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Russia 'Punishing' Georgia For NATO Aspirations

The director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, David Kakabadze, was asked for his views on the current situation in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, where Russian and Georgian forces have been fighting since August 8.

RFE/RL: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russia wants to destroy Georgia's democracy, while Russia says it has merely responded to the Georgian troops' offensive. What is your take of the situation?

David Kakabadze: Russia is punishing Georgia for its Western aspirations -- for the declared goal of becoming a member of NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures. In 2006 there was [a Russian] embargo on Georgian goods and I guess the hope of Russian authorities was that Georgia would not be able to economically survive if it loses the Russian market, which was the biggest market for Georgia. It didn't happen and I think they were disappointed by that. The Georgian economy did well by all international assessments, so [the embargo] didn't work for Russia. Months after those moves it became obvious that Georgia was able to survive as a state, as a country, and it has established and even strengthened economic ties with Western countries. And actually Georgia was obliged to do so, and this was the good part of that embargo -- the positive effect of that embargo.

RFE/RL: You suggest that Russia now is trying to prevent Georgia from joining NATO?

Kakabadze: To understand the situation what we have today on the ground it is very important to understand the event of last April when there was a summit of NATO in Bucharest in early April and where Georgia, together with Ukraine, were hoping to get the Membership Action Plan [MAP], which is considered a kind of last step before getting an official invitation to join NATO. Even if the U.S. pushed very strongly, even if some other NATO allies were in favor of giving Georgia and Ukraine the MAP, it didn't happen.

And it didn't happen mainly because of the strong objection from German and French leaders. I don't want to blame anybody for the situation now, but I think that Germany and France should take some responsibility for the things that are happening at the moment in Georgia and around Georgia because Russia took it as a sign that it has free hands now to act and to strengthen its influence in those territories.

If you remember the fact that just 12 days after the Bucharest summit, on April 16, [Vladimir] Putin, then the president of Russia, issued a decree about establishing direct links with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two separatist republics in the territory of Georgia; and then there were other moves, for instance sending so-called additional peacekeepers to Abkhazia, sending railway troops to Abkhazia -- and all these [actions took place] without the consent of the Georgian government, which was in violation of all existing agreements.

And Moscow is particularly unhappy with Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili....

Kakabadze: [Toppling President Mikheil Saakashvili's government] is something Russia is dreaming of. At least, Putin would be very happy. I am sure he would be very happy if he sees Saakashvili fleeing the country and Russia is able to put there somebody who is obedient and who would never say that Georgia's main goal is to become a member of Euro-Atlantic structures -- NATO and the EU. I cannot speak for the Russian government and I cannot know what they are exactly planning but this would be an ideal scenario, an ideal case scenario for them.

RFE/RL: What do you make of international reactions to the conflict in Georgia?

Kakabadze: We are witnessing another case of impotence of the international community to stop these kinds of confrontations. People are dying and nothing is [being done about it]. It is not the first case, obviously, in the recent history -- even if you look in Darfur and other cases -- but it is definitely one of the best examples of how a country can militarily punish, for whatever reason, its neighbor who is weaker and nothing is happening internationally. OK, there were announcements from different leaders, Europeans and especially Americans. There have been statements from [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush, from the [U.S.] Secretary of [State Condoleezza] Rice, and from [both presidential candidates Barack] Obama and [John] McCain -- quite strong statements.

But nothing happens and something [needs to be done] in order to prevent further bloodshed -- I mean not a military [involvement]. Obviously, no one would start a new world war and, of course, it should not happen. But Russia should understand that. If Russia is today given a chance to get away with this policy of aggression, then tomorrow it will happen somewhere else in the post-Soviet territory. There is some leverage on the diplomatic level -- there is the NATO-Russia Council, there are EU-Russia negotiations about the cooperation agreement, there is WTO [World Trade Organization] membership for Russia -- there are a lot of issues but, unfortunately, we know that especially, Europe, is too dependent on Russian energy resources and it makes Russia feel like it can act [the way it wants] without being punished."

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL