Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Fred Weir

The sixth and latest Reconsidering Russia podcast features Fred Weir, the Moscow Correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Weir holds an honors B.A. in European history from the University of Toronto and a teaching degree from the Ontario College of Education.

In this podcast, Mr. Weir and I discuss Russian politics and society, US-Russian relations, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, the American Rust Belt, and his experiences covering Russia as a journalist, living on an Israeli kibbutz, and working as a journeyman ironworker. Enjoy!

Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Sergey Markedonov

After a lengthy hiatus, the Reconsidering Russia podcast is back! The fifth and latest installment of the podcast series features Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov. Dr. Markedonov holds a PhD in history from the Rostov-on-Don State University and he is an Associate Professor at the Russian State University in Moscow. He is also a frequent contributor to the online news service Russia Direct.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and covered topics as diverse as the Don Cossacks, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Syria, NATO, Mikheil Saakashvili, Russo-Georgian relations, US-Russian relations, and Dr. Markedonov’s personal experience with the Caucasus region. Enjoy!

What Do Average Americans Really Think of the Russians?

Terminal Tower, Downtown Cleveland (Photograph by this writer)

Terminal Tower, Downtown Cleveland (Photograph by this writer)

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the American media has been in a state of panic over allegations of Russian hacking. The frenzy has been promoted by war hawks in both major parties, bolstering their bellicosity.

But what do average Americans really think of the Russians?

To answer this question, I set out on a journey through two cities in the American Rust Belt state of Ohio: Cleveland and Columbus.

My mission was to go diners, bars, construction sites, barber shops, and hair salons and talk to working Americans about the Russians. Overall, I interviewed over 30 persons of various professions. I took copious notes, with the permission of all my respondents. The only people who declined did so because they did not have the time. All interviewees were anxious to respond, some to the point of interrupting others. The answers that I received were far more nuanced than one might expect.
 


 
Searching for the Russian trace in Cleveland

Home to large communities of Eastern Europeans and post-Soviet peoples, the city of Cleveland is no stranger to the Russians. In the 1930s, celebrated Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov scrambled to find directions to the city. In the 1950s, Anastas Mikoyan visited the city as part of a larger tour of the US. Upon catching sight of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, tears reportedly came to Mikoyan’s eyes as he recalled a familiar landmark from home: the Lomonosov Moscow State University.

“Reporters who stood close to him as he looked at the downtown skyline swear that the old Communist’s mustache twitched,” wrote Massachusetts-born Cleveland journalist George E. Condon. “His eyes were misty as he raised an arm in comradely approbation and said: ‘Now you’re talking! This is my kind of town!’”

My first stop in Cleveland was the Clevelander Bar & Grill in the city’s downtown on 27 December 2016. After ordering a beer, I asked the people behind the bar about the Russians.

“Can we get along with them?” I inquired.

“Look, if there was a war or something, I would want Russia on my side,” said the bartender, “They’re big and tough, man. Who was the guy who led them during the war? You know, with the mustache?”

“You mean Stalin?”

“Yeah. He was tough, man.”

“What do you think?” I asked the barmaid.

“Of course, we should have them as our allies,” she said. “We need to have a dialogue with them, but I don’t trust them. You know what they say: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Still, I don’t trust Russia. It’s a very scary country.”

“Why do you think Russia is scary?” I asked.

“I dunno. That’s what the media says,” she responded. “However, I don’t think the people are bad. Our neighbor is a Russian. He’s married to a Serbian woman. We have no problems with them. In general, I think that people can get along. The governments can’t. That’s the problem.”

Later, I walked down the street to a Subway restaurant. After ordering a sandwich, I casually began a conversation about the Russians with the owner and his assistant, both middle-aged, round and jovial African-American men.

“The Russians are tough,” said one of the men. “They mean business. You don’t wanna mess with them, man.”

“Do you think that US-Russian relations can improve?”

“Not while Donald Trump is in the White House,” he chuckled heartily. “That man’s crazy! He can’t even keep his Twitter under control! How can we expect him to deal with the Russians?”

Walking back, I traveled to the old beaux arts Leader Building on Superior Avenue. The building is under construction, being converted into condos. This was a perfect place to continue inquiries about the Russians. I found a group of affable construction workers on their break. The men were middle-aged. Three were white, one was black.

“Can we get along with the Russians?” I asked.

“Why not?” said the black construction worker, smiling easily. “We need them.”

“We do need them,” said another construction worker smoking a cigarette, “I mean, look how big their country is! They’re a lot of people. We need as many people to be our friends as possible. We don’t need anymore enemies. You know, my neighbors are Russian immigrants. I have no problems with them. Honestly, I think conflict now between the two governments is basically one big pissing match. If you just bring the people together and leave the politicians out of it, then we’d be fine.”

“I know the authors Dostoevsky and Bulgakov,” interjected another worker. “Crime and Punishment and The Master and the Margarita are among my favorite novels. If Russians can write such great novels, then they must not be bad people. We can work with them.”
 


 
I continued to the Starbucks in the Huntington Bank (formerly Sohio) Building. What did the baristas of this corporate coffee chain think when they thought of US-Russian relations?

One barista, a tall young man in Buddy Holly-style glasses who was, ironically, of partial Russian descent, responded:

Well, for one thing, the Russians are people you don’t wanna mess with. Ultimately, it depends on the leadership on both sides. I feel that any American leader needs to approach the Russians with a lot of tact and finesse, but also toughness. Putin’s a smart guy. At times he can be unpredictable, like what he did in Crimea. However, he’s not crazy like Ahmadinejad or the guy in North Korea. He knows his stuff and he’s tough too.

Can relations improve? Ideally, absolutely. Yes, the interests of the US and Russia do usually differ, but I think we can find common ground. Trump said he’d be willing to talk to the Russians. Some people might not agree, but I honestly think that it’s movement in the right direction. Look, we’re dealing with two nuclear-armed countries here. No one wants war. Why not talk instead?

Another barista, a pretty young woman, also of partial Russian descent, interjected:

I agree. We could and definitely should get along with the Russians. In fact, we can get along with a lot more countries than we do now. However, in order for that to happen, I honestly think that we need to stop getting involved in everybody else’s business. We need to move beyond the idea of American exceptionalism. Right now, it seems as if everybody is angry at us.

“Buddy Holly” nodded, adding:

Right. We need to talk to countries more. We have to stop all these wars. We need to get our own house in order. We don’t need to import democracy to other countries. They need to learn it on their own.

Like everybody is now talking about these Russian hacks. But didn’t we interfere in their politics? Honestly, I don’t buy the whole story. For one thing, there’s just no proof. It just seems like a way to discredit Trump before he enters the White House. It’s dangerous, though, because these accusations involve a nuclear-armed country.
 


