Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nino Burdzhanadze: Georgia's best - if not last - hope?

On July 9th, the famous Georgian politician Nino Burdzhanadze gave a 45min long interview to the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy in which she made quite a few interesting revelations. Among other things she revealed that Putin had specifically told the Georgian leaders that should they attack the Russian peacekeepers in Ossetia Russia would launch a rescue operation and send more troops into Ossetia. He also warned that if Georgia attacked Russia would recognize the two breakaway republics. Furthermore, Burdzhanadze revealed that Saakashvili had “advisers” who convinced him that it would be easy to beat the Russian forces and their, quote, 'rusting tanks'. Lastly, she told the reporter that as soon as the Georgians attacked Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called Saakashvili many times and but the Georgians refused to pick up the phone. If all this is true, and there is no reason to think otherwise, it puts an end to the discussion about which side was the aggressor in this war.

This, in itself, is already very interesting, but what I want to discuss here is Burdzhanadze's views on how to normalize relations with Russia again.

Burdzhanadze clearly recognizes that the current status of Georgian-Russian relations is one of a total impasse: Russia wants nothing to do with the Saakashvili while the latter is turning into a dictator with rather obvious mental issues. But this goes beyond Saakashvili. No Georgian leader can possibly recognize the independence of Ossetia or Abkhazia. Likewise, no Russian politician can argue for the reversal of Russia's recognition of these two republics and hope to have any kind of political future. Furthermore, in order to make sure that the events of the 08.08.08 never happen again, Russia has now deployed military forces in these republics, including two military bases (at least). All the external signs show that Russia and Georgia are locked into a zero-sum game in which neither side has any room to maneuver or, even much less so, to compromise. Burdzhanadze, who is clearly a highly intelligent person, also recognizes these facts, and she openly admits that the way out from the current impasse will be a difficult and slow one, yet she thinks that this is possible. How?

First, she is a proponent of multilevel negotiations with Moscow. To make such talks politically acceptable, she speaks of “red lines” which she is not willing to cross: the territorial integrity and the fundamental interests of Georgia. What is really interesting here is that when she is reminded that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's point of view is diametrically opposed (he says that the recognition of these two republics is done deal and not a topic Moscow will ever discuss), she refers to a very important, yet little known, statement by Prime Minister Putin who said, on the record, that “Russia will always support any solution agreed upon between the two sides” meaning that if, and that is admittedly a big “if”, Abkhazia and/or Ossetia could negotiate some kind of mutually acceptable status agreement with Tbilisi Moscow would support it. In other words, not only does the Kremlin not oppose direct negotiations between Ossetia/Abkhazia and Georgia, it actually promises to recognize any outcome acceptable to Moscow's allies. Interesting, no?

Burdzhanadze goes further in her analysis. She says that there are two preconditions which absolutely must be met before the Ossetians and Abkhazians even begin to contemplate any kind of serious negotiations with Georgia:
  1. They need to be absolutely convinced, beyond any doubt at all, that Georgia will never attack them again.
  2. They need to find positive reasons to deal with Tbilisi. In other words, Georgia must not coerce these two republics, but attract them.
Burdzhanadze does not go into any details as to how to reach the first goal, but she does address the second issue in some details. To make her point, she begins by asking the following rhetorical question: “When the Abkhazians or Ossetians look across the border and see Georgia, what do they see? They see an economy which has totally collapsed, they see a ruthless dictatorship which crushes the opposition with brutal violence and mass arrests. They see a regime which continues to combine jingoistic militarism with an hostile and aggressive rhetoric. In other words, they see exactly the opposite of what could motivate them to begin serious negotiations with Tbilisi”. She is, of course, absolutely right: before anything can happen, even at a purely symbolic level, Saakashvili must go. There is simply no way around that.

The Kremlin has unambiguously stated that it will never deal with Saakashvili whom it considers a “arrogant petty thug” (отморозок in Russian). In contrast, Nino Burdzhanadze was received with full honors in Moscow were she had long – and cordial – meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Prime Minister Putin. Even more interesting is the fact that Dimitri Rogozin, Russia's representative to NATO, has stated that he had information indicating that the US is also quietly trying to find ways to replace Saakashvili with Burdzhanadze. I would submit that the latter is very plausible, not only because Saakashvili was primarily the darling of the Republican Neocons, but also because Obama's puppeteers probably realize that in the long term Saakashvili is a disaster for US influence and reputation in the entire region. Even Washington does not want to bet on a loosing horse.

