Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions

About the author
Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of the school of modern languages, Queen Mary University of London. Among his books are Stalin and His Hangmen (Random House, 2005); (as editor-in-chief) A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006); and The Literature of Georgia: A History (Garnett Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

The second alleged incursion of a Russian aircraft into Georgian territory during August 2007 has further heightened tension between the two states. An already difficult relationship is mired in accusation, denial, rumour and suspicion over the sorties (the Georgian deputy defence minister Batu Kutelia claims there have been nine in the last three months). The fact that such incidents, minor in themselves, can provoke such heated reactions confirms that something has gone badly wrong in a once almost familial bond. What is it, and can it be repaired?

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of the School of Modern Languages, Queen Mary University of London. Among his books is Stalin and His Hangmen (Random House, 2005), which has appeared in six other languages, including Russian.

He is editor-in-chief of A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006), a work of 1440,000 entries and nearly 1800 pages in two volumes.

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

It is hard to disentangle reality from myth regarding the airspace violations amid the deluge of propaganda on either side. But most international experts now agree that on 6 August 2007, Russian aircraft did venture three times into Georgian airspace from the direction of Vladikavkaz - and that on the third sortie an aircraft deliberately fired a missile, which fortunately failed to explode when it landed near the village of Tsitelubani.

This was followed on the night of 21 August by the entry of a Russian military jet which seems to have discharged a missile which fell on a cornfield (and also did not ignite) in the vicinity of Georgia's border with the disputed territory of South Ossetia.

Both incidents have been given the full diplomatic treatment - official statements, condemnations, appeals to scientific evidence, calls for solidarity from allies and the international community (including the United Nations). The west's anxiety about becoming embroiled in further confrontation with Russia mean that Georgia's attempts to bring its grievance over Russian behaviour to the attention of the Security Council will probably be as ineffective as the missile itself. There is a recent precedent: the Russia-originated cyber-attack on Estonia in April-May 2007 which targeted the government's computer system - in apparent revenge for Estonia's moving of a city-centre statue commemorating the country's "liberation" by the Red Army in 1944 - has not met with any effective protest or sanctions.

But if Georgia will find it difficult to persuade the world to take the incidents seriously enough, the violation of its territory is part of a pattern that reveals much about the mindset currently animating Russian policy. A key aspect of this is the deep xenophobia that pervades Russian politics and public opinion directed at Americans, western Europeans, and Chinese but, above all, at the people of nations which have secured their independence since the fall of the Soviet Union. In this sense the Georgians are only one target of a wider "blame culture" in Moscow (as the Estonia example confirms). But it is also the case that the bitterness directed against them (and reciprocated in full) reflects the illusions of a Russia that thinks it "knows" and understands Georgia - and has not yet understood that, in fact, it no longer does.

Russia's telescope

The first Russian illusion is indicated by a recent feature on the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, where listeners were asked to estimate the population of Georgia. The mean response was 30 million (the true figure in 2007 is approximately 4.6 million). Moreover, the signifier "Georgian" (like Azeri, Armenian, Avar, Circassian or Abkhaz) has now been replaced by the overall term "person of Caucasian ethnicity", thus losing a series of imaginary distinctions drawn in imperial and Soviet Russia: between civilised, Christian Caucasians (Georgians, Armenians and in part Ossetians) and wild, pagan and Muslim Caucasians (all the rest); and between settled Caucasians who meekly accepted the imperial yoke (Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Ossetians) and noble savages (Chechens, Avars, Circassians) who resisted it.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics are:

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

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

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge"
(6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo"
(10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race"
(4 July 2007)
A second Russian illusion is that Georgia is ungrateful, having enjoyed a privileged position under Soviet rule (mainly thanks to its being the homeland of Joseph Stalin). True, in Georgia's lush climate the sun shone and fruit grew on trees even in the 1930s; and in the 1930s-1940s only 1% of the Soviet prison-camp system was Georgian, though Georgians made up 2.5% of the Soviet population - a disproportion corrected in 1951 under Stalin himself, when a new persecution doubled the number of Georgians in the gulag.