 
Founded in 1893, Otto Moser’s is a Cleveland institution. Located in the heart of Playhouse Square, Cleveland’s theatre district, the deli is renowned for its corned beef sandwiches. It has also been the frequent hub for visiting stage actors and movie stars. Bob Hope, Helen Hayes, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, the Barrymores, and John Philip Sousa all dined at this celebrated restaurant. It was the next stop in my quest to discover what average Americans really thought of the Russians.

Sitting at the bar, I ordered a drink and quickly began a conversation with the waitress, a middle-aged Greek-American lady. As it turned out, she was actually married to a Russian, not surprising in a town where onion-domed Orthodox cathedrals are a common sight. She said:

You know, there are people who still think of the Russians as communists. However, the fact is that they’re not. In fact, they’re trying to move away from all that. What Stalin did was incomprehensible. The Orthodox Church was heavily persecuted in the Soviet Union. You know, I’m Greek and Orthodox and my husband is Russian and Orthodox. When he came to this country, he literally had to re-learn Orthodoxy.

Could the US and Russia get along?

“Well, I sure hope so,” she said. “It’d be better than the alternative.”

Another waitress, an older woman, spoke-up and claimed that she was of Russian descent and that her family was descended from nobility who had fled the 1917 Revolution. She added:

To be frank, I doubt that Putin and Trump are in cahoots. I mean, it’s possible that the Russians did hack the election, but I honestly don’t believe it. If they did, then what’s the big deal? People forget that we influenced their elections! As to the question of us getting along with the Russians, of course we can. We have a long history with Russia, not all of it bad. In general, we should have good relations with all countries. After this election, we seriously need to think about uniting our own country here at home and not get involved in fighting wars overseas.

As she spoke, it began gently snowing outside. A middle-aged African-American gentleman in a fleece who was sitting next to me joined in on the conversation. He was a tall, easygoing, plain-spoken man. A fan of the Buffalo Bulls and a Cleveland native, he was a small business owner and spent much of his time between Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

“What do you think of the Russians?,” I asked. He responded:

I look at the Russians as Russians. We need to see the humanness of the other side, you know what I’m sayin’? That’s how you start makin’ peace between people. Now, the relations between our governments, that’s a different issue. That’s political. Sometimes I think that we can never get along, but you know, we now have a new president in office. He says he’ll fix the relationship. Let’s see what happens.

“What do you think about the allegations of Russia hacking the DNC?”

I don’t buy it, honestly. In general, I don’t trust anything the media or the pundits say. Is there a possibility that the Russians did hack the election? Sure. But honestly, I don’t believe it. Even if they did, it wouldn’t have had a decisive impact on the outcome.

A hair stylist, a middle-aged woman of Syrian Christian background, at Best Cuts in the old Cleveland “streetcar suburb” of Lakewood, echoed this sentiment:

I think we have a chance to get along with the Russians now that we have a new president. I think Trump’s going to work on it. Will he succeed? I don’t know. But I think that the two superpowers should definitely be talking. Russia is a powerful, nuclear-armed country. You want them to be on your side, especially because there are so many issues that both of our countries could cooperate on. Take Syria. As a Syrian, I can tell you we don’t want Assad out. If Assad goes, ISIS will be in Damascus. I definitely think Syria would be more stable with Assad in.

As for the Russian hacking allegations, I certainly wouldn’t put it past them. However, I think Hillary’s people cooked up the whole thing to discredit Trump.
 


 
Pursuing the Russian trail in Columbus

I continued my quest for answers in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, again, taking notes as the respondents spoke. On the morning of 10 January 2017, I had breakfast at the Hangovereasy, a popular diner in Columbus, especially among university students. At the bar, I ordered a cup of coffee and struck up a conversation with the bartender, a big, bearded middle-aged man of mixed German-Greek descent with an easygoing demeanor. I asked him: Can we get along with Russia? He responded while cashing out an order at the register:

Why not get along? I know that the war hawks don’t want any cooperation with the Russians. But honestly, we need to get along with them. After all, they’re a large country with nuclear weapons.

I also think that if more people actually got to know actual Russians, then things would calm down. I knew Russians when I used to work out in LA. They’re good people, man. I mean, I never saw them as ‘enemies.’ They never were rude or demanding or anything like that. They ran this wonderful Russian coffee shop. They actually reminded me of people from the Middle East. Like, you know Lebanese or Syrian immigrants. Very good, entrepreneurial people.

They’re very generous too. You know, this one Russian guy in LA actually gave me a complete Bose stereo set. Just gave ‘em to me, man! They were sweet, but, in the end, I had to sell them in order to move back to Ohio with my girlfriend. So, yeah, I think if there was more interaction between Russians and Americans as people, things would get much better.

You know, there’s a lot of fear going around now, especially now with all these stories you see in the media about the Russian hacks. Honestly, I think it’s all BS. I mean, the Russians could have influenced the election, but even if they did, I doubt they determined it. I think it was all made-up by the Hillary faction of the Democrats. They’re just sore losers and have a hard time accepting the results. Hey, when you screw over working people and rig the election against Bernie, that’s what you get. I’m sorry. You know how it is here in Ohio. Our jobs have been shipped overseas. And they just expect us to vote for them? I don’t think so.

And you know what? There’s fear on the other side too. My Russian friends in LA once told me that, back in Russia, all the news stories about the US were about war. Now, that could be because the government influences the media, but it also could be because we’re involved in so many wars overseas. We really need to start worrying about our own problems in this country and drop the “I’m #1” mentality that gets us into all these wars.

After breakfast, I walked to a nearby construction site on the OSU campus. Here I encountered a group of workers on break. What did they think of the Russians?

“We have to deal with them,” said one of them. “They’re a big superpower with nuclear weapons. That’s the reality. Yeah, I know they’re talking about all these hacking stories about the Russians. Honestly, I don’t believe it. I think it’s the media trying to make Trump look bad. And I don’t know what our trade with Russia is like, but we need good trade deals in this country that benefit American workers, not corporate interests.”

“I’m in favor of any relationship that’s mutually beneficial,” said another worker, the equipment manager. He was an older gentleman with a thick grayish beard. “Maybe Russia’s got something that we want. Maybe we’ve got something that the Russians want. I’m all for trade and exchange, but it’s also gotta be fair and equal. We have too much unequal trade. Ohio jobs have been shipped overseas. You go to the store and everything is made in China, Taiwan, Mexico, or other countries. It used to be made in the US!”

“What do you think of the Russian hacking allegations?,” I asked.

“I think it’s a bunch of BS,” the man said as he smiled with a twitch of his thick mustache. “There’s no proof. It’s just one party wanting to get revenge on the other party.”
 


 
My final stop in Columbus was Adriatico’s Pizza. Established in 1986, it is one of the most renowned pizza places in Columbus. I posed my question to the waitresses: can we get along with the Russians?

