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Sestanovich: Russia-Georgia Spat 'Part of a Much Bigger Confrontation'

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 4, 2006

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Stephen Sestanovich, former ambassador-at-large toward the states of the former Soviet Union in the Clinton administration, says the crisis between Russia and Georgia over the recent arrest of four Russian military officers could build to the point where confrontations are not fully controlled.

Sestanovich says Georgian-Russian relations are aggravated most by Georgia’s discussions with NATO about possibly becoming a member—a concern the Russians also have about Ukraine. “You don’t have to talk to people in the Kremlin very long to hear them complain about the kind of challenge that they see in this—populist politics that can overturn central control, maybe even in their own country.”

Russia and Georgia are in a confrontation. It’s not clear to me what’s caused this problem, although it seems to be that the Russians are fearful of Western and in particular U.S. influence in Georgia. How do you see the situation?

There’s no doubt that right now the Russians are very upset about Georgian determination to become part of NATO and more generally about their pro-American, pro-European foreign policy. And Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has gone further than any other Russian official in connecting the issue to these recent arrests of Russian military officers which got both sides very lathered. Lavrov said that you have to bear in mind the following sequence: President [Mikhail] Saakashvili went to Washington; NATO agreed to take a new step forward in discussing membership with Georgia; and the next thing you know, Russian military officers are arrested. He said, “Trip to Washington, NATO decision, taking of hostages,” meaning Washington is encouraging Georgia to act against Russian interests. But that’s not the whole of this story, because Russian-Georgian relations have been bad for a long time. They were bad before President Saakashvili took over, and the reasons that they’re bad go way beyond foreign policy.

Could you spell out some of these reasons?

One is that Russia continues to be deeply involved in the internal politics of Georgia, and in particular the Georgian government’s confrontation with a couple of separatist enclaves that border Russia and that are supported by Russia and where there are Russian troops present.

This is Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Right. The Russians have answered these separatist efforts and have—this is the accusation of President Saakashvili—gone further of late toward annexing them. The Georgians are afraid the Russian policy now is to formally break off these territories to Russia.

Why would Russia be that interested in these two pieces of land?

Well, ask Georgians and they’ll give you a number of answers. They’ll say, well, it’s the choicest part of the Black Sea coast, luxury hotels are waiting to be built there, a thriving tourist industry.

Sukhumi is one of these tourist towns, and that’s in Abkhazia?

Right. They will also say that it’s part of a Russian effort to revive imperial control, if not formally, at least by taking advantage of Russia’s new wealth, and showing that they’re the boss throughout the former Soviet space. There’s a further element that Georgians will cite, and that is that Georgia is one of the places in the former Soviet Union that has taken a leap forward toward more authentic democratic rule. Before there was the Orange Revolution [in Ukraine in 2004] there was the Rose Revolution [in Georgia in 2003], and you don’t have to talk to people in the Kremlin very long to hear them complain about the kind of challenge that they see in this—populist politics that can overturn central control, maybe even in their own country.

Of course, history hangs heavy in this part of the world. After the Russian revolution in 1917, there was a breakaway Georgian state for a while until the Red Army conquered it, right?

Right. Mensheviks ruled Georgia until the Bolsheviks rolled them up.

There’s always been this pressure from the Russians for this piece of land. Is it strategically located?

It’s edged in between Russia and Turkey. Former President [of Georgia] Eduard Shevardnadze used to say that Georgia is “the tastiest morsel of the former Soviet Union and the Russians want it back. “

The Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year had a task force report on Russia, which urged that the United States not be cowed by Russian pressures on their former republics. Is the United States standing up for Georgia?

What the Council report said is that the United States should not go looking for any kind of revival of “great game” rivalry with Russia in the former Soviet space, but that it ought to encourage and develop good relations with countries that want to have good relations with us, and that contribute or help us to advance some of our own interests, whether it’s security interests or economic interests or support for democratic institutions. And that it’s not right to let Russia have a kind of veto over the development of those relations, emphasizing that they’re not pursued for anti-Russian reasons.

Now, American relations with Georgia are very good. Saakashvili was in Washington on the eve of President Bush’s trip to St. Petersburg for the G8 conference last summer, a kind of symbolic consultation to indicate that the American president would have the perspective of former Soviet countries in mind when he saw [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. And he was here again for the United Nations General Assembly session just a little while ago and managed to get American agreement to help Georgia’s effort to get NATO membership.

There has been American training of Georgian military forces. Once upon a time Putin said that was in Russia’s interest, because it was good for Georgians to be more capable in opposing terrorism. Now the Russian line is a little different. They see good relations between the United States and Georgia as provocative and they saw an opportunity to complain about it.

How much is this concern due to Ukraine?