But a closer look at the statistics reveals that the "great terror" affected Georgia at least as badly as Leningrad or Moscow. The ruthless prosecutor Nikolai Yezhov's targets for repression in August 1937 set the proportion for "Category 1" (to be shot after arrest and interrogation) at 50% of those arrested in Georgia (compared to 16% for Moscow). But these limits were everywhere exceeded by a factor of nine, meaning that the secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria (himself a Mingrelian, from a region in western Georgia) had some 50,000 Georgians shot in 1937-38, the same proportion as in Russia's two main cities. During the "great patriotic war" of 1941-45, the Georgian male population had perhaps the highest casualty rate of any Soviet republic: some 300,000 young men died (mostly in the Kerch landings of 1943), about a third of those of military age in the country.

The third Russian illusion about Georgia is one of patronage, that Moscow can effectively direct Tbilisi's choice of political leader. The extraordinary antagonism displayed by Vladimir Putin's officials and army officers towards Georgia can be perhaps explained by their initial support for the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power: so great was their hatred for Eduard Shevardnadze (Saakashvili's predecessor as Georgia's president and the former Soviet foreign minister, whom they blamed for the Soviet system's demise) that anyone who overthrew him was bound to find some sympathy in Moscow.

Moreover, Saakashvili followed his political triumph by ejecting Adzharia's warlord Aslan Abashidze from his fiefdom in southwest Georgia; as a business associate of Moscow's mayor, Abashidze was particularly obnoxious to Putin. The Russians no doubt thought that Saakashvili would prove another deluded, manipulable nationalistic intellectual (like the unlamented first president of independent Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia) who would reduce his country to helpless destitution and dependence on Russia's tutelage. Instead, and to Moscow's chagrin, Saakashvili has proved astute at home and popular abroad with influential Americans and Europeans (even as he exposes many flaws, which include a priapism that puts Bill Clinton in the shade, a tendency to bully ministers like schoolboys, and to have critics removed from their jobs or even beaten up and imprisoned).

Georgia's eyeglass

For their part, Georgians today have lost most of their own long-standing illusions about Russia - but though they have less to discard, the reality that has to be faced in the aftermath is arguably more bracing for this smaller, weaker partner in the relationship.

The single overriding Georgian illusion is that Russia is the great Christian kingdom of the north which will come to the rescue of a small Christian nation threatened by Turkic and Persian, Islamic, rule. This view of the northern protector is one that has persisted since the crusades: that a fellow-Christian kingdom will come to the aid of a beleaguered Christian nation threatened by barbarians.

Georgian history teaches otherwise. The crusaders did the very opposite, and ravaged the eastern Christians more thoroughly than they did the Muslims; in the 18th century, several western rulers (Louis XIV, Louis XV, Pope Clement XI) told Prince Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani (uncle of the Georgian king, Vakhtang VI) that their trading links with Persia superseded their concern for a Christian nation threatened by that Islamic state; the British withdrew all their support staff the moment that the Red Army threatened Tbilisi in 1921. In 2008, nobody should doubt that if Russia were to invade Georgia the west would confine its support to a few unenforceable resolutions in the United Nations - and would go on buying Russian oil and gas.

This is where illusion meets reality - with a crunch. For a combination of choice and circumstance is redirecting Georgia's economy towards the west. Georgian railways are about to be managed by a British firm for the next eighty-nine years; Turkey has become Georgia's chief trading partner, and Georgia's exports to Russia have declined by more than half in 2007, thanks to Russia's ban on Georgian wine and mineral water. Even the land border- crossing to Russia has become an obstacle-course, as Georgia prepares to open a third crossing to Turkey (and very soon a direct rail link, which Armenians too will be able to use).