From the point of view of Washington, Burdzhanadze is actually a very good choice. As soon as the Saakashvili dictatorship collapses, Georgia will need all the help it can get and the USA will not want to be associated solely with the regime which threw the Georgian economy back by at least two decades and was responsible for one of the worst disasters in military history. Uncle Sam needs to look good, democratic and economically relevant – none of which can be achieved while Saakashvili remains in power but which happens to nicely coincide with Burdzhanadze's political program.

If Burdzhanadze can come to power with the support of both Russia and the USA she will have a lot of political capital to bring to the negotiating table with the Abkhaz and Ossetian side.

But there is more here, something which Burdzhanadze never openly said – a least to my knowledge – but which is strongly implied by her general approach to this issue. The best context for negotiations between Georgia and the breakaway republics would be one in which Moscow and Tbilissi also seriously negotiate the status of their future relations. Think about it,

Historically, Russia and Georgia have had very close ties. One could argue that Georgia today would not even exist had it not been for the protection which Russia gave it in the 18th century against its numerous foes. The history of Georgia is an ancient and highly tragic one in which the Georgian people suffered horrifically from the never-ending stream of various Muslim invaders (Mongols, Arabs, Seljuk-Turks, Persians, Ottomans) who usually attempted to crush the Georgian national spirit and eradicate its ancient Orthodox Christian faith. In modern times, the history of Georgia has been tragic too. Following an almost endless decade of internal conflicts the country was left in ruins and roughly 30% of all Georgians currently live in Russia from where these exiles send much needed money back to their country of origin.

And yet, in contrast to, say, the Chechens, Georgians have always been rather popular in Russia and even the recent succession of anti-Russian leaders (Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze, Saakashvili) have not fundamentally altered this perception. Even more amazing is the fact that while many Russians do resent Jews for their key role in the Bolshevik regime and its genocidal terror, few Russians resent the “Georgian Mafia” which replaced many – but not all – of the Bolshevik Jews when Stalin came to power. Somehow, Russians seem to be unable to muster much of an anti-Georgian sentiment in themselves. Why is this so important? Because most Russians are probably willing to forgive Georgia for the 08.08.08 war and turn the page. That is also something which Burdzhanadze can capitalize on.

Unlike Saakashvili, who is clearly totally ignorant of history, Burdzhanadze is keenly aware of the fact that history is her ally. She probably also realizes that Georgia is very important to Russia, probably more than Ossetia or Abkhazia. Not only has Georgia provided a crucial safe-heaven for Chechen insurgents, but keeping forces on high alert to protect Abkhazia and Ossetia is, no doubt, a burden for the Southern Region Military Command and costly for the Russian military. Furthermore, a friendly Georgia would stop being a potential US/NATO deployment area and it would bring a great deal of stability to the entire Black Sea region. Lastly, Russia and Georgia have an important economic collaboration potential which has essentially been neglected since Georgia became an independent country. So while Georgia is small, it is not irrelevant at all to Russian interests.

What does all this mean for the long term? That Russia and Georgia would both immensely benefit from some kind of economic and political integration and that this type of integration would be the ideal backdrop for a deal between Georgia, Ossetia and Abkhazia. After all, as soon as these countries stop seeing their relations as a zero-sum game and realize that collaboration is the way out for everybody what is unthinkable today might become inevitable tomorrow. Jingoistic militarism, nationalist propaganda and armed struggles have only brought misery and impoverishment to the entire region and a comprehensive and long-lasting peace is now the top priority for every country, region or ethnicity of the Caucasus. Burdzhanadze understands that the first step towards achieving such a peace is to finally establish a real, functional, democracy in Georgia (and Russia, I would add).

I know, Burdzhanadze has a, shall we say, “checkered past” (she is a former ally of Saakashvili), and Uncle Sam does have a amazing ability to do dumb things, even if that objectively hurts US interests. And it is by no means certain that Russian leaders fully understand how important it is to develop meaningful civil and democratic rights in the Russian Caucasus rather than just rely on putatively “pro-Russian“ thugs. As for Saakashvili, he is armed to the teeth, he owns the police and security forces, and he is likely to fight ruthlessly to stay in power. Yes, the future of Georgia looks very bleak indeed. But listening to Burdzhanadze at least gives me some hope that the future is not hopeless, that another future is at least possible.
The Saker