Mikheil Saakashvili, a promising Georgian politician who came to power after a bloodless revolution has lost his popular support and is now engaged in a restless effort for political survival.
Mikheil Saakashvili became president on 25 January 2004 after President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in the November 2003 “Rose Revolution” led by Saakashvili and his political allies. The Georgian public provided unprecedented support to the 36-year nationalist politician who received a Master of Arts degree from Colombia University's Law School. With this support, he did not hesitate to promise to accomplish formidable tasks such as the reintegration of Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgia along with a fierce struggle against poverty and corruption. The dream for Saakashvili did not last long. In 2008 when Russian troops appeared on the Georgian border, the popularity of the Georgian leader had already begun to fade away.
Following the defeat in 2008, the Georgian opposition, in a rare show of unity, accused Saakashvili of leading the country to "catastrophe" and demanded his resignation. Saakashvili was also criticized for dragging the nation into a war with Russia and losing public support.
The square where the Rose Revolution took place, which paved the way for Saakashvili to become president, was filled this time by thousands of opponents wanting the president to resign. Saakashvili pursued a cautionary strategy against protests by avoiding resorting to force to break up the demonstrations while turning a deaf ear to calls for his resignations. In the meantime, he was able to secure his post, yet not his political allies. Many political figures turned their back to the once ‘hope of Georgia’, which turned Saakashvili into a hopeless leader against an increasingly growing opposition.
The war in 2008 did not only leave Saakashvili in a catastrophic situation, but also paralyzed the country’s shrinking economy. People rushed to banks in fear to get their deposits back. As the bank deposits were gradually being withdrawn, newly-imposed sanctions by Russia crippled economy further. Economic constriction compounded with the psychological destruction of a defeated nation indicated tough days for Saakashvili. As expected, the Georgian president experienced a harsh electoral setback against the opposition, which united under one umbrella in 2012.
Defeat in Ossetia, a major breaking point for Saakashvili
In the summer of 2008, the heat of Caucasian politics reached an unexpected level with Georgia’s bold decision to launch a military operation in South Ossetia, an autonomous region the Tibilisi administration has not been able to rule for 15 years. Georgian troops were able to enter the region’s capital, Shinvali, shortly after the start of the operation on 8th August 2008. However, the Russian response to Georgian aggression was not a moderate one. With a ‘blitzkrieg’, Russian army’s troops in northern Caucasus were immediately deployed to South Ossetia, equipped with hundreds of tanks and air force units. Georgian commanders did had no other choice but to retreat from the fronts they within a few days. The unexpected Russian reaction to Georgia’s expansionist strategy was considered to be the end of their ‘policy of silence’. Having remained in silence following the colorful revolutions which overthrew pro-Russian leaders in post-Soviet republics along with Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, the Kremlin signed a new policy regarding the Caucasus with the war in 2008, mainly based on the principle that Russia would take on a more resisting stance to any blow against its interests.
After a set of clashes, the Georgian government was forced to sign a cease-fire on 16th August. South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia, which was recognized by Moscow. Having created a deep sense of disillusionment and frustration in the Georgian public, the war in 2008 resulted in disappointment for Saakashvili who hoped for western assistance against Russia but got nothing except for some condemnations. As the Georgian administration became the main target of people’s criticism, Moscow accused western governments and NATO of provoking Saakashvili to wage war.
The war in 2008 was not the first battle in the region. Contradictions and clashes of interests over the Ossetia territory dates back to the early 1990’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region drifted into a state of chaos. Nationalist policies of the Georgian administration at that time sparked a severe reaction in southern Ossetia and in response the autonomous government of Shinvali decided to secede from Georgia, a move triggered by the war.
The latest census conducted in 1989 suggests that the total population of southern Ossetia is 98 thousand, 65 thousand of which are of Ossetian origin and the rest of the 20 thousand being Georgian, along with various other ethnic groups.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought about the rise of nationalist policies in post-Soviet republics. Zviad Gamsahurdia, Georgia’s first president after independence, adopted nationalist policies particularly in the education system, which disturbed southern Ossetians. Demands rising from the Ossetian community to unify with the Russian Federation created resentment in the Georgian government. In this context, southern Ossetia announced the independence of the Southern Ossetia Democratic Soviet Republic in the September of 1990. This development clearly indicated the absence of Georgian sovereignty in the region and their willingness to be close to the Soviets.
While the status of south Ossetia remained unclear, two months after Ossetian independence, Georgia declared independence from the Soviets. What made things complicated was the fact that southern Ossetia was included within the newly-born Georgian state. It did not take long for ethnic conflicts to erupt in the region. The Georgian parliament abolished the Ossetian autonomy and urged the Georgian people to take up arms against Ossetia. On the other hand, the Ossetian parliament abruptly gathered and re-confirmed the nation’s independence. Declaring a state of emergency, they decided to form a National Guardian Contingent.
