Georgia's forgotten legacy

Vicken Cheterian
3 September 2008

The mark of a leader is how he or she responds to tough rather than favourable circumstances. By this standard, Mikheil Saakshvili has so far managed well his military defeat in South Ossetia and the subsequent Russian onslaught. Even the continuing presence of Russian troops on the soil of "Georgia proper" - that is, excluding the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, almost all of which were outside Georgian control before the war of August 2008 - has not put into question his legitimacy as the president of Georgia.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva. He is the author of War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2008)

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

"Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

"Armenia's election: the waiting-game" (19 February 2008)True, there was widespread criticism of his leadership in Georgia before the war and there is more immediate discontent about his decision to engage in an armed confrontation with Russia over control of South Ossetia. The latest national crisis may inevitably have muted political opposition, though there are increasing signs that the post-war political arena will see fresh challenges to Saakashvili's almost five-year reign (see Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape", 26 August 2008).

In addition, Russia's rhetorical barrage as well its military pressure has been constant - including Dmitry Medvedev's description on 2 September of his counterpart in Tbilisi as a "political corpse". Yet amid all this, Saakashvili has - again, so far - not wilted; he even seems on occasion to thrive on the challenge (and is himself no mean performer in the art of political abuse).

The response of the Georgian people has in the main been to rally to the flag, providing their president with further much-needed breathing-space. A massive demonstration in Tbilisi and other cities and towns across Georgia on 1 September, for example, brought up to one million people onto the roads and squares of the Georgian capital to express their "unity" and oppose "Russian aggression". Indeed, for any political force to articulate a pro-Russian position would be political suicide in Georgia today. Russia's actions in and after the war have if anything consolidated Mikheil Saakashvili's position, to the extent that - most unlike the period of protest before the election of January 2008 - there are at the moment no significant forces calling for the president's resignation.

The dynamic

After the impact of the Russian version of "shock and awe" fades away, however, a full political accounting of what happened in the war will follow. Mikheil Saakashvili is bound to face tough questions. As early as 18 August, the former speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze, said that while unity was paramount in times of war there would need to be once Russia withdrew a thorough analysis "of what happened, and why it happened". These words are even more potent as they come from one of the three leaders of the "rose revolution" of November 2003-January 2004 which propelled Saakashvili to the presidency (the other is Zurab Zhvania, a confidante of Saakashvili who became Georgia's prime minister, and whose death in 2005 remains unexplained).

These comments of Nino Burdzhanadze, and the wider political repositioning that (as Robert Parsons suggests) they may be part of, augur the coming contest for Georgia's future. But the country needs more than another domestic crisis out of which another leader emerges: it needs needs a serious internal debate about "what happened" not just in August 2008 but over the whole period since the rose revolution. What is the legacy of this event for Georgia today, and does it offer resources for the betterment of Georgia - with or without Mikheil Saakashvili?

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)

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

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

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 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)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

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

Evgeny Morozov, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test" (18 August 2008) The rose revolution that brought Saakashvili to power was a reaction to the failure of his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze to modernise Georgia, which was understood by the Georgians effectively to meand bringing the country closer to the west and away from its Soviet past. The most obvious and visible part of this failure was corruption. It was this issue that dominated Georgian politics in the months before the great protest-wave of November 2003. By contrast, little attention at the time was given to the de facto independent entities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that had since the wars of 1990-92 and 1992-93 been outside the Georgian political framework. The tension over Adzharia, a rich Black Sea province ruled in feudal style by Aslan Abashidze - who had much influence over internal Georgian politics - was far higher on Tbilisi's agenda; but this was as much to do with corruption as with "separatism".

This is an indirect but real signal of the real priorities of the young revolutionaries who came to power via the rose revolution. They looked at the problem of the three (at the time) ‘breakaway" territories and saw the same colour as that of "Georgia proper" under Eduard Shevardnadze displayed: the colour of corruption, resulting from rule by remnants of the old Soviet nomenklatura.

The internal dynamic of the revolution thus led to less of a focus on "reclamation" of the three statelets and more on attending to Georgians' immediate material and social needs: raising living standards, fighting corruption, reforming the economy, beginning modernisation, orientating the country to the west. All this, a large and ambitious programme even for already semi-modern states, was an even bigger challenge for an impoverished and war-torn country like Georgia. But the strategy was clear, and it posed the question of territorial reunification in a singular way - as part of a political project, not a military one.

Mikheil Saakashvili at the time articulated this strategy by pledging that the new Georgia would make the country so attractive to the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians that there would be no need to force them to return to Georgian rule. This aspiration drew on the most important legacy of the rose revolution: its non-violence. Many feared that the political crisis of late 2003 which followed contested parliamentary elections would plunge the country again into civil war. Instead, the revolution took an honourable course as an inspiring example of peaceable protest, civic unity and self-discipline leading to non-violent regime-change.

The cycle

Many articles in openDemocracy have tracked the course of Georgian politics since that tumultuous period (see, for example, Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" [15 July 2005], and Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" [8 July 2008]). Yet it remains unclear when the internal dynamic of the political strategy underpinning the rose revolution changed. Perhaps, again, Adzharia offers a clue. This was Saakashvili's first stage for territorial reunification, where - in May 2004, before the substantive effects of his reforms had been widely felt - his supporters organised a mini-revolution which ousted Abashidze (who fled to Moscow). The president's good news continued when the Russian leadership agreed to disband its old Soviet military bases at Batumi (on the Black Sea, in Adzharia) and Akhalkalaki (in the southern region of Javakheti).