“It depends who the leadership is,” responded one of the waitresses. “Honestly, I think Putin is conning Trump. I mean, sure, it makes sense to have good relations and it is possible, but I think the Russians are playing games with us. I’m not sure what’s driving these recent tensions – nuclear weapons or oil.”

“I don’t see why we can’t get along,” interrupted another waitress. “Look, we don’t see eye-to-eye with the Russians on everything, but you know the adage ‘keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.’ We need to talk to them even if we disagree. Who knows? Perhaps we can become friends on some issues. We don’t want more enemies. I know that there are politicians in Washington who want more war, but I don’t.”

“I doubt we can have good relations,” said a third waitress. “We have different values. Our governments are completely opposite. For one thing, the Russians are tough and mean. They’ve become hardened by communism and World War II. Now they’re hacking into our elections. Trump was involved in that. After all, he’s friends with Putin.”

“Do you know that for a fact?”

“I dunno. That’s what they said on TV.”

Finally, I spoke to one of the head managers of Adriatico’s, a slim gentleman of 40 years with jet black hair. Could we get along, I asked? He responded:

Optimistically, yeah, I think we can get along. I mean we’re dealing with two nuclear superpowers here who can destroy the earth many times over. And yes, Russia is a superpower. They had their falling off for a little bit there, but now they’re back. We have to accept that reality.

I remember when I was a kid 33 years ago and I watched The Day After on TV with my folks. This was up in my hometown of Tiffin, Ohio. We were a blue-collar family. My dad worked for a foundry. But man, I’ll never forget The Day After. Now that was scary! I mean, what are you? 25, 28 years-old? You don’t know what it was like in 1983. It was really scary. And The Day After was almost real, that’s what made it even scarier. I remember it being late at night, later than my usual bedtime, and watching the mushroom cloud on TV. I’ll never forget that mushroom cloud. I couldn’t even finish watching it.

Now, look, I’m a 40-year-old man. I have a four-year-old son. I don’t want him to grow-up in fear. And, look, from what I understand, we’ve got fear on both sides. Okay, so Americans think Russia is scary, but aren’t the Russians also afraid of us? I’d rather believe in a global society, where the US can talk with all countries – especially Russia.

The Russo-Abkhaz Treaty and Russo-Georgian Relations

Raul Khajimba and Vladimir Putin after signing the Russo-Abkhaz treaty of "alliance and strategic cooperation" in Sukhumi. (Kremlin.ru)

Raul Khajimba and Vladimir Putin after signing the Russo-Abkhaz treaty of “alliance and strategic cooperation” in Sukhumi. (Kremlin.ru)

Last week, on 24 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Sukhumi, the capital of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. There he met with Abkhazia’s de facto President Raul Khamjiba and together they signed a treaty of “alliance and strategic partnership.” Putin also pledged to grant Sukhumi over $200 million in aid from Moscow.

The signed treaty prompted protests from the Georgian government calling it a “step toward a de facto annexation” of Abkhazia. Tbilisi has also called for international support. Evidently heeding that call, the US, the EU, and NATO all issued statements claiming that “it did not recognize” the treaty. The Western-backed government of Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine followed suit. Yet, statements like these are not likely to phase Moscow, which has recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state since the 2008 South Ossetia war. It is concluding the treaty in response to a potential NATO presence in Georgia.

The Russo-Abkhaz agreement was essentially a watered down version of an earlier draft treaty of “alliance and integration” proposed by Moscow. The text of that treaty envisioned a much more intensive relationship and would have represented a total integration of Abkhazia into Russia. The Abkhaz rejected this earlier draft, protesting that it “infringed on their sovereignty.” Instead, they proposed their own version.

Abkhaz Revolution, 2014 (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Mokrushkin)

Abkhaz Revolution, 2014 (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Mokrushkin)

The new treaty signed on 24 November brings together elements of both the Russian original and the proposal by the Abkhaz. On the whole, the final version is less focused on intensive integration and more focused on a military alliance and cooperation between Russia and Abkhazia.  Still, this has not prevented continued opposition to the treaty within Abkhazia, largely from the Amtsakhara party. Those opposed are motivated in part against the treaty, and in even larger part against President Khajimba who played a key role in the Abkhaz Revolution that overthrew President Aleksandr Ankvab in May.

Responding to charges that the treaty represented an “annexation” of Abkhazia by Russia, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin stated that the treaty “is not about any annexation whatsoever. This is a completely transparent document, which is about broadening of interaction in actually all the areas in order to reinforce the common security space. This far-fetched thesis about having some kind of plans about annexation, absorption and expansion – that has to be referred to those people, who are behind the [EU] Eastern Partnership program.”

The Russo-Abkhaz treaty is an effective response by Moscow to the recent NATO aid package that was recently granted to Georgia. That package was granted to Tbilisi in place of a proposed NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for which Georgia’s pro-Western former Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, had been lobbying.  The MAP was vetoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  It would have signaled Georgia’s first step toward NATO membership.

The new package that Georgia did receive contained promises to hold “occasional NATO exercises” in Georgia and to have a NATO training facility on Georgian soil. In this context, the Russo-Abkhaz pact was hardly a surprise. Russia made it very clear that it will not tolerate the expansion of NATO into the non-Baltic former Soviet space.

Former Georgian Defense Minister Alasania with former US Defense Secretary Hagel and US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland. (DefenseImagery.mil)

Former Georgian Defense Minister Alasania with former US Defense Secretary Hagel and US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland. (DefenseImagery.mil)

Further, the Abkhaz and the Ossetes regard a potential Georgian NATO membership as a threat to their security.  In this respect, the total pursuit of NATO by Tbilisi’s then-Defense Minister Alasania was viewed in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as another attempt by Georgia to retake their regions by force. Despite reassurances by pragmatists in Georgia’s government that NATO was “not directed against anyone,” the Abkhaz and the Ossetes saw it as “proof” that “nothing had changed” in Tbilisi.  High-level visits to Georgia by top Western defense officials, like NATO commander Breedlove and now-former US Defense Secretary Hagel, which were hosted by Alasania, did not help.

To make matters worse, Moscow’s concern about a potential NATO presence in Georgia was openly rebuffed by Alasania. Not only did Alasania dismiss Moscow’s concerns outright, but also proceeded to say that Russia was the “only big threat to the region,” given its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its “aggression against Ukraine.” Further, he said that Tbilisi would never “bow” to a “diktat” from Moscow when it came to establishing NATO bases on Georgian soil. The comments sparked indignation in Moscow and embarrassment in Tbilisi.

