Russia and Georgia: a lover’s revenge

Robert Parsons
5 October 2006

Vladimir Putin is in a froth of self-righteous indignation. In a Kremlin meeting with party leaders of the state Duma (parliament) on 4 October 2006, the Russian president warned anyone against using the language of provocation and blackmail against Russia. "I'm talking about Georgia here," he added, as if any explanation were needed.

No matter that the European Union, the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States are calling on Russia to show restraint. Nor was the vehemence of Putin's language swayed by the fact that Georgia had two days earlier released the four Russian officers it had accused of spying.

Quite what form Georgia's blackmail of Russia had taken, Putin did not spell out. But in Russia today explanation is not required. It is taken as axiomatic that after the United States, Georgia is the greatest danger to Russian security.

When an opinion poll earlier this year asked Russians what the population of Georgia was, the majority of respondents guessed 30 million. The truth is that it is little more than 4.5 million. Russia, as Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, observed on 3 October, is becoming victim of its own propaganda.

This is the same wise Russia - a giant of 143 million by comparison, whatever its demographic problems - that has severed transport links with Georgia, evacuated its diplomats from Georgia, closed its borders, threatened to end money transfers from Russia to Georgia and to expel the half million or so Georgians working in Russia.

All this, moreover, comes on top of the ban imposed by Russia in March 2006 on the import of Georgian wine, mineral water and agricultural products.

Robert Parsons earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and successively director of RFE/RL's Georgian service and its senior correspondent. He has just been appointed chief producer for multimedia projects at RFE/RL

Russia's blizzard of punitive measures was launched after Georgia's security service caught four Russian intelligence operatives engaged in blatant espionage. That Russian spying in Georgia is widespread and pervasive no one doubts, but the arrest did not stop foreign minister Sergei Lavrov's howls of protest (Georgia's actions, Lavrov told the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe on 4 October, had broken all norms of decorum). Yet as even some Russian newspapers are pointing out, the men work for the main intelligence directorate of Russia's general staff and their professional task is to gather security information useful to Moscow.

Russia's leadership is clearly operating by its rules. Lavrov said nothing in August 2005, when a member of the Russian parliament, Alexei Mitrofanov, was revealed to have co-scripted a porn film in which Saakashvili played a leading role (Mitrofanov himself had the decency to apologise). Nor did decorum prevent President Putin describing Saakashvili as the successor of Joseph Stalin's henchman Lavrenti Beria - a ripe insult from a man who served as the head of the Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB), the successor to the KGB and (before that) Beria's own NKVD.

So what is it about Russia's tiny southern neighbour that drives the world's largest country to teeth-gnashing distraction? How to explain the visceral hatred of Georgia that daily fills the Russian media?

An intimate's betrayal

It is partly, of course, the role that Georgia played in the break-up of the Soviet Union and the role, in particular, of the Mikhail Gorbachev-era Soviet foreign minister who became leader of Georgia in 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze. It is in part too Georgia's stubborn insistence not just on going its own way, but on identifying its interests so closely with those of the west. Russians cannot reconcile themselves to Georgia's independence. The idea that Georgian integration into Euro-Atlantic structures could be compatible with close ties with Moscow is inconceivable to the Kremlin.

But this is only part of the story. The Baltic states have prized themselves free of Moscow's grasp and joined Nato - yet the loss of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has provoked nothing like the same degree of hysteria in Moscow.

True, the Georgians themselves have to take some of the blame. Mikheil Saakashvili has taken evident pleasure in poking and prodding the Russian bear to distraction. He should not be surprised when it lashes out and is a fool if he has not calculated the dangers of being struck. But this still does not explain why Russia responds so violently to these pinpricks.

The psychological rub at the heart of Russia's dysfunctional relationship with Georgia is its deep sense of betrayal. It feels like a lover jilted. The beauty it has pursued so earnestly these past 200 years has turned its back and found another lover. Worse still, it mocks the clumsy, backward ways of its former suitor.