These successes encouraged Saakashvili to a repeat performance. He prepared a second mini-revolution in South Ossetia in summer 2004, this time supported by interior-ministry troops. This time, it was a disaster: around twenty-four Georgian fighters (and even more Ossetian militamen and civilians of various ethnic origins) were killed, and the fighting brought Russian tanks through the Caucasus mountains. Saakashvili wisely declared a ceasefire before the fighting spread.

This was a moment when the Georgian leader could in principle have turned back, and reclaimed the non-violent and progressive legacy of the rose revolution. Instead, he reinforced the new military approach in a striking way (see "Georgia's arms race", 4 July 2007). The Georgian defence budget rose from the equivalent of $50 million under Shevardnadze to $567m in 2007, and almost $1 billion for 2008. This huge increase in expenditure has been an integral part of Georgia's strengthened military (and political) alliance with the United States, reflected in the deployment by Tbilisi of up to 2,000 soldiers to Iraq.

Saakashvili was emboldened by his alliance with the "last remaining superpower", a bond symbolised by the frenzied welcome of George W Bush to Tbilisi in May 2005. The extent of Saakashvili's departure from the rose revolution's best promise showed too in his readiness to challenge Russia. Again, the president was drawing the wrong strategic conclusions, and seemed unaware that in the international arena Washington's power and reach was diminishing not growing.

The accumulation of shiny hardware, training programmes and grandiose titles that accompanied Tbilisi's military drive proved to be no substitute for noticing which way the wind was blowing. Nato's summit in Bucharest on 2-4 April 2008 - when, over Washington's insistence, Nato member-states denied Tbilisi (and Kyiv) entry into the roadmap to membership - was a turning-point. Georgia might have learned from the experience and advice of its Israeli allies too. The Israeli army had been unable to crush Hizbollah in the war of July-August 2006, and Hizbollah confirmed its domestic power by crushing the United States's Lebanese allies in Beirut in May 2008. More broadly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had stretched US capacities to their limits. What advice was Georgia receiving, or not receiving; who was it listening to, or ignoring; and where were its internal, independent sources of strategic thinking?

Gérard Chaliand, the French expert on military history, once told me that there is big difference between the military and warriors. The military are people who have jobs in armies, wear uniforms, classify documents, and follow orders. Warriors love making war. After spending $3 billion, Georgia had a modern military, but no warriors. In response to Mikheil Saakashvili's misjudgment of ordering an attack on Tskhinvali, Russia unleashed on the Georgian army its war-hardened kontraktniki from the Chechnya war-zone, as well as former Chechen resistance fighters (the special-purpose battalion Vostok) who have of late joined the Kremlin's cause in Chechnya. It was no contest.

The loss

The result of the war is a catastrophe for Georgia. Its young military is shattered, with over 200 soldiers dead from an army of 25,000 (even though Givi Targamadze of Georgia's ruling party reported a lower figure to parliament on 3 September) ; the two newly built, Nato-standard bases in Senaki and Gori have been occupied by Russian troops, then looted and burned; the army has been practically incapacitated. Moreover, the war has led to ethnic cleansing of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by Georgians, and the flight of thousands of Georgians to Tbilisi and other cities. For the foreseeable future, Tbilisi will have even less to say about or offer South Ossetia or Abkhazia than before the events of August 2008; the war has brought them closer to Russian control (notwithstanding the formal recognition by Moscow of their independence) than ever.

The war was also a huge blow to efforts to modernise Georgia's infrastructure and economy. In the month of the conflict, Georgia's central bank sold almost 13% of its foreign-currency reserves to preserve the value of the lari, the national currency. The aspiration of the rose revolution, Georgia's bid for modernisation, is at risk here too.

The return

What comes next for Georgia? The autopilot-path is to continue to challenge Moscow, an approach symbolised by Saakashvili's promise to "bury Russian imperialism". A number of American politicians are lobbying to rebuild the Georgian armed forces; two senators, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, write that "the Georgian military should be given the antiaircraft and antiarmor systems necessary to deter any renewed Russian aggression" (see "Russian Aggression is a Challenge to World Order", Wall Street Journal, 26 August 2008) The logic here - to push Georgia into a conflict it cannot win (against Russia, or indeed against the Caucasian mountaineers) - is easy to follow and hard to fathom. It promises a repeat of the 1990-93 and 2008 experiences - only much worse.

Today, Georgia cannot afford both to follow the path of modernisation and democratisation and pursue a military build-up designed to allow the forced reintegration of the "lost" territories What it can do is to decide to embrace a strategy of non-violence towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia by accepting the current status quo; it could even go further, by recognising their independence in exchange for the return of ethnic Georgians to their homes (see Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and South Ossetia", 15 August 2008).

An approach of this kind - and as important, the evidence of creative and imaginative thinking that discussing it in today's Georgia would represent - could open a new page of relations with the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians. It would also enable Georgia to retrieve the legacy of the rose revolution, and once again offer the world an example of inspiration rather than militarism, rancour and enmity. Whether Mikheil Saakashvili or indeed his possible next rivals for the country's leadership are able to accomplish this task, at some point Georgia will be faced with the choice of following such a path.



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