Georgia and Russia: with you, without you

Donald Rayfield
9 August 2007

The current quarrel between Georgia and Russia - which started with the arrest of an alleged Russian spy-ring on Georgian territory, and quickly intensified via embittering mutual accusations towards the imposition of a range of severe sanctions by Russia on its small southern neighbour - is based on more than a conflict of interests; it has all the viciousness of a love affair gone sour, which is why it seems so hard to see an end to the ever-escalating series of recriminations between the two countries.

For centuries, Russia was for Sakartvelo (Georgia) a distant, fellow-Christian neighbour, if one slowly but surely expanding towards Georgia's northern frontiers. After the collapse of the Byzantine empire and the devastations wrought by the Mongols, Georgia became for hundreds of years vulnerable to invasion and despoliation by Iran from the east and Ottoman Turkey from the west, while the wild highland tribes of the north periodically came down like wolves on the fold. Russia during this period was a land more of myth than reality: only a few inter-dynastic marriages linked the ruling families of the two countries, and the remnants of the Scythians and the Golden Horde put an impenetrable barrier between them.

Likewise, Georgia was at first a Shangri-La for Russia, a Christian kingdom which would in principle be an ally in the expansion of Russian rule and Orthodoxy throughout the orient, a state which had a common interest in dominating the Circassians and Chechens who resisted all forms of statehood and empire.

Donald Rayfield is professor in the department of modern languages, Queen Mary College, University of London. Among his books is Stalin and his Hangmen (Random House, 2005)


A wary embrace

Only in the 17th and 18th century did reality modify the dreams; Russia and Georgia made contact, at first over the Caspian sea and then, spasmodically, across the mountain passes. Russia provided hospitality for Georgian exiles and refugees from Iranian depredations; through Russia, Georgians got a European education, access to western culture, and experience as officers in the Russian armies. They were even given large estates and their aristocratic rank was recognised.

Finally, in the 1780s Russia offered military assistance in repelling the Iranian forces. And here the first rifts appeared in the relationship. Russian help consisted too often in encouraging the Georgians to attack Persians or Turks, standing by while both sides fought each other to a standstill, and then mopping up the remnants. Georgians had their first lesson in modern Realpolitik.

When in 1783 the exhausted Georgian kingdom accepted the Russian offer of protectorate status, they had their second lesson: within two decades the Georgian kingdom was dismantled, the royal family was exiled (comfortably and respectfully) to St Petersburg, the Georgian church was incorporated into the Russian church - its frescoes whitewashed, its polyphonic singing replaced by chant - and a Russian viceroy governed the country.

Still, under Russian rule a corrupt, ignorant bureaucracy was a distinct improvement over Persian and Turkish satraps. Nobody was beheaded, castrated or enslaved, even if they were taxed and occasionally exiled, and Georgian nobles enjoyed unfettered control over their peasants and protection from bankruptcy. The Georgian rebellions against Russian rule were half-hearted, and for most of the 19th century, given liberal viceroys, the gratitude was greater than the grievances.

The aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 transformed the picture. Soviet rule in 1921 violently crushed the independent Georgian state that had sprung up in 1917; while lip-service was paid to the status of Georgian language and culture, both Lenin and Stalin systematically destroyed all hopes of any real autonomy. Instead, autonomy (accompamnied in some cases by Russification) was granted to several of Georgia's provinces - Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia - following the same tactics of divide and rule that the Iranian shahs had applied. Georgians were subjected to mass arrests and executions in the "great terror" of 1937-38, and their male population was reduced by a fifth in the terrible fighting of the second world war.

The problem is that, relatively, Georgia remained a land of plenty, even in the hungriest years of the 1930s and 1940s. Soviet Russia, like Czarist Russia, was convinced that it had provided the protective mantle under which grateful Georgians could enjoy peace and prosperity. But gratitude was not apparent; many Russians were aware of Georgian attitudes to them as a nation of male boors and female sluts. After Stalin's death the conviction steadily grew among ordinary Russians that Georgians had parasitically exploited Soviet tolerance.

On the rocks

Today's mutual hostility has escalated from this misunderstanding. Georgia's eagerness to declare independence in 1990 was taken by many Russians as monstrous ingratitude. Within two years, Georgia seemed on the verge of dismemberment, as Abkhazia broke away, South Ossetia rose up against the abolition of its autonomy and Adzharia fell into the hands of a narco-baron (Aslan Abashidze) with close links to the mayor of Moscow.

Much of the responsibility for the loss of Georgia's provinces has to be blamed on Georgian politicians and their inflammatory, nationalist - at times even fascist - rhetoric, in which they insisted that their own minorities (Abkhaz, Ossetes, even Armenians) were just "guests" on Georgian territory. But Georgian suspicions that Russia was surreptitiously fomenting separatism are justified. South Ossetia is a paradise for racketeers among the Russian army "peacekeepers", while Abkhazia's magnificent villas and resorts are coveted by the Russian business and bureaucratic elites. The issue of offering Russian passports to the population of Abkhazia, the Georgians rightly believe, amounts to effective annexation of Georgian territory.

There are many varieties of anti-Georgian opinion in Russia. At the crudest level is the view that all Caucasians are gangsters; at a higher level, Eduard Shevardnadze (the former Soviet foreign minister who returned to head Georgia in 1992 after the chaotic rule of Zviad Gamsakhurdia) is seen as the traitor who enabled Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet Union and hand the remnants to the Americans. Mikheil Saakashvili's "rose revolution" of November 2003-January 2004 was in fact given tacit assent by elements in the Russian government: primarily in order to punish Shevardnadze, and secondarily because Saakashvili was seen as an amateur who would not be able to intrigue as cunningly as his tetri melia (white fox) predecessor.

In fact Saakashvili has shown a mixture of astuteness and incompetence. On one hand, he secured the return of a lost province, hounding out Abashidze from Adzharia, and he has made the Russians agree eventually to evacuate their military bases. On the other hand, to assuage his electorate he has made one inflammatory statement after another, for each of which Georgia has been punished by denial of energy and bans of exports.

No Georgian politician dares admit to the electorate that Abkhazia is lost forever, like a wife that has run off to be with a bigger and richer man, and that South Ossetia is now almost certainly irrecoverable; nor would he or she have the wisdom of a Czech or Hungarian politician to say that the country is all the better off for being smaller and ethnically more homogeneous.

Meanwhile, although Russia has reconciled itself to the independence of the Baltic states, Russian public opinion cannot swallow the idea of an independent Georgia. Given the disparity of size and power between the two countries, and given the certainty that if the Americans and Europeans ever have to make a choice they will side with the Russians (who have gas, oil and platinum, whereas the Georgians have only a pipeline route to offer), Georgia is going to get the worst of the conflict.

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