August 8 marks the eighth anniversary of Russia’s aggression against Georgia when that former Soviet republic in the Caucasus ended up losing 20 percent of its territory. How do Georgians feel about the “August War” on this date? What do they think of their current administration that has banked on a rapprochement with Russia? More on this in the following interview via Skype with David BERITASHVILI, an expert with NGO Liberty Institute in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia.
MANY IN GEORGIA AGGRIEVED BY AUTHORITIES TRYING TO PARROT RUSSIA’S GOVERNANCE
“Our population is divided fifty-fifty, with those who have been ruling Georgia for the past four years, on the one hand, and those who turned out to be the minority in the 2012 elections, on the other hand. The number-one task for the ruling party and the whole government machine is to hold the fort, and possibly win, the next elections, scheduled for October 8, so they have shelved foreign policy and all other issues save for those that have a direct bearing on the campaign.
“Many thinking individuals in Georgia are aggrieved to watch the current administration trying to parrot Russia’s structure of governance – for example, Vladimir Putin’s personal accomplishment: there is actually no opposition at the Russian Duma. Yes, there are the Communists, Zhirinovsky, and the yes-man, Mironov, but they’re all of them operetta oppositionists.
“Bidzina [Ivanishvili], this eminence grise, and his retinue are dreaming out loud about having a different opposition, like that of [Nino] Burjanadze or an ultra-patriotic conglomerate like the one that keeps supporting Ivanishvili. In fact, the man would want nothing better than clean up the political field, leaving it without a principled opposition, one that confronts the administration for ideological reasons, not because they were denied some extra supplies.
“The billionaire’s pressure is having its effect. Even if he does not open his purse for some of those who are backing the current administration now, they surely expect him to be generous later, even after the previous election when there were all indications that he would start handing out rewards shortly – well, this man is after taking, not giving. Therefore, I wouldn’t trust the ruling party, not even after it lays wreaths and flowers in the right places and makes the right kind of statements, because its ratings are down from over 60 percent at the start of the four-year term to 30 percent today. These people are unable to establish a unified administration and will have to make deals. Next comes the National Movement with over 25 percent of the electorate on their side. Also, there are a great many undecided voters, amounting to several dozen percent. The ruling party doesn’t like these statistics, they say this data is rigged, not to be trusted, that they have their own inner ratings that no one has seen, and which show that they are way ahead of the other contenders.”
GEORGIA HAS NO FIRM POLITICAL WILL
“We know that the previous administration was determined to integrate with the EU and NATO. Last year, Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU and Tbilisi had met all the requirements for a visa free regime. A referendum held in January 2008 showed that 77 percent Georgians supported NATO membership. Given the current regimes in Russia and Georgia, this membership sounds like a farfetched idea. If you want to do better than Russia (which is on a steady downward curve, suffering losses in the economic and international realms, losing face and confidence), you could at least try to slow down your quickening descent to the verge of the same abyss. Russia could make concessions to Georgia only when going down, with Georgia climbing up. Georgia has a rickety political system these days, without a firm foreign political will, save for an inner firm resolution to somehow or other get the better of the rival in the election race.”
INTERNATIONAL MILITARY COMMUNITY PRAISES GEORGIAN SOLDIERS
“Considering that the Georgian courts of law, parliament, and administration have been degrading over the past couple of years, Georgian officers and men are the only asset held in esteem in the West. They have made their name in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have never abandoned their positions or let down their Anglo-Saxon colleagues. The Western military community praises Georgian soldiers.”
TBILISI KEEPING LOW PROFILE RE ABKHAZIA AND SOUTH OSSETIA
“The current Georgian administration is practically doing nothing about returning the occupied territories. The barbed wire Georgia-South-Ossetia frontier is transferred, now and then, another 100-200 meters, even 500 meters, in the direction of the main Tbilisi-Gori-Batumi Highway. Where further it can be moved is anyone’s guess. Also, there are many Georgian villages and arable plots along this barbed wire frontier. These plots of land, even farmsteads are now divided by barbed wire. Farmers try to finish harvesting, move to the old garden, turn on the irrigation system as quickly as they can, because men – more often than not of the Russian Border Guard with secret observation points in the vicinity – will come, grab them and take them to a pre-trial holding facility in Tskhinvali. There they will be fined several thousand rubles each. Fortunately, the Interior Ministry is still paying the fines as these peasants have no money, period. After spending several days behind bars, they are released. Such actions aren’t a political message from Russia, just another way to bully and humiliate the Georgian populace. Official Tbilisi is still looking for a remedy.
“Here is what happened in Abkhazia two months ago. A young man by the name of Giga Otxozoria, father of three children, was returning from the Abkhaz-controlled to the Georgia-controlled territory when he got into a beef with several Abkhaz policemen on border guard duty. The men had entered the Georgia-controlled territory (as evidenced by security camera videos) and fired several pistol shots, killing Mezuriya [sic]. Then all hell broke loose. Russians said they had nothing to do with what had happened. Georgians finally identified the border guard man who had fired the shots as a resident of Kvareli. The Abkhaz de facto authorities merely placed him under house arrest. That’s the status of the local Georgian authorities. Outrageously humiliating.
“Once, at the outset, Ivanishvili declared that Georgia should cease to be the apple of discord between the West and Russia, and so the current regime is waging an appropriate policy. Whereas the issues of Donbas and Crimea remain on the international agenda, Tbilisi keeps shelving the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
LESSONS OF RUSSIA-GEORGIA AND RUSSIA-UKRAINE WARS TO BE LEARNED BY THE WEST
“All assumptions about selling [Georgian] wines, Borjomi mineral water, and greens in Russia, and this being a way to improve the situation don’t hold water. I remember that there are several pipelines traversing Ukraine, that the trade turnover used to register dozens of millions of dollars, but this did not stop Russia from invading Ukraine. In other words, such assumptions are misleading, fake. If a wolf wants to eat, nothing will save a lamb but resistance, if it offers it. Russia’s chaotic politics that depend on the will of one man, who has stopped heeding words of advice from the West and from within Russia, will keep bearing poisonous fruit for some time.
“I can’t see how we can please Russia, because it does not make it clear what it wants. All it does is ordering, ‘You give me what I want and then I’ll see...’ – this intractability must have built that wall of alienation around Putin, but the man is still strong enough to continue his expansionist policy.
“And the West has become spineless after the spectacular epoch of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Karol Wojtyla. They have lots of leaders who’d want nothing better than fall into the Kremlin’s embrace.
“Let me tell you that the normal people in Georgia remember Ukraine and wish you the best of luck. I might add that our ‘powers that be’ do not share these sentiments; they must be scared of Russia and seldom make any statements re Ukraine. Sad, but true.”