Friday, August 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Georgians in Russia Harassed, Pressured to Support Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 22 – Some of the 500,000 ethnic Georgians who now live in the Russian Federation have been beaten and robbed, and harassed by the Russian authorities since the military conflict began, even as Moscow has apparently pushed ethnic Georgian groups and individuals to denounce Georgian President Mihkiel Saakashvili and the US as the chief culprits in this war.
Earlier this week, the Bloomberg news service reported that ethnic Georgians living in Russia used to feel comfortable but now in the wake of the Russian intervention in Georgia and anti-Georgian hysteria in the Russian press, in the words of one, “feel like anyone can strike” out at them at any time (
The news service said that “a 55-year-old man was beaten and robbed” after the conflict began “by six youths who had questioned his ethnicity” and that “a 37-year-old attendant at a gasoline station was spat on the day Georgia entered Ossetia,” events that the service suggested were not “isolated incidents.
Indeed, acts of intimidation against ethnic Georgians may be increasing and becoming more organized. The Bloomberg news service adds that in recent days, “four unidentified men walked into a grocery shop run by a Georgian in Moscow last week and it’s been closed ever since,” something that suggests threats were made.
As they have done whenever there have been ethnic clashes, Russian officials have both played down the role of ethnicity while proclaiming their commitment to protecting minorities. President Dmitry Medvedev on August 13 told ordered Russian law enforcement officials not to “touch law-abiding Georgians,” an instruction that some would see as open to abuse.
But even as this is going on, representatives of Georgian diaspora organizations in Russia have spoken out against the actions of President Saakashvili in the current crisis, statements that appear to reflect a combination of their own anger at the regime what they believe the market will bear, and Russian government pressure to go along with Moscow’s line.
Yesterday, in the Russian Federation, a large group of ethnic Georgians assembled in Moscow’s Central House of Journalists for a press conference which took place under the rubric “Georgians Against the Policies of M. Saakashvili,” a venue and a title that suggests the Russian government played a key role in this event.
The participants then issued a seven-point public appeal condemning what they called “the anti-Georgian regime which has subjected the Georgian people to fear and poverty, imposed tyranny and deprived the people of an objective choice of a president and parliament (
The statement, the text of which is available at www.rusk.rut.php?idar=105404, goes on to express its “apologies to the fraternal Ossetian people” and its “deep and sincere sympathies to Ossetian, Russian and Georgian mothers whose children died or were wounded in this criminal and dirty adventure planned by the US and carried out by the regime of Mihkiel Saakashvili.”
Further, it declares that the Georgians of Russian “condemn the gendarmist and cynical policy of the United States which armed and directed the leadership of Georgia and started the war in the Caucasus. M.Saakashvili, under the diktat of the US, provoked and then drew Russia into this war.”
Moscow, according to this statement, thus had no choice and every legal and moral right to reinforce its peacekeeping contingent and “even more” to defend its citizens which is the basis of the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” And for their role in this, George Bush and Condoleezza Rice should be hauled before “an international tribunal.”
Almost all of this language could have been lifted directly from Russian government controlled outlets or even more from xenophobic Russian nationalist websites, an indication that this document almost certainly was prepared not by its nominal signatories but rather provided to them by Russian government officials.
Indeed, the only part of the statement which appears uniquely Georgian is its expression of “hope” that “the Russian leadership and society will not permit xenophobic attitudes to arise in Russian society or any diminution of the rights of or persecution of individuals on the basis of nationality.” But even that formulation follows the Russian script.
At almost the same time the Moscow meeting was taking place, however, a group of ethnic Georgians and Russians met in St. Petersburg for a roundtable on “Russia-Georgia: the History of Relations, Cultural Ties, and Traditions” which took a very different position than the Moscow group (
Both in the speeches at the roundtable and in the press conference that followed, “the leitmotiv” was “the common guilt of the politicians of Georgia and Russia for the war in South Ossetia,” a view that the Russian Orthodox and nationalist site “Russkaya liniya” said represented “a very sad result.”
It was almost as if, the site’s commentator suggested, “the representatives of the Georgian community of the northern capital and those Russians who agree with them could not find within themselves the strength to condemn Mikhail Saakashvili” for what he, his government and the Americans had done.
Clearly, if “Russkaya liniya” and its backers had their way or if they had the chance to do this over again, the participants in the St. Petersburg roundtable would have been just as well organized and have issued just the same statement as the one that came out in Moscow on the same day.

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