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The Kremlin and Georgia – collusion or illusion?

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Georgia’s politicians are hypersensitive to charges of collusion with Russia, the old imperial power. President Saakashvili denounces opposition figures for being tools of the Kremlin. But the record suggests that he might himself be vulnerable to the same charge, says Vladimer Papava

Vladimer Papava
24 July 2012

In the autumn of 2011 a Georgian billionaire called Bidzina Ivanishviliset up his own political party to oppose the undemocratic regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgia’s ruling party, the National Movement, immediately denounced him as a ‘project of the Kremlin’, an accusation which is very harmful for Georgia.

This claim needs to be understood in its historical context. Since the country won its independence 20 years ago, Georgians have been in the habit of examining their political leaders for evidence of Kremlin sympathies. On these grounds, perceptions of Georgia’s first two presidents vary.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first president, was accused by his opponents of having yielded to KGB pressure in the 1970s and ‘repented his anti-Soviet activities.’ However, during his presidency relations with Russia became very tense and subsequently broke down completely. 

The second president, Eduard Shevardnadze, was similarly criticised. He stood accused of having availed himself of Russian help, first to topple the government of his predecessor, then to maintain his position as head of state when Gamsakhurdia’s armed forces tried to restore the democratically elected government. He remained vulnerable to this charge despite the fact that retrograde forces in Moscow had never forgiven Shevardnadze for his contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘Since the country won its independence 20 years ago, Georgians have been in the habit of examining their political leaders for evidence of Kremlin sympathies.’

Fevered suspicion of Kremlin sympathies is hardly surprising, given that for almost 200 years Georgia was part of the Russian, and subsequently, Soviet Empire. It has always been vitally important for Georgians, as no doubt for citizens of other post-Soviet countries, to be sure that their leader is not a ‘Kremlin project’. Such suspicions, it must be admitted, all too often arise from over-sensitivity. These so-called ‘insidious Kremlin plans’ all too often turn out to be a phantom.

However, the issue of Kremlin influence on Georgian politicians is not just a major concern for Georgians, but also for foreigners with an interest in the country. In the case of Bidzina Ivanishvili, it was not difficult for the Saakashvili propaganda machine to work on the anxieties of some foreigners and encourage them to spread the rumour that Ivanishvili was working for the Kremlin. However, foreign specialists with a better knowledge of Georgian domestic issues were more cautious and sceptical of the wilder claims put about by the propaganda machine. 

Is Barack Obama (or Nicolas Sarkozy) a Kremlin project?

It was Barack Obama who first advanced the idea of ‘resetting’ US relations with Russia, on the grounds that an improved understanding between the two countries could only lead to an improvement in relations. So the question as to whether the US President was ‘a Kremlin project’ has some place in the post-Soviet context.

Obama is now coming to the end of his first term and it is clear that the ‘reset’ has not worked. Indeed, some specialists even claim that it has had the opposite effect to the one desired. In their view, Moscow, seeing the initiative as a sign of weakness, was motivated to harbour unrealistic geopolitical ambitions. Russia has further intensified its anti-Western stance, as can be seen from the statements and actions of Vladimir Putin.

Barack Obama’s ‘reset’ idea is, of course, a function of his (and his team’s) naiveté, rather than of any Kremlin sympathies.

Nicolas Sarkozy was similarly suspected by some in Georgia of being part of the ‘Kremlin project’. France was EU president in the second half of 2008 and, in this capacity, Sarkozy tried to bring the hostilities of the Russo-Georgian war to an end and to find a way out of the impasse. He achieved a degree of success in this, though Moscow has still not fulfilled all its obligations; indeed, Russia has violated the terms of the agreement by recognising the independence of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. President Sarkozy had little to say on this subject, and subsequently even sold a Mistral helicopter carrier to Moscow.  So perhaps Sarkozy could have been a Kremlin sympathiser too.

Is the simple fact that the heads of some big countries attempt to improve their relations with Moscow sufficient evidence for them to be dubbed Kremlin sympathisers? The answer is more complex that might at first appear. Let us consider the facts behind the charge laid against Ivanishvili.

The boundary between reality and fantasy

What grounds do Mikheil Saakashvili and his supporters actually have for accusing Bidzina Ivanishvili of being a ‘Kremlin project’?  Is it just that he made his billions in Russia and a significant part of his business interests are based there? 