The controversial draft treaty of “alliance and integration” was proposed by Moscow only a few days later. It received a strongly negative reaction and outcry from Tbilisi.  Some called the proposal a “de facto annexation of Abkhazia.” Sukhumi also reacted negatively to it. Though Moscow expressed official “surprise” at the latter, in fact it was probably expecting that reaction. The intensive integration as envisioned in the initial draft was likely intended to wake up Tbilisi to the significance of Russia’s concerns regarding NATO.

At his meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Georgia’s Moscow envoy, Zurab Abashidze, expressed Tbilisi’s concerns with regard to the proposed treaty. Karasin responded that the proposed treaty only concerned Abkhazia and Russia.  Further, he added, if Tbilisi was interested in peace in the region, it would tone down the rhetoric.

Irakli Alasania (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Irakli Alasania (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Shortly thereafter, the hawkish Alasania was embroiled in a major political scandal in Georgia. This culminated in his dismissal by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and the split of Alasania’s hardline Free Democrats from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Though there were concerns with regard to a potential political crisis, the government managed to avert this. Ministers who threatened to resign were persuaded by Garibashvili to stay, while the Georgian Dream not only retained its majority in parliament, but also expanded it. The scandal concluded when former Prime Minister, Georgian Dream patron and billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, gave a public interview in light of the scandal, emphasizing that a crisis had been averted.

Still, the Alasania scandal and the split of the hawkish pro-Western Free Democrats left an impact on Georgian politics that is still reverberating. In addition to this, the ruling coalition also faces ongoing tensions with Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). The UNM has made no secret of its contempt for the democratically-elected Georgian Dream and its desire to unlawfully overthrow it in a Maidan-style revolution. Such a scenario would be disastrous for Georgia, and many in the Georgian government realize this, especially with memories of the tragic 1990s Georgian civil war still fresh on the minds of many people.

Yet this has not deterred Saakashvili. From Kiev, he addressed supporters via live video at a recent anti-Russian rally in Tbilisi against the “annexation” of Abkhazia.  The Tbilisi-born, urban-educated Saakashvili then insulted Ivanishvili’s peasant roots and provocatively alluded to a possible Maidan scenario for Georgia. In a separate speech in Kiev, Saakashvili bombastically declared, in a racially charged statement, that Moscow was the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.” The controversial ex-President is currently wanted by Georgia and has been recently indicted for obstructing justice in the high-profile Sandro Girgvliani murder case.  However, this evidently has not prevented Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko from considering Saakashvili for the post of Ukraine’s new Deputy Prime Minister.

Davit Usupashvili (Reuters)

Davit Usupashvili (Reuters)

The ruling Georgian Dream also faces internal tensions with the Republican faction of its coalition. Headed by Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, the Republicans represent the last major bastion of pro-Western hardliners within the Georgian Dream. They opposed the pragmatist position on the question of the Interior Ministry’s access to surveillance. The pragmatist-backed bill presented in parliament, favored by Prime Minister Garibashvili, proposed allowing the Interior Ministry to have direct access to networks of telecommunications service providers with the purpose of conducting court-approved communications monitoring.

Instead, Republican MP Vakhtang Khmaladze proposed a competing bill which would deprive the Interior Ministry of all direct access to telecom networks.  In addition, the Republican bill sought to transfer network access to the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC).  However, the GNCC appeared unwilling to get involved and to assume this responsibility.

The debate was significant because the right of surveillance and direct access to telecom networks would allow the Interior Ministry to effectively prevent illegal wiretapping and to combat any potential threats against Georgia’s state institutions. Garibashvili commented on the importance of a strong Interior Ministry, maintaining that “personally for me, stronger Interior Ministry means strong state and my slogan is the strong Interior Ministry, the strong state, the strong Georgian special services [security and intelligence agencies] – this is the prerequisite of our country’s success, progress, development and strength.”

Notably, the pro-Western Republicans were not the only group who opposed the bill. Western-backed NGOs and the opposition Free Democrats and UNM also shared the position of the Republicans. At the same time, Alasania remains a bitter rival of Saakashvili, while Usupashvili is unlikely to leave the ruling coalition any time soon, despite signs of a growing rift.

Irakli Garibashvili (InterPress News Agency)

Irakli Garibashvili (InterPress News Agency)

The bill backed by Garibashvili and the pragmatists passed with 75 votes in favor, much to Garibashvili’s relief.  However, the pragmatist bill was also subject to a veto by President Margvelashvili who suggested amendments to it.  Margvelashvili’s veto was less about his concerns regarding the debate than it was about him demonstrating his presidential power.  His moved caused frustration in parliament with both the pragmatists and the pro-Western hardliners.  In the end, the veto was overridden by parliament.  Though the UNM declared that they would not participate in the vote to override the veto, two UNM members, Samvel Petrosyan and Koba Subeliani, voted in favor of overriding it.

Working to enhance his position amid these recent developments, Garibashvili has also recently “moved to the right,” becoming more vocal in his support for European integration, alarming overtly pro-Moscow politicians like Nino Burjanadze. In Brussels recently, Garibashvili visited EU and NATO officials pledging Tbilisi’s total commitment to its “European choice.” NATO has sought to have Georgia implement its aid package by February. Such an implementation is likely to complicate dialogue with Russia and place Tbilisi in an even more difficult and precarious position.

Garibashvili has also been vocal in the signing of the final Russo-Abkhaz treaty, calling it a “step toward annexation.” Yet it should be emphasized that Garibashvili and other pragmatists in Tbilisi are committed to continued dialogue with Moscow.  In fact, Garibashvili recently reaffirmed this commitment publicly and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reciprocated it. It is also likely that Garibashvili still firmly believes that Russia is not genuinely interested in annexing the breakaways, as he stated in an interview with the BBC in June. Tellingly, Moscow did not protest his statements on Georgia’s Euro integration, indicating that it understands to some degree Tbilisi’s difficult situation.

Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma Committee for International Affairs, noted that he understands “when the opposition, which represents the interests of Mikhail Saakashvili who wanted to come back to Georgia, use [the issue of Abkhazia] to put pressure on the government.”  At the same time, he emphasized that the Georgian government should not allow the issue of Abkhazia to dominate the agenda of Russo-Georgian relations.  Such a move, he maintained, “could lead to the elimination of the positive impulses which have been reached previously and which meet the real interests of Georgian citizens, the Georgian economy. They simply make Georgia’s life easier, and we welcome them, as we want normalization of relations with Georgia. I think a struggle against the situation won’t lead anywhere but a new crisis of Georgian-Russian relations. Georgia won’t benefit from it, and we don’t want it either.”

Overall, it is clear that the only solution to the ongoing deadlock between Georgia, its breakaways, and Moscow is direct dialogue.  “As far as relations between Russia and Georgia are concerned,” said Grigory Karasin, “we are now making practical steps in order to build interaction in those areas, where it is possible in the condition of absence of diplomatic relations. Such efforts are underway and it will continue.”