It is hard to overstate the affection that generations of Russians have held for Georgia. It was the exotic, romantic land that theirs could never be; its women were beautiful, its men dashing, its mountains soaring and its wines intoxicating. Georgians were poets and lovers (and dictators too) and could get away with anything.

Russia thought the love was shared. Now, like a lover spurned, it seeks revenge.

Also in openDemocracy on Caucasian fractures:

George Hewitt, "Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil"
(27 November 2003)

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road"
(15 July 2005)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution"
(4 December 2003)

Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?"
(2 August 2006)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you"
(3 October 2006)

The Kosovo precedent

This in turn, however, begs the question as to why Georgia - in the arrests and the public way they were conducted - chose to escalate the tension with Russia now. After all, there is nothing new about Russian spying in the southern Caucasus.

Mikheil Saakashvili can sometimes act impulsively - or at least appear to do so - but there is often method to his apparent madness. It might not seem wise to bait the Russian bear but Georgia probably calculates that it has few good alternatives.

Saakashvili's attention is transfixed by events in Kosovo. He is rightly worried that recognition of Kosovo's independence will be taken as a precedent by Georgia's two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - both of which have enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia since fighting in 1992-93.

With time fast running out - Kosovo's independence could be recognised before the end of 2006 - Saakashvili wants to draw the world's attention to what Georgia sees as the real problem in the region: Russia.

Tbilisi argues that Russia is too much a party to the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to play the role of peacekeeper and mediator. It claims with justification that Russia provided military support to the separatists in both regions and continues to use the conflicts as a means to destabilise Georgia. And it seeks to challenge Russia's influence in the two areas; Georgia's prime minister, Zurab Noghaideli, declares in the International Herald Tribune on 6 October that Tbilisi now considers the peacekeeping arrangements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be "obsolete".

President Putin has left little doubt that if Kosovo's independence is recognised, Russia will support the case for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A referendum on independence in South Ossetia on 12 November could provide Moscow with an excuse to act.

To Georgia, the outlook looks bleak. Russia could very soon abandon even its superficial support for Georgia's territorial integrity and align itself openly with the cause of Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatism.

Since Russia has used the last decade to issue Russian passports to over 80% of the population in these areas, any attempt by Georgia to take them back by force would put them in direct confrontation with Russia.

By arresting the four Russian officers, Georgia sought to provoke an intemperate Russia reaction in the hope of at last persuading the United Nations and the European Union that Russia has to be relieved of its peacekeeping role in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to Georgian defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, the aim was to unravel Russia's spy network and reveal Russia in its ugliest colours. If this is so, Georgia can claim a tactical success: the disproportionate violence of Putin's response has shocked world opinion and revealed a playground bully unable to control his own emotions.

But in the long run Georgia's tactical advantage is unlikely to have changed anything. If the Georgians had had any doubts about this, Javier Solana, the European Union high representative for common foreign and security policy, must surely have convinced them on 4 October when he conceded that Kosovo would likely set a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that the EU would not send peacekeepers to the region.

When Russia recognises the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia it will remove the last fig-leaf of decency on its true role in the region, but no one will lift a finger to protect Georgia.

Nor will Russia's ambitions stop there. Abkhazia's sub-tropical coastline could be a tasty morsel for the Russian tourist industry, but it is not an aim in itself. The real aim is to bring Georgia to its knees, put an end to its flirtation with western values and organisations, and take an even firmer grip on Europe's energy supplies.

Georgia, though, is unlikely just to roll over. It has transformed its army into a respectable fighting force. Its leader has been politically strengthened by the results of the local elections on 5 October. For as long as there appears a reasonable chance of a peaceful settlement that preserves its territorial integrity, Saakashvili is unlikely to cave into the hawks in his government. But if momentum gathers for Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, the temptation to take pre-emptive military action will be hard to resist.

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