Saturday, November 29, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Mistakes in Georgia Strengthened Saakashvili, Tbilisi Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 29 – The mistakes the Georgian government has made are so obvious that it is not worth talking about them further, a Tbilisi analyst says, but the mistakes of the Russian leadership with regard to Georgia merit attention because only by understanding them can the two countries overcome their current impasse.
In an article posted on this week, Gulbaat Rtskhiladze, an expert at Tbilisi’s Center for Public Diplomacy, argues that Moscow failed to develop ties with the many Georgians who were sympathetic to Russia or to worry about the Kremlin’s image there and in other post-Soviet republics (
Instead, he says, the Russian government and its diplomats focused almost exclusively on maintaining ties with officialdom and assuming that Moscow could use its leverage directly, approaches that Rtskhiladze says effectively ceded the country to the United States which worked closely with Georgian society and had a more positive image than Moscow did.
Indeed, he continues, the Russian embassy in Tbilisi not only did not reach out to these groups but typically failed to take their existence into account because embassy officers only very irregularly prepared translations and surveys of the Georgian-language press and thus did not even know with whom to talk.
Had Russian diplomats and other officials been paying attention, the Tbilisi analyst says, they would have known just how unpopular Mikhail Saakashvili was and how many Georgians hoped for his replacement. And they would have recognized the value of promoting dialogue with society, if not with his regime, even on issues like Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia’s errors with regard to Georgia in the past, Rtskhiladze argues, were compounded after August 8. On the one hand, having paid an enormous political price by using force in Georgia, Moscow failed to achieve its aim of replacing Saakashvili, something it could have done had it continued its military advance only a few more hours.
According to senior Russian officers, the Georgian analyst says, Moscow had already identified a suitable candidate to replace Saakashvili but lacked “the political will” to take the last step, thus, in the words of one general, “repeating the error of the United States in 1991 when [Washington] did not complete Operation Desert Storm.”
And on the other, the Tbilisi analyst continued, Moscow’s hurried and ill-thought-out decision to recognize “the independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia not only saved Saakashvili but created major problems for Moscow without giving it the geopolitical prizes the Kremlin hopes to be able to claim.
Rtskhiladze cites the words of one Georgian commentator who observed that in the 2500 years of Georgian history, no leader has been as despised as Saakashvili was before the war, and none has gained more from the actions of a foreign power as the Georgian president did by Moscow’s recognition of the two breakaway republics.
That decision, the commentator said, “only strengthened Saakashvili, harmed the Georgian people,” and led many Georgians to conclude that “all bridges” between the Russian and Georgian peoples have been burnt and that Georgians have no choice but to follow their current president on a course toward the West.
Rtskhiladze says that this act represents “one of the greatest mistakes” in the history of Russian diplomacy. By strengthening Saakashvili, Moscow has strengthened the position of the United States not only in Georgia but across the southern Caucasus and indeed across much of the post-Soviet space.
“Unlike Moscow,” he writes, “in Washington they well understand the key geographic importance of Georgia for the entire Caucasus region.” The Russian government clearly does not understand that Abkhazia and South Ossetia “at a geostrategic level” are nothing compared to the rest of Georgian territory, through which pass all key oil and gas pipelines.
Moreover, both republics are going to cost Russia not only “moral-political resources” given the way in which others within the Russian Federation may exploit Moscow’s recognition but also significant economic and military aid because South Ossetia, at least, is in no position to support or defend itself.
Had the Russian government reflected on this before the conflict and had it understood that Moscow would be far better off with a friendlier Georgia than with the two small client states and an increasingly hostile Georgia, it might have behaved far differently. And Rtskhiladze, who very much wants a rapprochement, says there is still a way out.
That will take “political will,” he suggests, one that is prepared to acknowledge that the current independence of the Ossetians and Abkhazians may not be the last act in this drama, that a formula might be found for their inclusion in a confederation with Georgia, and that Moscow’s promotion of such an arrangement could work to Russia’s advantage.
Such an arrangement cannot be achieved overnight, the Georgian analyst says, but it is necessary to begin by developing contacts between representatives of the expert communities in Moscow and Tbilisi and then expanding these to include representatives of various social, political and religious groups. “The main thing,” he insists, “is not to be afraid of initiatives!”
Rtskhiladze suggests that the common Orthodox heritage of Russians and Georgians may be an especially useful place from which to begin such talks, especially since “the struggle for existence in the 21st century will be defined not within petty national-political units but in the context of larger religious and cultural communities.”
But he concludes that “nothing will come of this” if Saakashvili or his supporters will remain in power – although unlike many he insists that “the problem [for both Moscow and Tbilisi] is not only and not so much in the personality of Saakashvili as in the political course of his current or former ‘command.’”
And consequently he urges that Russia must “strive for regime change” in Georgia, a task “well within its means” if it does not continue to act against its own interests and those of the Georgian people as Moscow has over the last years and especially since the end of open military hostilities there.

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