Ivanishvili was particularly vilified for holding 1% of shares in the Russian energy giant, Gazprom. Saakashvili and his team did not seem to mind this when they were accepting donations from him before he went over to the opposition. These donations went to projects for the Government of Georgia. Sometimes the projects were even in the name of Saakashvili’s ruling party, the National Movement. But when Ivanishvili decided to join the opposition, he was immediately denounced as a Kremlin sympathiser, spending his billions to serve the interests of Moscow.

Such arguments could be turned against Mikheil Saakashvili himself. Perhaps he is a Kremlin project? The facts do not look too good. Members of the opposition frequently refer to the fact that the young Saakashvili served in the USSR KGB's border forces from 1989-90. So he could well have started working for the KGB in the final years of the USSR.

'Is the simple fact that the heads of some big countries attempt to improve their relations with Moscow sufficient evidence for them to be dubbed Kremlin sympathisers?'

Saakashvili and his supporters especially do not like being reminded of the role Igor Ivanov played in Georgia’s Rose Revolution.  On 23 November 2003 the tension in the centre of Tbilisi had reached a peak, when Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov paid a special visit to the capital and appeared at the opposition rally in support of the revolutionaries. From there he went to a meeting with the President, after which Shevardnadze announced his resignation, which effectively brought the Rose Revolution to an end.

In 2004 Igor Ivanov played an equally important part in the Adjara revolution, when Saakashvili attempted to re-impose the authority of the central government on this autonomous region. On 5 May, in his capacity as Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Ivanov arrived in the Adjaran capital, Batumi. At dawn on 6 May he left for Moscow, taking with him Aslan Abashidze, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Adjara Autonomous Republic, and his son, Giorgi.

Clearly, the Kremlin was not at the time against Mikheil Saakashvili becoming leader of Georgia in place of Eduard Shevardnadze.  Indeed, Russia even played its part in ensuring that he did.

After the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili opened the doors wide to Russian investment in Georgia, thus facilitating Georgia’s gradual entry into the web of Russia’s ‘Liberal Empire’, publicly announced by Moscow. Saakashvili’s government supported the handing over to Russian companies of large Georgian industrial and energy companies. The privately owned United Georgian Bank was nationalised by the Government of the Russian Federation, when its Vneshtorgbank (VTB) acquired a controlling interest in the bank.  The Georgian government also intended to sell Gazprom the main North-South gas pipeline, which was built in Soviet times and runs from Russia through Georgia and into Armenia.  Luckily for the Georgians, however, that deal fell through when Washington became involved in the project.

After the Rose Revolution, Kakha Bendukidze, an ethnic Georgian millionaire from Moscow, was invited to become the leader of the Georgian government’s economic team. He created a bridge between Russian business and the Georgian government. Mikheil Saakvashili was unconcerned by the fact that, before he arrived in Tbilisi, Bendukidze had been Chairman and CEO of the United Heavy Engineering Group OMZ. This company produced equipment for the nuclear energy industry, which would mean that the CEO would have been likely to be in close touch with the Russian Security Services. The Georgian president and his supporters are also not keen to be reminded that Saakashvili, by his own admission, telephoned President Putin to confirm Bendukidze’s appointment with him.

Not even the war in August 2008 put a stop to the inflow of Russian investment into Georgia. Indeed, when the war was over, the Russian telecommunications company Beeline increased its activities. In 2011 the Georgian government sold two hydroelectric plants to Inter Rao, one of the largest Russian public energy companies, and issued them a licence for the construction of three new plants.In the summer of 2012 President Saakashvili nominated Ivane Merabishvili, former Interior Minister, as the new Prime Minister of Georgia. Just two months ago Mr Merabishvili declared in Parliament that ‘money doesn’t smell’ and that he welcomes Russian investments in Georgia.

'Not even the war in August 2008 put a stop to the inflow of Russian investment into Georgia. Indeed, when the war was over, the Russian telecommunications company Beeline increased its activities.' 

Perhaps it even suits the Kremlin to have Saakashvili as head of state in Georgia? The very fact that Moscow refuses to have any official relationship with Tbilisi gives the Russian president a free hand to do what he wants in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  It is no coincidence that Moscow has decided to conduct military exercises in the North Caucasus in the autumn of 2012, at the time of the Georgian parliamentary election. In so doing, the Kremlin is reinforcing President Saakashvili’s claims that Russia might once more attack Georgia, thus fanning nationalist feeling and increasing the number of his supporters at the elections.

Is there a boundary between reality and fantasy? There are the facts. There are, however, those who refuse to believe them. That is their choice.

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