Vienna, August 28 – Russia’s military actions in Georgia not only boosted domestic support for Mikhail Saakashvili there by “a factor of ten” but also both saved the current Georgian president from having to explain his actions in the past and encouraged him to think that brinksmanship works to his advantage, according to Eduard Shevardnadze.
At a press conference in Tbilisi today, the former Soviet foreign minister and former Georgian president whom Saakashvili replaced said this had happened because “it is in the nature of the Georgian that when anyone interferes in his affairs, his response will be an explosion of national pride” (www.nr2.ru/policy/193338.html).
That is what happened, Shevardnadze continued, when the Kremlin said it would have no dealings with him and was reinforced when Moscow unilaterally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, an action that “in fact saved Saakashvili from responsibility for [his] poor preparation of military actions against ‘the so-called South Ossetia.’”
And from Saakashvili’s perspective, Russian actions have had one other positive if for some unexpected result: “At the present time, neither the United States nor Europe is prepared for a change in the powers that be in Georgia since, in Shevardnadze’s words, they “must regular much more important questions” than that.
Shevardnadze did not address a more fundamental issue: Is this rise in the domestic and foreign support for Saakashvili an unintended and unwelcome consequence of Russian actions from Moscow’s point of view? Or was this boost for Saakashvili part of a broader and more sinister plan to lead Saakashvili and the opposition to say or do things that will weaken Georgia?
There are some compelling arguments in support of either of these hypotheses. With regard to the first, the statements many Russian officials made during the most active phase of the conflict that they would not talk to Saakashvili suggest that at least some in Moscow hoped or believed they could force regime change.
On the one hand, they may have calculated that many Georgians both among the opposition and also among his supporters and perhaps even more Western powers would be interested in promoting talks between Moscow and Tbilisi, something that the Russian statements about Saakashvili would seem to preclude.
But the reaction of both Georgian society and the West to what the Russian political leadership has said and what Russian military forces inside Georgia have done have beyond question the dashed those hopes at least for the immediate future. Even members of the opposition who had wanted Saakashvili to step down now say that this is not the time for that.
Russian officials knew or should have known that their actions would boost support for Saakashvili both among his own countrymen and across the West. Georgians, like other peoples, unite around the leader when attacked, and the West, although it had discouraged Saakashvili from acting, has been clear about its opposition to Russia’s use of force in this way.
Moscow has some experience with that. Prior to Moscow’s dispatch of troops into Chechnya in 1994, that republic’s president, Jokar Dudayev, was, according to polls taken at that time, supported by only about 30 percent of the population, a pattern that limited his options and probably pointed to his eventual displacement by someone else.
But after Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent in the Russian military, support for Dudayev rose dramatically, something that reduced the opposition to him there to impotence and meant that he could act with little regard to the opinions of other Chechen politicians or many segments of the population.
Given that experience, one is compelled to ask whether in fact the Russian government, all its rhetoric notwithstanding, may have understood that their invasion of Georgia would boost Saakashvili’s standing and power at least in the short term and possibly may even have calculated that this would ultimately work to Russia’s benefit.
To the extent that Saakashvili now enjoys virtually uncontested power in Georgia, there are three risks that the Russian government may be hoping to exploit. First, Saakashvili freed from the constraints of having to consult opposition may say or do something that will undermine his current standing in either Georgia or the West.
Indeed, some in Moscow may assume that the Georgian president will conclude that his brinksmanship in early August worked so much to his advantage that he might try something similar in the future in the expectation of more gains, thus providing Moscow with a new opportunity to respond both on the ground and in terms of propaganda.
Second, the further presidentialization of power in Georgia after the Russian invasion – and this is not to describe the situation there as “authoritarian,” as some Russian and Western commentators now do – could eventually have the effect of leading the increasingly marginalized to behave in ways that will highlight the divisions rather than the unity of Georgia.
And third, the combination of Saakashvili’s standing and the anger of some members of the opposition that Shevardnadze hinted at by his remarks about Russia’s actions having allowed the Georgian president to escape a discussion of his role in the recent events, could lead either him or the opposition to take actions against the other that would blacken Georgia’s reputation.
It is, of course, far more likely that most people in Moscow were surprised by the support Saakashvili attracted both within his country and from the West, but even if that is the case, it is equally likely that at least some in Moscow now are thinking about how to take advantage of the current situation as well.