Georgia and Russia, again

Thomas de Waal
30 January 2009

Never again will a Georgian command the same international authority.

The green walls of Eduard Shevardnadze's study in his residence outside Tbilisi are decked with portraits of world leaders: Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, George Schultz (and, bizarrely, the jazz singer Ray Charles). In his prime as foreign minister of the Soviet Union, he was fully equal to all these statesmen. Thomas de Waal is a research associate with the non-governmental organisation Conciliation Resources. He was Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London from 2002-08. He is co-author of Chechnya: calamity in the Caucasus (New York University Press, 1998) and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war (New York University Press, 2003); his next book is about the south Caucasus.

Also by Thomas de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The north Caucasus: politics or war?" (7 September 2004)

"Musa Shanib in the Caucasus: a political odyssey" (11 October 2005)

"Abkhazia's dream of freedom" (9 May 2006)

"Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?" (1 August 2006) - an exchange with Zeyno Baran

"Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" (20 October 2006)

"The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

"South Ossetia: war and politics" (10 August 2008)

"South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (12 August 2008)

"Transdniestria: a family quarrel" (27 November 2008)

The face is rather slack and the mouth sunken now, the eyes have lost their sparkle. Shevardnadze is not the man he used to be. But who else in the world can talk with equal authority about Leonid Brezhnev or Ronald Reagan?

When I interviewed the former Georgian president in December 2008 and asked him about the visit by the then Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov during the "rose revolution" of November-December 2003, Shevardnadze talked less about the visit itself and more about Ivanov and how he had set him on his diplomatic career. In thirty years in top-level politics he knew almost everyone.

What is more, no one understands better one of the central problems of current European politics: the disastrous breakdown in the once-close relationship Georgia and Russia. Eduard Shevardnadze left office to great relief amid the tumultuous events of 2003, but his departure also deprived Georgia of the badly needed foreign-policy acumen of the figure his compatriots described as a tetri melia (white fox).

The sun and the moon

The relationship between the neighbouring countries began to break down, like a lot of failed marriages, when one side began to assert rights that the other did not acknowledge existed. The two had been part of one state, with a short break, since 1801. In a situation with parallels elsewhere (Scotland, for example), Georgia had relied on Russia as a useful colonial power and vehicle or guarantor of its own elite's ambitions. Too many Russians mistook this pragmatic relationship for unconditional dependence.

Eduard Shevardnadze, who ran Georgia from 1972, knew how to play the Russian system. In the 20th century only one other Georgian made this kind of ascent to the international summit. Joseph Stalin is of course a very different case, but his path also went via Moscow and he was, in the historian Robert Service's phrase, "bi-national", both a true-born Georgian and a Russian imperialist patriot. Within the confines of Georgia, Stalin would have been a petty despot barely remarked on by history. Russia gave him the opportunity to become a world tyrant.

Georgians still recall with embarrassment that Shevardnadze said, as Georgia's first Communist Party secretary in the 1970s that "the sun rises in the north." But he used his Moscow connections for more benign purposes. In the last three decades of the Soviet Union, the relationship between periphery and centre altered; the provinces became skilled at increasing their local power, without rocking the boat of central power. The heads of the "union republics" such as Georgia wrested more and more economic and cultural privileges from Moscow so long as they toed the line on basic political issues.

The events of 1978, months after the Soviet Union adopted the so-called "Brezhnev constitution", bore this out. As we talked, Shevardnadze was vague and not terribly coherent about more recent events but when the conversation turned to the drama surrounding this era in Georgia, he came alive and suddenly became voluble.

He told the story of how, by deft visits to Moscow to prepare the ground, he managed to pre-empt Georgian nationalist concerns that the Georgian language was not to be given special status in the local republican Georgian constitution of that year. It was a symbolic issue which he managed beautifully. He persuaded Brezhnev's aide (and later successor) Konstantin Chernenko to brief the ailing general secretary about the importance of the issue and then announcing in Tbilisi that Georgian would indeed be given the status of a "republican language."

Even as he was giving his speech, Shevardnadze recalled, he could hear a column of students and intellectuals marching through Tbilisi chanting Deda Ena ("Mother Tongue")!. When the crowds heard the good news, they began to disperse. Then, Shevardnadze, said he walked into the courtyard of party headquarters to find a squadron of tanks, sent by Moscow to crush any potential riots. He realised how close the situation had been to turning into one of those tragedies that periodically darken the history of Georgian-Russian relations .

Fifteen years on, in post-independence Georgia, relations between Moscow and Tbilisi again deteriorated with Shevardnadze as president. In retrospect however, for all the cloud of corruption and mismanagement that darkened Shevardnadze's last years in office, his foreign policy looks like a model of maturity in comparison to that of his successor. Shevardnadze told me for example that he had been careful to brief Vladimir Putin in advance about his invitation of United States troops to Georgia for the "anti-terrorist" Georgia Train and Equip Programme (GTEP). Putin was not happy but publicly endorsed the programme.