The underlying logic is that Soviet-era industry died in Georgia in 1990 and cannot be resurrected. The agricultural sector is still operating largely as subsistence farming, producing less than a third of what it did in the mid-1980s, when Georgia supplied Russia with citrus fruit, wine, lamb, tea and cheese. Western markets, flooded with cheap produce, are not going to import Georgian agricultural products, except for the recently revived wine industry which is producing wines of high enough quality to find a niche market (Tbilisi will soon again be producing brandy to rival French cognac.)

Yet the break with Russia has its costs. The approximately 500,000 Georgian workers in Russia are subject to increasing pressure from authorities to prevent them trading, being educated, or remitting money home. Even Russian citizens of Georgian origin - such as the writer Boris Akunin (born Grigori Chkhartishvili) and the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli - have been targeted by Russia's notorious tax authorities.

The problem of the lost lands, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is even more painful for Georgia. The dispute over the "frozen territories", which wrested themselves from Tbilisi's control in the small wars of 1992-93, is further from a solution than ever before. In South Ossetia, the idea of unity with North Ossetia (part of Russia) has been encouraged by the Russian foreign minister and by the authorities in the north; while Tbilisi uses a mixture of charm and bluster in the effort to replace the breakaway Eduard Kokoity government with the pro-Tbilisi puppet, Dmitry Sanakoyev.

In Abkhazia, hotels, villas and building land have been bought by Russian businessmen and officials who have a vested interest in seeing that Abkhazia will become a puppet - if not yet an actual integral part - of the Russian Federation. The award of the 2014 winter Olympics to Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi has allowed Abkhazian territory to be proposed for use in accommodating the athletes and even hosting events. No Georgian politician can seriously foster any hope of recovering Abkhazia by diplomatic or military means - although any Georgian politician who admitted this publicly would cease to be a politician, or even to be alive, the very next day.

An intimate acrimony

In this difficult environment, all Mikheil Saakashvili can do - while cultivating his gift for memorable, provocative remarks - is to try to make Georgia a safer, freer and more prosperous country to live in, and thus encourage western investment and sympathy while. Here he has had partial success: everyday bribery has been vastly reduced (you can drive across the the country and never be stopped by an acquisitive traffic policeman, though the number of expensive restaurants with very large black Mercedes outside and very fat politicians and officials inside suggests that at higher levels corruption has only become a little more discreet).

Tbilisi's opera house and theatres now open for performances; readers can afford to buy books again and therefore publishing houses are printing them; and best of all, the Georgian cinema, once the pride of the USSR, is coming back to life. The president's wife, Sandra Roelofs (Dutch by origin, and a fluent speaker of Georgian), has opened a classical-music radio station. The education system has been purged, to the annoyance of parents and university teachers who both preferred the payment of bribes as the most convenient selection process for students. In his own way, Putin has helped the Georgian economy by frightening several Russia-based Georgian oligarchs into taking their wealth and their need for efficient infrastructure home to Georgia, where their impact almost matches that of the 1,000 American military and intelligence agents and the dozens of international NGOs in providing employment.

There is a long way to go. The pro-western government of Saakashvili speaks the benign international language of peace and transparency, but investigations into the mysterious death in February 2005 of prime minister Zurab Zhvania, the brains behind the rose revolution, have been obstructed. Saakashvili's refusal to pursue these, indeed his persecution of any journalists that continue to probe the affair, cast doubt on his commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Other moves, such as the decision to expel the Georgian union of writers from their building in order to privatise the property, show an ill-considered contempt for Georgia's intelligentsia.

The frequent crises and the intemperate tone of the current Russia-Georgia relationship are, then, part of long-term shifts on both sides. The relationship is both full of bitterness and extremely close, reminiscent of that between an acrimoniously and recently divorced couple. Even today, no serious Georgian politician will ever undertake a significant decision without taking into consideration what the Russian reaction would be. Russian-Georgian ties, however near rupture and however twisted, remain impossible to disentangle or to disavow.