Zurab Abashidze (BBC World News)

Zurab Abashidze (BBC World News)

Karasin’s Georgian counterpart, Zurab Abashidze, has likewise commented that dialogue with Russia “must not cease to exist.” He further noted, “we do not have diplomatic relations with this state. All countries around the globe, including long-suffered Ukraine, are involved in some kind of relations with Russia. As a matter of fact, they have not even broken their diplomatic relations with this country.”

One way to move the dialogue forward would be to achieve the one-on-one meeting between Putin and the Georgian leadership, an idea that Putin himself proposed during the Sochi Olympics in February. This could set the stage for the restoration of diplomatic ties.

In addition, there are confidence-building measures that can be fulfilled toward finding a peaceful solution to the situation. Though under-reported in the Western press, Putin also gave his support for the reopening of the Abkhaz railway during his visit to Sukhumi. This is very significant because it means that, in addition to Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Sukhumi, Moscow now officially supports the reopening of the railway. Consequently, there is now a regional consensus on the issue and a potential blueprint for a way forward.  Abkhazia’s Raul Khajimba even stated that “the Georgians should be interested in restoration of the Abkhazian railway themselves” and encouraged Tbilisi to give a greater official impetus to start the process.

Tbilisi is now indeed in a good position to do so.  With Alasania gone and the surveillance bill passed, Georgia’s pragmatists are now in a relatively strong position.  First and foremost motivated by love of country with Georgia’s best national interests at heart, they can proceed with continued dialogue with the breakaways and Moscow, regardless of any obstacles. Still, they must be cautious.  If they can succeed, then a united Georgian republic can prosper once again.

UPDATE (2 December 2014): Saakashvili reportedly declined Poroshenko’s offer for the post of Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister.  Specifically, the former Georgian President cited the fact that, if granted Ukrainian citizenship, this would cause him to lose his Georgian citizenship.  He does not want this to happen due to his continued political ambitions in Georgia.

Significantly, several of Saakashvili’s former cabinet members have been tipped as possible Poroshenko appointees, including Georgia’s former Healthcare Minister Aleksandr Kvitashvili and former Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze.  Both will reportedly be appointed as Ukraine’s new Healthcare and Deputy Interior Ministers respectively.  Former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, who, like Saakashvili, faces criminal charges in Georgia, is yet another prospective government appointee.

Official Tbilisi reacted negatively to these potential appointments, part of a broader effort by Poroshenko to bring foreigners into the Ukrainian government and grant them citizenship through special decrees.  The move reportedly sparked controversy and criticism in Ukraine.

Getting Kennan Right

George F. Kennan, Heidelberg, Germany, 1952 (Getty)

George F. Kennan, Heidelberg, Germany, 1952 (Getty)

In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, the American academic Alexander Motyl called on Western governments to review George F. Kennan’s case for the “containment” of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Specifically, Motyl contends that Kennan’s containment strategy represents an “adequate policy response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”

The trouble with that argument is that if Kennan were alive today, he would most certainly disagree with such an interpretation of his work. In fact, he would likely see the present-day evocation of his Cold War strategy as yet another perversion of his original intent (to note, Kennan also did not intend “containment” to mean a military buildup as it was interpreted in Washington during the outset of the Cold War).

In the late 1990s, the US broke its unwritten promise to Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, not to expand NATO “one inch” beyond East Germany. Instead, Washington supported the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into NATO. A realist, Kennan strongly opposed that move as a major error of US foreign policy, and emphasized that its consequences would be dangerous and would not lead to anything good.

However, his advice was ignored by the US political elite, which sought to expand NATO not only into the former Warsaw Pact states and the ex-Soviet Baltic republics, but also into Ukraine and Georgia. Kennan did not live long enough to see the disastrous 2008 South Ossetia war in Georgia, though if he had, he would have likely seen it as a vindication of his earlier warnings against the dangerous policy of NATO expansion. He would likewise view the current crisis in Ukraine as further proof of this.

On a more fundamental level, Kennan was also highly critical of the US policy of “democracy promotion” in the ex-Soviet space. Even during the depths of the Cold War, he believed that if communism ever did fall in Russia, Washington “should let Russians be Russians” and allow democracy to develop in Russia and the former USSR endogenously as opposed to getting involved. Once again, Kennan’s advice was ignored. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, American economists actively assisted the wild “shock therapy” privatization in Russia, while Washington gave then-president Yeltsin its full, unconditional support.

Thus, if the West is serious about formulating a solid Russia policy and about resolving the crisis in Ukraine, it needs to get Kennan right by looking beyond the discourse of containment and exploring his other foreign policy positions. Adhering to his advice would be the first step toward serious de-escalation.

What the Alasania Scandal Means for Russo-Georgian Relations

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Georgia’s recent scandal involving former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is now winding down.

The government managed to avert a crisis. Not only did they succeed in retaining their majority in parliament but also expanded it. The addition of independent MPs and defectors from Alasania’s camp have increased the Georgian Dream’s share of seats to 87, even higher than the original 83 prior to the Alasania scandal. This not only averted a potential new parliamentary election, but also now gives the Georgian Dream a comfortable and secure majority.

In addition, the vacant ministerial posts have been filled. Prime Minister Garibashvili has also selected Tamar Beruchashvili as the new Foreign Minister. He also appointed Georgia’s former ambassador to Greece, Davit Bakradze (not to be confused with the Saakashvili political ally and former presidential candidate) as the country’s new Euro Integration Minister.

Yet, a significant question continues to linger: does the scandal indicate a Georgian U-turn toward Moscow? The simple answer is “not anytime soon.”

A potential Georgian U-turn seemed more likely in late 2013 and early 2014, as Saakashvili left office. At that time, Georgia had not yet signed the EU Association Agreement and was scheduled to do so in far-off August. There were also emerging signs of a growing thaw between Moscow and Tbilisi, culminating in Vladimir Putin’s invitation to President Giorgi Margvelashvili during the Sochi Winter Olympics for a one-on-one meeting.

However, the rapprochement was disrupted by the Ukraine crisis. The West redoubled its efforts to bring Georgia into its fold, by moving up the signing of the Association Agreement in June, by granting Tbilisi more EU aid money, and by persuading the formerly pro-Putin Georgian Orthodox Patriarch to become pro-EU.  The fear of a possible Georgian Maidan and the tragic legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia also loom large in the thoughts of Georgia’s pragmatists.

Therefore, a potential Georgian U-turn toward Moscow appears unlikely, at least for the time being. Also, much is contingent on how developments progress in Ukraine and if the cash-strapped, pro-Western government in Kiev can last.