When Gamsahurdia was ousted in January 1992, Georgia focused more on internal affairs and did not launch a military operation against Ossetia. In the meantime, Russia did not pursue a ‘wait and see’ strategy. On the one hand, Moscow consistently refused Ossetia’s numerous demands to join the Russian Federation, but on the other, Russian troops were amassed on the northern Ossetia border. On 18th June 1992, taking advantage of ongoing political instability in Georgia, the Russian army went from northern Ossetia down to Shinvali and launched attack against Georgia with a relatively small Ossetian army.
After just four days the former president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, managed to convene Russia, Georgia, Northern Ossetia and Southern Ossetia in Ukraine to agree to a cease fire and peace deal. However, this did not offer an ultimate solution to the problem as Saakashvili ordered his army to enter Southern Ossetia in the summer of 2008. The Russian response was quick and assertive. Although the war was short, it had long-lasting repercussions. Russian recognition of South Ossetian independence made the situation more complicated.
2011 general elections in Ossetia
After the war in 2008, Russia certainly strengthened its position in the region and showed that any attempt against Moscow’s rule would be reciprocated. Thus, the Kremlin ruled out an alternative strong hand in the region. Yet, this perception was shaken when the pro-Russian candidate lost in the Ossetian election in 2011. The presidential candidate and former minister of national education Alla Coiyeva and his rival the minister of the state of emergency Anatoli Bibilov, were both in favor of improving relations with Russia. Moscow sided with Bibilov and provided open support to him. The election concluded with a victory for Coiyeva who got 56,7 percent of the votes. Bibilov rejected the results and brought the case to court. The court found the pro-Russian candidate’s rejection justified and canceled the elections. Responsively, Coiyeva rejected the court’s decision and organized nation-wide protests where security forces fired on demonstrators. Due to health conditions, Coiyeva was constrained to halt the protests.
The elections were held again in 2012, but this time with two different candidates: Former KGB chief Leonid Tibilov and David Sanakoyev. In the second round of election, Tibilov obtained 55,76 percent of the votes and was selected as the new president. Whereas Moscow announced that the election in Ossetia was conducted fairly, the European Union and the USA chose not to recognize the election results.
The political disagreements prevailing in the relationship between Georgia and Russia are troublesome for both peoples of these countries. Georgians and Russians used to live together for decades under the Soviet umbrella. Russian media reports claim that a lack of possibility for an ultimate resolution in the post-2008 era as well as decreasing hopes for obtaining NATO membership are two basic factors that pushed the Tbilisi administration to experiment with different formulas in foreign relations.
As economic recessions resulting from corruption penetrates the center of the Georgian government, a new politician by the name of Ivanishvili appears to be a prominent figure and potential leader who is able to fulfill the Georgians’ demands for a better life. It is highly likely that current Prime Minister Ivanishvili will lead the country after Saakashvili and restore relations with Russia due to Ivanishvili’s close personal ties with Moscow.
The new Georgian prime minister who is said to make most of his wealth in Russia appointed veteran diplomat Zurab Abashidze as the special envoy for relations with Russia. Talks between Abashidze and Russian deputy foreign minister Grigoriy Karasin was the first direct high-level contact between the two sides after four and half years, with the aim of normalizing relations. As a result of this meeting, the Kremlin decided to issue import permission for Georgian wine and mineral water, which enabled 40 Georgian companies to enter Russia after a long prohibition. This move was considered to be a significant confidence building measure.
As another clear sign of the normalization of Georgian-Russian relations, both sides agreed to abolish legal restrictions which prevent Georgian goods from entering Russia. In addition to this, some Georgian goods would enjoy tariff exemptions.
In accordance with the deal, Georgian goods like vegetables, fruits, honey, milk and dried nuts will be allowed to enter Russian markets. The Russian administration has found this development to be a positive step which would progressively advance the Georgian economy. Meanwhile, work has continued to normalize transportation between the two countries. Following the war, Russia suspended all its land, marine and air transportations to Georgia. In the last year, Moscow re-launched consolidations and both Moscow and Tbilisi has voiced their good-will to re-open the railway connecting Russia to Georgian, which has remained closed for 20 years. However, since the railway passes through Abkhazian territory, the project is likely to create sovereignty problems between Abkhazia and Georgia. Furthermore, the railway would link Armenia directly to Russia, which may be damaging to its potential to change regional power balances.
The main reasons lying behind the controversy between these two sides has rarely been mentioned in the process. According to Russian diplomats, disputes threatening to derail the retaliation process will be handled lastly. On the other hand, predictions regarding the future of two de-facto states in Russian media suggest no fundamental change in Moscow’s position.
Kuzey News AgencyGüncelleme Tarihi: 26 Ağustos 2013, 17:53