Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says he fears that Russia remains intent upon crushing Georgian statehood. While he does not see a new war as imminent, Saakashvili says he expects Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to stick to his goal of ousting him as Georgian leader.
Saakashvili raised his concerns in a wide-ranging interview with the Reuters news agency, issued on August 2 to mark the upcoming first anniversary of the brief war between the two countries.
Saakashvili describes Moscow's perceived intentions towards Georgia as "very worrisome," and says Putin is not the kind of man to make idle threats.
"I am still sitting in this office despite solemn pledges by Putin to hang me by different parts of my body, to crush Georgia's statehood, you know, and basically that's almost a miraculous story of survival,” Saakashvili told Reuters.
“And this is a man who has an extremely strong reputation of living up to these kinds of promises and keeping these kinds of pledges. So, of course, we have no illusion that he will not keep trying. He will keep trying [as long as] he has a say in Russian politics," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili obliquely criticized the West's lack of action when Russian troops poured across the border in last year's war, sending an armored column -- largely unopposed -- to within striking range of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
He blamed this inactivity on Western countries' desire not to undermine their own energy security and trade by angering Moscow. But he conceded that involving other countries in the dispute would have meant risking a broader international conflict.
"The issue is whether anybody in the world wants a new war in Europe with the participation of Russia, and the obvious answer is 'no,' and that's exactly what [U.S.] Vice President Biden was implying [during his July visit to Georgia] and, more than that, we fully share that view," Saakashvili said.
During his visit to Tbilisi, Vice President Joe Biden renewed U.S. support for Georgian membership of the NATO alliance, but reminded Saakashvili of the obvious gravity of a confrontation between NATO and Russia.
Although the West expressed strong support for Georgia in the war, Saakashvili has come under criticism for intervening militarily in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which Russia cites as justification for its military response.
In the interview, Saakashvili said the international community had long ignored the anti-Georgian measures taken by the separatist authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, designed to drive out ethnic Georgians.
"In many ways, unfortunately, the world has neglected the mass killing, the ethnic cleansing that has been done here in Georgia last summer as well as for many years before...[by] the so-called Russian peacekeeping operation that in fact was another form of occupation, as we clearly have seen later," Saakashvili said.
The Georgian president said that since its independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia has created a democratic space in a difficult part of the world, and he expressed confidence that it will continue to develop.
Georgia “has proven that modern statehood with real developed institutions can exist in this part of [the world], basically in this 'terra incognito' for the rest of the world,” he said. “We have proven that democracy is not an empty word and that it can function, and we are building here something [that is] hopefully also a very big success case in terms of the economy and the livelihood of the people."
Saakashvili's comments come at a time of sharply rising tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow.
Georgia on August 2 accused Russia of shifting the border of South Ossetia deeper into Georgian territory. A Georgian Foreign Ministry statement said that the incident "represents an attempt by the Russian occupiers to penetrate into the depths of Georgian territory."
A day earlier, on August 1, Russia threatened to use "all available force" to counter what it called Georgian "provocations" in South Ossetia. The South Ossetian authorities had accused the Georgians of firing mortar shells over the border, a charge that Tbilisi denied.