Still, the departure of Alasania’s Free Democrats and the government’s comfortable majority in parliament certainly does grant more maneuvering room for dealing with Moscow. Specifically, this gives the government a mandate for expanding relations with Russia beyond trade and economic spheres.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

For now, this will not mean that Georgia will abandon its pursuit of the EU and NATO, though without Alasania, such efforts will become less strident and aggressive. Likewise, it will not signal an immediate mutually acceptable solution to the longstanding Abkhaz and Ossetian conflicts.

However, the new situation does create the conditions for the dormant high-level meeting proposed by Putin in Sochi to be realized, and for diplomatic ties to be restored between both countries. It will also allow for a greater dialogue between Tbilisi and its breakaways and for the realization of important confidence-building measures vital to future peace. For South Ossetia, this includes a possible reopening of the Ergneti market and, for Abkhazia, a possible reopening of the Abkhaz railway. The Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba has already offered his support for the latter.

Some may contest the idea that Tbilisi would ever consider a serious rapprochement with Moscow. The Georgians, they argue, are simply too proud and nationalistic to let this happen. The Russians too, they would contend, would be unwilling to accept anything less than the total capitulation of Tbilisi, including its full recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

However, such arguments are purely impressionistic, based on long-standing ethnic stereotypes played up by the media. In reality, there is nothing in the “Georgian national character” that makes all Georgians, by fate of their ethnic origins, inherently “nationalistic,” “Russophobic,” or “reckless.” Likewise the Russians are not “uncompromising, stubborn imperialists.” In fact, Russia has a history of flexibility, compromise, and openness – provided that its interests and international law and procedure are respected.

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

In fact, the facts reveal a different story from the mainstream narrative. The vast majority of Georgians want to restore relations with Russia. According to a poll by Georgia’s Kviris Palitra newspaper, 59.4% of Georgians favor continuing the Abashidze-Karasin format. Only 19.7% opposed it, while 20.9% were unsure. The poll was conducted very recently, in October 2014 during the controversy over Russia’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. At that time, Georgia’s more hawkish politicians wanted to scrap the Abashidze-Karasin format entirely.

In addition, a good portion of Georgians also favor membership in the Eurasian Union. In 2013, the pro-Western Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) asked Georgians whether or not they supported membership of their country in the Eurasian Union. The results showed that 32% said “yes,” 24% said “no,” 27% said that they “don’t know” while a further 17% support some aspects of it but not others. If one adds the latter figure with the 32% in support, the total actually emerges as 49%.

Another poll from the Kazakh-based Eurasian Development Bank from this year (2014) found support for the Eurasian Union among 53% of Georgia’s population. For comparison, support for the Eurasian Union in Armenia was 64%, while in Azerbaijan, it was 22%. A much earlier poll by Gallup conducted in 2008 found strong support in Georgia for deeper cooperation among the CIS countries. Overall, 11% favored a “single state,” while another 11% favored a “federal state,” and 32% favored an “economic union” for a total of 54% of the population. Meanwhile, 30% favored cooperation as independent states and 16% were “unsure.” In percentages comparable to the 2014 Kazakhstan poll, the total percentages of those who supported integration either as a single state, a federation, or an economic union, was 63% in Armenia and 28% in Azerbaijan.

Taking into account these significant findings, if one were to attach the incentive of a potential Russian-backed peace deal for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would be difficult to imagine support for Moscow’s Eurasian Union not growing. In fact, it would likely increase substantially.

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by a supporter after his election as Georgia's president. (AP)

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by one of his supporters after his election as Georgia’s president. (AP)

In the case of the first two polls from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, a consistent trend can be discerned. The majority of Georgians favor restored ties with Moscow, a significant number are still “unsure,” while a minority favors a total rejection of all things Russian. If one observes Georgia’s latest election (i.e., the presidential election of 2013), one finds a similar breakdown. Margvelashvili, the pro-Georgian Dream candidate, acquired 62.12% of the votes while the overtly pro-Moscow Nino Burjanadze received 10.19% of the votes. Together, this makes approximately 72.31% of the vote. Davit Bakradze, the UNM candidate, only acquired 21.72% of the vote. Therefore, one can conclude from the election results, combined with the polling data from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, that the section of the Georgian electorate that is Russophobic, nationalistic, and overtly pro-Western, represents only 20-25% of the total Georgian electorate.

However, within Georgia’s political and intellectual elite, the influence of this group grows significantly. This is enhanced by the fact that, in the 2012 parliamentary election, which was conducted while Saakashvili was still in office, the UNM still gained 40% of the vote, allowing them to maintain significant influence in the Georgian parliament. In addition, the two major pro-Western opposition blocs, the UNM and the Free Democrats, both have backers and supporters in the West, especially among the American political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Further, they are also supported by American-backed NGOs working in Georgia.

There have also been earlier polls, conducted by Gallup, that showed tendencies in the general Georgian society indicating continued admiration, respect, and positive attitudes toward Russia. On the eve of the 2008 war in Georgia, Gallup found that 41% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA.” Another 41% volunteered the response that “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and USA.” Only 11% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia.”

To the question “which country in the former Soviet space do you admire and look up to most of all?,” 40% responded “Russia,” 29% “Ukraine,” and the remainder other countries. In addition, 64% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.”

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

These very friendly attitudes soured after the 2008 war. In the subsequent poll conducted in 2009 by Gallup, only 47% agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.” 37% agreed that “Georgia has to have a principal position regarding Russia.” Significantly, only 5% agreed with “terminating all relations with Russia,” which is effectively the policy that Mikheil Saakashvili pursued after the war and which the UNM continues to support today.

The number of those who agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA” dropped to 28%. Meanwhile those who agreed that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia” increased to 24%.

Inquiring about the EU, Gallup determined that in 2008, only 14% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the EU even if this can harm relations with Russia.” This increased in 2009 to 27%. Meanwhile, 33% said “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the EU.” This decreased to 22% in 2009. Finally, 44% of Georgians volunteered “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and EU.” This decreased to 34% in 2009.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

It is indisputable that the development of these new attitudes was affected by the war and by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, it is also worth noting that people in Georgia became increasingly more afraid to express their opinions openly as Saakashvili’s regime became increasingly more authoritarian. According to Gallup, in 2012, only 17% of the population agreed with the statement that “no one is afraid to express their opinion.” This shot up to 40% in 2013, after the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party.

For his part, Saakashvili’s approval rating in Georgia stood at a mere 22% in 2012 according to Gallup. The approval rating was exactly the same in August 2014, according to a later poll conducted by the CRRC for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The figure again corresponds to the fact that about 20-25% of the Georgian electorate supports a tougher line toward Russia. Significantly, the latter poll also found that 73% of Georgians are presently dissatisfied with the current state of relations with Russia and that 65% supported the reopening of the Abkhaz railway. In another more recent CRRC poll, 91% of the Georgian population indicated that they still speak Russian as a second language, despite Saakashvili’s efforts to supplement this with English. For comparison in Armenia, 97% speak Russian as a second language while in Azerbaijan, 73% speak Russian.