"I always tried to emphasise that Russia is not a secondary country for us, that it is a great neighbour with big military and economic potential", said Shevardnadze.

A missed opportunity

Mikheil Saakashvili started out with good intentions, making a trip to Moscow as soon as he was elected president in 2004. But Georgian-Russian relations soon took a sharp turn for the worse. Some say Saakashvili was too impatient, others that he simply preferred the glamour of his rock-star treatment in some venues in Washington to the grudging reception he received in Moscow, others that the overthrow of Russian protégé Aslan Abashidze in the Black Sea region of Adzharia in May 2004 spoiled hopes of rapprochement.

Whatever the reason, the new Georgian leadership simply failed to engage properly with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Mikheil Saakashvili's first two envoys to fill the post of ambassador in Moscow - surely the most important diplomatic posting for Georgia - were not professional diplomats and simply unfit for the job. Relations plunged further in September 2006 when the Georgians arrested four Russian officers, accusing them of spying and then in humiliating fashion handed them over to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be returned to Moscow. The men were almost certainly spies but the public insult was poorly calculated - and met with a predictably vindictive response from Russia.

The latest ambassador to Moscow was a much more interesting candidate. Erosi Kitsmarishvili was the founder of Rustavi-2 Television, the station that was the mouthpiece of the peaceful rose revolution which toppled Shevardnadze.

Kitsmarishvili has now spectacularly broken with Saakashvili, accusing him of having plotted war against Abkhazia and spurned chances of dampening down the imminent crisis in summer 2004.

In December 2008 in Tbilisi, Kitsmarishvili recounted to me in a long conversation what he said were his dogged efforts to build bridges with the new Kremlin administration of Dmitry Medvedev and to use people such as veteran insider Yevgeny Primakov to open a mediation channel between Tbilisi and Moscow.

The choice in this case is appropriate, since Primakov grew up in Tbilisi and has a Georgian son-in-law. Indeed, his successor as foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, has a Georgian mother; and the father of Ivanov's successor, Sergei Lavrov, was an Armenian from Tbilisi - such are the umbilical links between the Russian and Georgian elites.

Medvedev, said the former ambassador, gave signals that he was interested but was playing a weak hand against the more hawkish Putin. Saakashvili showed flashes of interest in this new channel but did not have the stamina for the kind of long-term commitment required to build it properly.

The last spark of this doomed initiative came less than a month before the war over South Ossetia began, in a meeting in the Black Sea port of Batumi on 17 July. Medvedev delegated his friend, the influential journalist and deputy editor of Itar-TASS news agency Mikhail Gusman, a native of Baku, to meet Saakashvili.

Gusman and Saakashvili eventually talked one-on-one, so Kitsmarishvili did not get to hear what this last meeting involved. He did describe to me what he called a farcical encounter in a Batumi restaurant when Gusman first arrived. Expecting to be taken to meet the president, he was to his consternation instead led to a lunch in a Batumi restaurant with Saakashvili, a clutch of Georgian officials as well as "the deputy chairman of a committee in the Knesset, two western journalists and a woman who introduced herself as an Austrian princess." Diplomatic breakthroughs do not happen at meals like this. (Saakashvili did however pick up the tip from Gusman over lunch to visit an Italian health-farm in the South Tyrol and lose some weight. The president went there just nine days after the meeting and returned five days before war began). 

No one can tell whether Medvedev's initiative was credible and Kitmarishvili was on to something or whether the hawks on both sides would have had their war, come what may. It is all too late. Medvedev is now the man who recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia and who in September 2008 declared Saakashvili a "political corpse". The two countries have broken diplomatic relations and have an almost unresolvable territorial dispute over Abkhazia and South Ossetia that will keep them quarrelling for a generation.

Yet the relationship will not go away. A million Georgians still work in Russia. Innumerable cultural ties link the two nations. And in yet another extraordinary twist to this story Georgia now has a foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze who lived in Russia for thirty years, worked for the Soviet foreign ministry - and has not even given up his Russian citizenship!

Saakashvili has - if belatedly - made a very wise appointment indeed. You might call it sixth time lucky in that Vashadze is the sixth person to be Georgian foreign minister in five years. A pity that Vashadze has such paltry material to work with as he starts to rebuild the wreckage of Georgian foreign policy. If he were to call on Eduard Shevardnadze, whiling away his retirement hours in his echoing villa, he would certainly learn a lesson or too.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics and Russia:

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, "Sovereignty, status and the humanitarian perspective" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

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