and straight after Mikhail Saakashvili’s visit to Washington.”
Vremya Novostei interviewed Nino Burdzhanadze, speaker of the Georgian parliament. On the one hand, she categorically denied suggestions that the West is behind Tbilisi’s actions. On the other hand, she didn’t miss the opportunity to point out that even if Tbilisi were being prompted by the Americans, that would only prove “how weak Russia’s positions are, if it’s right next door but still can’t dictate its will to Georgia, while the Americans can do so from thousands of kilometers away.”
Konstantin Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee, told Vremya Novostei: “Russia is aiming to sort out Georgia one-on-one, but we are confident that we’ll have support from our Western partners. There’s a great deal of understanding in the West for our position.”
Mikhail Saakashvili isn’t the only one who’s had an opportunity to discuss the Georgia crisis with President George W. Bush. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, President Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Bush on October 2 – and the conversation was requested by the Americans.
A Kremlin press release described the conversation as follows: “With regard to Georgia, Russia emphasized that it would be unacceptable, and dangerous for regional peace and stability, if any other countries took any action which the Georgian leadership might interpret as encouragement of its destructive policies.”
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Washington’s own contacts with both sides of the conflict demonstrate the active role of the United States in current events: “It’s revealing to note that even in his public statements, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili addresses Washington every time, explaining what is happening in English, using idiomatic expressions familiar to Americans.”
Nezavisimaya Gazeta goes on to say: “Is Washington’s role confined to attempted regulation only? Why didn’t the Americans warn the Georgian government against engaging in acts of provocation? The Americans could hardly have been ignorant of Georgia’s preparations.” According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the answer can be found in Washington’s obviously two-faced behavior, with all its statements “apparently coming through in two voices: one calling for de-escalation of the crisis, the other offering de facto encouragement for Tbilisi.”
Such assessements – taking readers back to the apparently long-dead Cold War era – demonstrate the generally more hardline approach being taken at all levels of the Russian government.
As the Kommersant newspaper reports, the question of Georgia joining NATO was at the forefront when the Duma discussed its special resolution on “the anti-Russian and anti-democratic policies of the Georgian authorities,” which was passed with 418 votes in favor and one vote against. The Duma’s resolution emphazises that Russia has every right to “take a range of measures to safeguard our lawful national security interests and protect the lives and safety of Russian citizens – including a number of sanctions against Georgia, primarily financial-economic in nature.” The resolution doesn’t rule out the possibility of taking “a number of harsher measures” if Georgia’s policies threaten Russia’s “stability and security”; it notes that “against the backdrop of the current situation,” a bill in support of accelerated NATO membership for Georgia has been submitted to the US Senate.
Kommersant reports that during the parliament’s debate on the resolution, lawmakers declared that the United States is using Georgia as “a springboard for its military plans.” Nikolai Kovalev (United Russia faction) said that “the Georgian people must now make a decision about Saakashvili.”
Nikolai Kondratenko (Communist Party) said that the main goal of destabilizing relations with Russia is “to expel Russian troops and send in NATO troops.”
Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR) made this proposal: “Let’s bid farewell to Saakashvili and leave him alone with the NATO troops and the partisan war that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will fight against him.”
Meanwhile, Vremya Novostei reports Russia’s official stance on NATO membership for Georgia, as expressed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: “It’s clear to everyone that Georgia doesn’t meet the criteria for accession to NATO.”
According to Lavrov, the Georgians are seeking to join NATO as soon as possible, in order to “prove that Georgia, by pursuing its anti-Russian policies, has earned the right to an exception from common rules.” On the whole, Moscow does not welcome the idea of any further expansion of NATO, which already has 26 members. Lavrov said: “There are many ways of solving the security problems facing the international community without creating any new dividing lines.”
In Tbilisi, Moscow’s reaction to the arrest of several Russian officers on espionage charges was described as “disproportionate and inappropriate.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told Kommersant: “The Russian leadership’s reaction has been excessive. Georgia has only done what any other country would have done.”
The investigation into the Russian military’s espionage activities continues, and sources at the Georgian Interior Ministry told Kommersant that the Georgian accomplices involved in the case have made full confessions, providing the Georgian law enforcement agencies with all requested information. Novye Izvestia adds that Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili has already to promise to punish the traitors “with the full severity of the law.”
Dmitri Rogozin commented on the situation at a Duma meeting. Taking advantage of his outward resemblance to Saakashvili, Rogozin put on a fake Georgian accent and declared that espionage only happens where there is something to hide. But Georgia, in Rogozin’s opinion, has very few secrets of any value: “How many organized crime bosses are there among the Georgian leadership? How much money received from George Soros is Saakashvili concealing from his wife? What color are Georgia’s tanks – all two of them?” (Quoted in Kommersant.)
Meanwhile, according to Kommersant, Georgia is striving to demonstrate that it’s ready for any possible scenario – including an armed confrontation. Givi Tarmagadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament’s security and defense committee, said: “No unit in the Russian Armed Forces is anywhere near as well-armed or well-equipped as our troops. I don’t think Russia can afford a war. However, we cannot rule out the possibility.”
Meanwhile, as Kommersant reports, Georgian Ambassador at the United Nations Iraklii Alasania issued a resolute demand for a halt to the Russian Navy’s exercise in the Black Sea: “Russia has started a naval exercise without informing Georgia. We demand an end to it, since it poses a threat to regional peace and violates Georgia’s rights.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov responded: “We have no intention of changing our plans each time the Saakashvili regime sneezes… This exercise was scheduled six months ago, coordinated with the Turkish Defense Ministry, and is part of the Black Sea Harmony anti-terrorist operation.” (Quoted in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper.)
Ivanov went on to say: “Russia ships are also present in the Mediterranean, participating in Operation Active Effort. Are we supposed to cancel all our exercises now? Our ships are not violating the territorial waters of any other states, and they are acting within the framework of international standards.”
Ivanov also told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that “we certainly won’t be building up” troop strength along the Georgian border, since “we see no point in doing so.” On the contrary, he promised to speed up withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgian territory: “I think everyone can understand the circumstances of our soldiers and officers.”
Citing an anonymous source familiar with the organization of the anti-Georgian campaign in Russia, the Vedomosti newspaper reports that Sergei Ivanov has been the chief advocate of talking to Georgia in “forceful” language and taking a radical approach to the problem. The source explained: “The Russian leadership is still divided on the question of taking tough measures against Georgia, but President Putin supports Ivanov’s point of view.”
The experts Vedomosti approached for comments say that the idea of imposing sanctions after the Russian officers had been released might have come from Ivanov – after all, he’s the one who’s been making policy statements over the past few days.
Still, there are plenty of others wanting to make statements that might prompt an escalation from economic blockade to armed conflict.
As Novye Izvestia reports, some Duma members are insisting that Russia should recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia immediately. Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin is among the proponents of taking this measure “to forestall Georgian aggression.”
Alexei Mitrofanov (LDPR), a lawmaker known for his over-the-top statements, maintains that if Georgia attacks Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia should “send out its planes to bomb Tbilisi, as Israel did to Lebanon” – because 90% of Abkhazian and South Ossetian residents are Russian citizens.
Even Konstantin Kosachev (United Russia), chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee, told Novye Izvestia that although he is “categorically opposed to military action against Georgia,” the fact remains that “in the event of a Georgian military operation against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, no options can be ruled out.”
Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (United Russia) summed it all up in his comments to the media after a meeting with President Putin: “We shall use Georgia as an example to show that it’s unacceptable to fool around with Russia by mistreating our citizens.”
Indeed, it’s no joking matter. As a recent headline in Novye Izvestia put it: “Farewell, Georgia!”