Still, as of August 2014, support for the EU and NATO remains high in Georgia at 78% and 72% respectively according to the CRRC’s NDI poll. This is despite the fact that, in a typical post-Soviet manner, many Georgians also support membership in the Eurasian Union. Indeed, many would claim to support “both,” especially in the regions. In the case of the EU, the majority (58%) believe that eventual membership will improve the Georgian economy. However, it must be emphasized again that the “vision” of Europe and the reality of Europe are very much different. Brussels is still recovering from the Eurozone crisis and it is unlikely that, if Georgia were to eventually join the EU, it would see any immediate economic benefit, as was the case with the bloc’s newest Eastern European members – Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia.

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine (Eurasia Travel)

Yet, as far as the EU and NATO are concerned, membership in these organizations is not a priority for most Georgians. In fact, in their view, Georgia’s main priorities are unemployment, poverty, pensions, and healthcare reform, as well as fixing relations with Russia and resolving the Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues. According to the CRRC’s NDI poll, only 10% regard NATO as a priority while 2% regard the EU as a priority. Additionally, according to the same poll, about 40% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Georgia is not going anywhere” and about 70% consider their job status to be “unemployed.”  Under the present government, more action has been taken to meet these needs.  In Kakheti province, the center of the Georgian wine-making and grape cultivation, Garibashvili was well-received as he told local farmers, “in the last two years, our government planted four hectares of vineyards as an incentive for the peasants, while Saakashvili forced the peasants to cut down with their own hands the vineyards, which even Shah Abbas or other very cruel conquerors did not do.”

In general, all of this information illustrates that a significant pro-Russian sentiment does exist among the Georgian populace, regardless of claims to the contrary. Such support is most likely concentrated in the regions where poverty and unemployment remain widespread and where nostalgia for Soviet times persists. Consequently, if Georgia were to move toward Russia, concurrently with a Moscow-backed peace deal on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is conceivable that the “silent majority” of Georgians would support the government. Therefore, the major concern for the government would not be the majority of the people, but rather the pro-Western hardliners in the political elite and their supporters.

In this regard, Tbilisi’s pragmatists face major challenges. Constant threats from Saakashvili and the UNM to launch a Georgian Maidan are being taken very seriously by the government. To a Georgian, such threats are especially troubling, given the legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia. If something like this were to happen, it would be a disaster for Georgia domestically and would seriously jeopardize very critical efforts at reconciliation with the Abkhaz and Ossetes. The stakes are high.

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

In this context, the government was especially cautious and restrained during the UNM’s recent rally against the proposed Russo-Abkhaz “Alliance and Integration” treaty that took place in Tbilisi on 15 November. Thousands of protestors attended the rally, some carrying anti-Putin placards and signs that read “Abkhazia and Samachablo [a Georgian nationalist term for South Ossetia] are Georgia.”  Addressing the rally via live video from Kiev, Mikheil Saakashvili told the crowds that there were two Georgias: “our Georgia” and “Ivanishvili’s Georgia.” Insulting Ivanishvili’s Imeretian peasant roots, Tbilisi-born Saakashvili bombastically declared that Ivanishvili’s “dream Georgia” is a “small, insignificant village that should not have regional ambitions” and that is “run by a provincial dictator.” He further provocatively drew parallels between the Georgian government and the government of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

All of this has underscored the need for extreme caution and prudence by the Georgian government.  Prime Minister Garibashvili perhaps said it best in a statement on 14 November, a day before the UNM rally:

I do not think that anyone can overlook the tightrope Georgia is walking today. Radicalism is absolutely unacceptable and inadmissible in our country today. Any step other than a peaceful, prudent, and pragmatic policy may lead us to grave consequences. Imprudent actions and radicalism led Georgia to the 2008 war. This must serve as an example to everyone; we cannot build our decision making upon emotions.

Georgia: Crisis Averted

Georgia's embattled former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania

Georgia’s embattled former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.

This week sparks flew in Georgian politics. A corruption case, that involved high level officials in the Georgian Defense Ministry, culminated in the dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

Regarded as a pro-Western hardliner within the context of the Georgian Dream, Alasania had uneasy relations with the rest of the ruling coalition. These date back to at least January 2013 when Alasania was demoted from the post of First Deputy Prime Minister by then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili also favored Giorgi Margvelashvili for the post-Saakashvili presidency, passing up Alasania’s long-time ambition for that post. Disagreements emerged between Alasania and Ivanishvili on the future political course of Georgia, with Alasania favoring a strong presidential system and Ivanishvili favoring a parliamentary one. A pragmatist interested in resetting ties with Russia, Ivanishvili also did not trust Alasania due to the latter’s more hawkish stance on relations with Moscow.

Following this, the ruling coalition continued to face tensions with Alasania, who practically managed the Defense Ministry as his own autonomous structure. This deprived the pragmatists in the ruling coalition of control of a critical institution, which Alasania used to push Georgia toward a renewed confrontation with Moscow. Among other things, Alasania played host to visits from major American security figures like Defense Secretary Hagel and NATO commander Breedlove. Such moves, together with the recent granting to Georgia of a “NATO aid package,” further alienated Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Above all, they aggravated and antagonized Russia, which regards NATO expansion as a threat to regional security.

Alasania reviews the troops (Voice of America)

Alasania reviews the troops (Voice of America)

When Moscow officially expressed its concern about a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus on 9 October, Alasania responded that same day, claiming that Russia and its “aggression against Ukraine” represented the only “big threat” to the region. He further stated that Tbilisi would never “bow” to a “diktat” from Moscow over establishing NATO training facilities on Georgian soil.

Such remarks likely embarrassed pragmatists in the ruling coalition who seek improved relations with Russia. When asked by reporters whether or not he agreed with Alasania’s statements, Prime Minister Garibashvili only responded, “Alasania and [his political ally] Petriashvili are members of our government.”

Moscow’s response to the rhetoric was to enhance ties with Georgia’s breakaways and to propose a controversial treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. The text of the proposed treaty sparked negative reactions in Georgia and Abkhazia. It also communicated to Tbilisi that if it did not take Moscow’s concerns with NATO seriously, then it may lose any remaining chance at reconciliation with the Abkhaz permanently.

The corruption cases against the Defense Ministry officials and the subsequent political scandal occurred within this context. However, the rhetoric of Alasania against the government, claiming that the prosecutions represented an “attack” on Georgia’s European integration, was the breaking point.

