Vienna, September 11 – Official Moscow has made it clear that it would like to see Mikheil Saakashvili replaced as president of Georgia, but it has failed to recognize that the opposition to him both among the Georgian political elite and the Georgian people is not now and will not be pro-Russian, thanks in large part to the actions of Moscow itself.
Following the defeat of the Georgian army and Moscow’s moves to detach Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, various Georgian politicians, including David Gamkrelidze of the New Right Party, Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party, and Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of the parliament, have said the Saakashvili should resign.
As Sobkorr.ru’s Sergei Petrunin observes, the laws of politics are everywhere the same and harsh: winners are not judged, but losers – or at least those perceived to be losers – are judged harshly and in many cases are forced to leave the political stage far sooner than anyone expected (www.sobkorr.ru/news/48C7A57F5B7CE.html).
When the military conflict between Russia and Georgia was in its more active phase, most Georgians rallied around their president as a symbol of their country’s resistance, all the more so because Moscow so clearly and frequently asserted that the Russian government wanted him out.
Even members of the opposition who blame Saakashvili for the war and for what they see as the increasingly authoritarian aspects of his rule kept quiet lest anything they said against him might be interpreted as supporting the Russian position or undermining the unity of the nation in time of war.
But now in the last week, things have begun to change. Not only have Georgian opposition leaders spoken out more clearly about the need for Saakashvili to leave office before the end of his term, but criticism of Saakashvili’s failure to heed Western advice to move and hence of his reliability as an ally has increased in the United States and Europe.
All this has led some Russian commentators to predict that if the Georgian opposition is able to force Saakashvili from office, Moscow will have not only won a major victory but have ensured that any new Georgian president will be more tractable in its dealings with the Russian Federation and less close to the West.
That reading of Georgian politics, Petrunin says in an analysis posted online yesterday, is simply wrong – and it is wrong not because of what the Georgians are like as a people or have done in recent days or because of the Western allies they have acquired but because of what Moscow has done and continues to assume is its right to do.
The prime source of this Russian error, he continues, is that Moscow has reduced “the problems of Russian-Georgian relations to the problem of Saakashvili” and that Russian leaders have assumed that almost any other Georgian leader will press less hard for the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity de fact and for membership in NATO.
In fact, he points out, “the roots of [Moscow’s] Georgian problem” are both deeper and older than the current Georgian president. Historically, Georgians were among the most tolerant of peoples, welcoming into their midst not only Russians but Abkhazians, Ossetians and other nations as well. But that is no longer so.
Some analysts, Petrunin notes, place the blame on Soviet nationality policy which drew the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in such a way as to guarantee conflicts. Others are inclined to blame Zviyad Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian president, with his call for “A Georgia for the Georgians.”
And still a third group blames post-1991 Moscow for failing to resolve the tensions between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the one hand, and Tbilisi, on the other, or even seeking to play up those tensions in order to put pressure on or even control the actions of the Georgian government.
But whatever the relative role of these factors, Petrunin argues, Georgia was not “pro-Russian” when Vladimir Putin became Russian President, it did not change its commitment to the restoration of the territorial integrity of the country as a result of the “rose revolution,” and it won’t do so in the future.
The early departure of Saakashvili, if it happens, will result in “the coming to power in Georgia of a new generation of politics who will speak more cautiously” about the restoration of control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and perhaps about entering the Western alliance. But neither they nor the Georgian people are likely to give them up.
For that, Moscow has only itself to blame. The leaders of the Georgian opposition and the overwhelming majority of the Georgian people are furious at the Russian Federation for what it has done, even if they are increasingly inclined to criticize the incautious or even reckless behavior of Saakashvili himself.
Petrunin’s analysis has three likely implications: First, it may cause Moscow to reduce its calls for Saakashvili’s departure, fearful that his replacement might garner even more support in the West because he or she would not be loaded down with some of the baggage that the current Georgian leader has placed on his own shoulders.
Second, it may mean that Moscow will suffer an even larger political defeat as a result of its military victory: It will have solidified anti-Russian views in Georgia and thus make it less rather than more likely that Moscow will be able to get what it wants there either in the near term or even longer.
And third, Petrunin’s argument may lead others to look beyond Saakashvili rather than keep him at the center of their calculations, a shift that in Russia’s case may prove chastening to policy makers and in the West’s liberating as some conclude that Saakashvili’s departure would not change Tbilisi’s underlying policies but make their implementation more plausible.