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Georgian Leaders Assess External, Internal Threats

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili claimed that the Kremlin itself is behind rumors of a possible Russian attack.
Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili claimed that the Kremlin itself is behind rumors of a possible Russian attack.
In recent weeks, senior Georgian political figures have made a series of public statements in response to persistent media speculation about a possible new Russian military operation against Georgia. The consensus is that no such attack is likely in the immediate future.

But at the same time, President Mikheil Saakashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili have both hinted over the past week that Russia may seek instead to co-opt Georgian politicians now living in Russia in a bid to fuel domestic political tensions.

Speculation about a new war began in December 2008, largely in response to Russian troop movements in Abkhazia that prompted some Georgian media to predict that Moscow would seek to bring the whole of Georgia under its control before the end of the year.

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, however, on December 15 ruled out a resumption of hostilities "in the immediate future." State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili similarly said on December 25 that while Russia might stage "minor provocations" on the border between the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Georgia proper, it would not launch any "large-scale aggression."

In late February, however, just days after the publication by the Jamestown Foundation of an analysis predicting a new Russian onslaught, Givi Targamadze, the hawkish chairman of the Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee, told journalists that "Russia is clearly preparing for a spring attack."

A second Georgian parliamentary deputy, Goga Gabashvili, similarly affirmed on February 23 that Russia now seeks to finish the task it failed to accomplish in August 2008, and that its "goals are as clear as noon-day," namely, to oust Saakashvili, install a new, pro-Moscow leadership, thwart Georgia's bid for membership of Euro-Atlantic structures, and bring under its controls the pipelines that transport Caspian oil and natural gas via Azerbaijan and Georgia to the West.

But since former Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania issued an ultimatum to Saakashvili on February 23 to schedule a nationwide referendum on whether or not to hold an early presidential election, three top Georgian political figures have downplayed the likelihood of a Russian military attack, while not excluding the possibility that Russia will seek to fuel domestic political unrest.

On February 27, parliament speaker David Bakradze told students that no Russian aggression is expected during the spring of 2009 as Russia is currently too weak. At the same time, Bakradze named several former influential Georgian political figures now living in exile in Russia, including former Ajar leader Aslan Abashidze, who, Bakradze implied, might have an interest in destabilizing Georgia.

Visiting Batumi on March 5, President Saakashvili told journalists that "we do not expect any large-scale aggression" from Russia, but he added that "excessive caution won't do any harm."

Then in a rare television interview on March 6, Interior Minister Merabishvili suggested that the Russian leadership may have deliberately circulated rumors of an impending new war in order to "trigger panic in Georgia and scare off investors."

Merabishvili cited three reasons why he rules out a full-scale Russian attack (as opposed to "minor provocations") "in the near future." The first was the U.S.-Georgia charter signed in early January, which Merabishvili claimed "gives [Georgia] a serious security guarantee." That claim is spurious insofar as the charter is a nonbinding declaration of intent to cooperate in various fields and does not contain any specific commitment by Washington to protect Georgia in the event of an attack. The second was the "deep crisis" currently afflicting the Russian military. And the third was the current level of Russian troop deployment in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

At the same time, Merabishvili inferred that his ministry is aware that unnamed Georgian opposition figures are receiving funding from Russia. Saakashvili had alleged on March 3 that "lots of money" has recently been channeled into Georgian politics, to be used for subversive purposes. Referring to Bakradze's list of potential Russia-based "spoilers," Merabishvili added that "at the same time I want to tell you that these people are not key figures who will finance the Georgian opposition or other provocations that may take place in Georgia; such sponsors will be more serious figures," he added without elaborating.

Unsubstantiated claims that opposition politicians and groups were acting at Moscow's behest served as the rationale ex post facto for the Georgian authorities' brutal crackdown on November 7, 2007, on mostly peaceful opposition demonstrators in Tbilisi.

At least one prominent Georgian opposition politician has also responded with skepticism to the ongoing rumors of an impending new Russian attack. Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who recently founded her own opposition movement and has signaled that she would participate in an early presidential ballot, told journalists on February 24 that the Georgian leadership is playing up the putative Russian threat in order to distract the population from the "catastrophic" economic situation and to blacken the opposition by calling into question its loyalty to Georgia.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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