Irakli Garibashvili

Irakli Garibashvili

This was more than the pragmatists could bear. Prime Minister Garibashvili sacked Alasania and replaced him with Mindia Janelidze.  In his subsequent remarks, Garibashvili harshly and openly criticized the former Defense Minister as a “traitor” and as an “adventurer, stupid and ambitious.” He added:

Personally for me what Alasania has done is a betrayal of the October 1, 2012 victory [of the Georgian Dream in the parliamentary elections]. This is yet another attempt to deceive the Georgian people – he has done it more than once previously and our population will see it, they will see many surprises.

…We are not afraid of adventurers like Alasania… and we will of course easily overcome these absurd obstacles. What he has done, which was done in Saakashvili’s style, raises many questions.

…I want to firmly state to our population that we are the strong state, we are united, strong government and our strength is demonstrated in our democracy; our institutions work properly and there will be no obstacles either in the government or in the Parliament. There is no threat of crisis whatsoever. We will have strong majority in the Parliament and the government will continue to work with more efficiency.

On the other hand it’s not bad – the sooner such traitor people would have been sidelined from our team, the better for us and our people and the country.

Alasania’s dismissal prompted an official split of his party, the Free Democrats, from the Georgian Dream coalition. It also prompted the resignation of Alasania loyalists Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze (Alasania’s sister-in-law), State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksei Petriashvili, and Georgia’s Representative to NATO Levan Dolidze. Notably, Georgia’s Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, stayed loyal to the ruling coalition, despite rumors that she too might resign given her association with Alasania’s party.

Tamar Beruchashvili (RFE/RL)

Tamar Beruchashvili (RFE/RL)

Initially, some of Panjikidze’s deputy ministers in the Foreign Ministry resigned as well, including Tamar Beruchashvili and Davit Jalagania. However, through person-to-person meetings and swift political maneuvering, Garibashshvili managed to persuade almost all of these deputy ministers to reconsider their decisions and stay loyal to the ruling coalition. The only exception was Davit Zalkaliani, Georgia’s representative for the Geneva talks with Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

It is rumored that Beruchashvili may replace Petriashvili, though Garibashshvili has neither confirmed nor denied this. The position of Foreign Minister also remains vacant. A possible contender for that post might be Georgia’s current envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze. One of the country’s most experienced diplomats, his presence would give Tbilisi more gravitas in international affairs.

The Georgian Dream was also able to retain a majority in parliament, despite speculation from some observers that the resignation of Alasania would prompt a breakup of the coalition and possibly new elections. Instead, three of Alasania’s deputies in parliament have decided to leave Alasania’s Free Democrats and remain part of the Georgian Dream coalition. Conversely one member of the Georgian Dream left the ruling coalition to side with Alasania. Regardless, the addition of the defectors from the Alasania camp and some independent MPs have allowed the Georgian Dream to maintain a majority and prevent a new parliamentary election.

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Overall, Garibashvili’s moves, combined with his continued reassurances on Georgia’s “European course” managed to maintain the stability of the Georgian government and to avert a potential political crisis.  Only one year into his tenure as Prime Minister, the 32-year-old Garibashvili has already begun to come into his own and prove himself to be a truly effective and pragmatic political leader, with Georgia’s best national interests at heart.

Further, Georgian President Margvelashshvili, abroad in Austria, likewise commented on the situation.  Despite prior disagreements with Garibashshvili, he appeared to side with the pragmatists and did not challenge Alasania’s dismissal. For his part, the philosopher-president called for a meeting to be convened to assess the progress of Georgia’s European integration. At the same time, in recent weeks, he has continued to signal interest in a pursuing a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was proposed by Putin himself during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, but still remains unrealized.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania (Interpress News Agency)

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania (Interpress News Agency)

Ivanishvili himself weighed in on the Alasania scandal. On 7 November, he met with Alasania in a closed-door meeting at his business center. The precise details of the discussion were not disclosed, though after the meeting, Alasania stated:

We have exchanged views about the current political situation in the country. It was a very frank conversation. An agreement was reached that we should proceed the political process in a way that will not damage the state – that was mainly the substance of our conversation. We discussed many issues, but it will naturally remain between us.

The departure of Alasania and his Free Democrats has significantly minimized the presence of the hawk faction in Georgia’s ruling coalition. The Republican Party of Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili is now the only remaining hardline group within the coalition. This places Usupashvili in a precarious position.

Davit Usupashvili (Agenda.ge)

Davit Usupashvili (Agenda.ge)

Immediately prior to the split, Usupashvili seems to have attempted a mediation between Alasania and the pragmatists in an effort to prevent this outcome. Commenting on the situation to reporters, he stated that the split was caused by the fact that “all main participants of the process have wittingly or unwittingly hurried up excessively.” He also regretted the departure of Alasania and the Free Democrats as an “important loss.”

Meanwhile, Usupashvili’s wife, Tina Khidasheli, openly criticized Garibashvili’s remarks on Alasania, placing the Parliamentary Speaker in an even more difficult spot. In spite of this, Usupashvili is unlikely to step down from his post for now.  Further, he does not represent a seriously destabilizing factor for the ruling coalition in the way that Alasania did.

Reactions on the Alasania scandal from aboard have varied. In the US, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed “strong concerns” about Alasania’s dismissal and about “political retribution” in Georgia. In Europe, Sweden’s recently dismissed ex-Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, one of the continent’s foremost anti-Russian hawks, warned on Twitter of a “grave political crisis” and that the “path of the country is under threat.” Bildt is not well-liked by the ruling coalition. Earlier this year, Garibashshvili accused him of being part of a “club of Saakashvili’s friends.”

Grigory Karasin (TASS / Valery Sharifulin)

Grigory Karasin (TASS / Valery Sharifulin)

Meanwhile, Moscow has been reportedly watching events unfold with great interest. In an interview with TASS, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin remarked that “resignations taking place in the Georgian government, firstly, modify the government itself and secondly, it is important to understand how it will affect the Georgian government’s course.” He added, “we are watching closely and analyzing these developments.”

It is clear that Alasania’s future in Georgian politics will be greatly reduced. Despite his popular following, Alasania simply does not have the mass backing behind him needed to become a real competitor. Predictably, he completely rejected any cooperation with the opposition United National Movement (UNM), the party of Alasania’s bitter rival, Mikheil Saakashvili. Meanwhile, the prosecutions against the arrested Defense Ministry officials continue and Alasania has not ruled out potential investigations by prosecutors against himself. Overall, it was Alasania’s provocative actions and rhetoric that nearly led Georgia into political crises, both at home and in the region. Tbilisi’s pragmatists can be relieved to see his departure, in addition to seeing a political crisis averted.

UPDATE (9 November 2014): Bidzina Ivanishvili gave an extensive interview to the Georgian Public Broadcaster on 8 November discussing current political events in Georgia, including the Alasania scandal.  For more information on Ivanishvili’s interview, see my full analysis here.