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine took Russian concerns about the Rose Revolution and magnified them. Suddenly, the Russians were more able to visualize that kind of popular movement in their own country and they began campaigning against the Orange Revolution as a kind of bogeyman threatening the sovereignty of all the Soviet countries. But even before then, relations with Georgia had deteriorated. In 2003, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, was making military threats to Georgia, saying the Georgians were hiding Chechen terrorists and threatening to come in and weed them out.

So, is the United States under a lot of pressure from Moscow to back off? It’s a tough call for Washington, isn’t it, because Washington needs Moscow in the negotiations over Iran, North Korea, and other issues?

The American approach has been to try to tamp down the vile rhetoric and the enflamed feelings. Statements by American officials have been like those of EU officials: “We need to have a cooling-off period;” “This has gotten out of control;” “Both sides are overreacting.” I believe the Belgian foreign minister, who’s the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has said as much as other European officials. Nobody wants to turn a Russian-Georgian confrontation into a Russian confrontation with Western countries. But they also see that the Russian position has a neo-imperialist overtone, and they’re worried about that because the Russians are plainly looking for some place to show their muscle and to make it clear that little countries don’t get to go their own way if they’re a former part of theSoviet Union.

The Baltic States now seem to have rather thriving relations with the West, right?

They do, and they’re now all members of NATO. They have various kinds of frictions with Moscow but one really big hurdle was passed when they became members of NATO. It was unclear how Moscow was going to react to that. Russians had not liked the first wave of NATO enlargement, but those were countries—Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary—that they had long since given up on having within their sphere of influence. The Baltic States had been a special category, and Russian officials and commentators tended to say, “If the Baltic states become members of NATO, that’s a bridge too far, we’ll never be able to get over it, it will enflame and offend Russian nationalism.” Then somehow their view changed, and there was not much notice taken when the Baltic States became members of NATO in 2004.

Russian officials had become more alarmed at the prospect of a third wave of enlargement that might include other former Soviet states, particularly Ukraine and Georgia, which have explicitly said they wanted to join, but conceivably other states further down the road. Azerbaijan, for example, has said it could have such an interest. Even Kazakhstan has said it wants to keep developing its relations with NATO.

Obviously, the president of Kazakhstan was just in Washington but they’re so landlocked there’s not much the West could do about Kazakhstan.

Kazakhs have a serous strategy of having good relations with all the major powers while advancing their closer institutional tie to NATO, OSCE (of which they want to be the chairman). It’s not for nothing that the Kazakhs have military personnel in Iraq, as do the Georgians, by the way.

That’s interesting. Do you think the Russians will keep this economic boycott going on Georgia?

People said that Russians couldn’t possibly keep up the wine boycott which was imposed last spring because Russians like Georgian wine too much. But many months after it was imposed it is still there.

Why was it imposed?

The Russians said that there were health issues. There’s a lot of imitation Georgian wine and even authentic quality Georgian wine that is exported toRussiawhere it’s extremely popular. I don’t doubt that a lot of it is still smuggled into Russia. The Russians do like it. And it’s good, there’s no reason they shouldn’t like it, but what they’ve done now represents a more serious economic threat if they stick with it. What the Russians are talking about is preventing remittances from the Georgian workers who are in Russia back to their families in Georgia. By some estimate this is as much as 10 or 15 percent of Georgian GDP [gross domestic product].

Can’t the workers in Russia just send them to third countries which would send them on to Georgia?

I think the Russians will discover this embargo is pretty hard to enforce. But they can make it more difficult for Georgians. They’ve talked about sending illegal Georgian workers back. The level of emotionalism and craziness here is pretty great. The head of one of the Duma committees has referred to what the Georgians have been doing as “state terrorism.” They have war games off the Georgian coast, they’ve introduced a UN resolution condemning Georgia, they’ve cancelled air flights until the end of October and possibly beyond, and they have—and this is the thing that worries the Georgians most—encouraged, and talked about recognizing referendums in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for independence. They’re not recognized by anybody else. And further the Russians have talked about using a Kosovo model as a formula that would be replicated in Georgia, potentially to break up the country.

Tell me again what they mean by that.

They mean that a separatist territory could enjoy international recognition as a separate country if certain conditions are met, and they like to talk about Kosovo and Abkhazia as parallel cases of separatism.

So this has the seeds of a major crisis here.

Yes, what happened last week—the arrest of these Russian military officers—is not your ordinary intelligence embarrassment, where one country that has correct relations with another and happens upon some of its intelligence officers and expels them and eventually before too long everybody has forgotten it. This is part of a much bigger confrontation that plays extremely well in the domestic politics of both countries, is tied to intractable bilateral issues, and which both sides have mobilized for, economically, politically, and militarily.

If you’re looking for classic examples of confrontations building, to the point where they’re not fully controlled, you could say this has the look of that. There are reasons for both sides to try to go back, and the release of the military officers was a sign that the Georgians don’t want this escalating. But it’s not very likely that they will pull back all the way, even if they cut down the confrontation right now. Relations are quite bad; they’ll remain bad in the future, and will remain prone to new flare-ups.

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