“Exotic Schemes” in Russia’s Georgia Policy

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked during a press conference to comment on the pro-Russia Georgian opposition’s latest “proposal that if Russia renounces its recognition for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia will renounce joining NATO.” In response, Lavrov said, “it is a rather exotic scheme”. The press conference followed the Russian foreign minister’s meeting with his truly “exotic counterpart” Murat Dzhioev, “foreign minister” from the Russian-occupied Georgian region of Tskhinvali, what Russia now calls “the Republic of South Ossetia”.

According to information posted on the Russian foreign ministry’s official website, this latest reason for the summoning of “the South Ossetian foreign minister” to Moscow was to “discuss a wide range of matters pertaining to bilateral relations that included political dialogue, interaction between agencies…and, of course, our cooperation in the international arena”. And these were no less exotic topics for discussion between the Russian Federation and its tiny surrogate creation in the Caucasus.

The occasion was used by Lavrov to sign a rather exotic agreement with Dzhioev “on mutual visa-free travel for citizens of Russia and “South Ossetia,” which in fact is Russia’s zone of occupation in central Georgia, now nearly depopulated after a thoroughly conducted ethnic cleansing.

Prior to its military aggression against Georgia in August 2008, top Russian leaders, including Foreign Minister Lavrov himself, when coming out in support of “South Ossetia” always emphasized the fact that a majority of residents in this part of Georgia held Russian passports and were considered Russian citizens. A mass “passportization campaign in Tskhinvali and Abkhaiza” had for years shaped Russia’s rhetoric and actions vis-à-vis Georgia.

Furthermore, during the war some eighteen months ago, an obligation to defend its citizens “from Georgian aggression” was presented to the international community as a justification for Russia’s military assault on Georgian territory.

Since then, Russian leaders have slowly made an important alteration in their public relations campaign, arguably, to better serve Moscow’s long-term geopolitical objectives. Almost never would they even make mention of “South Ossetians holding Russian passports.” What has now become an official line in the Kremlin is that “South Ossetians” were in fact Georgian citizens whom they “defended” from “Georgian aggression” by embarking on “humanitarian intervention” in August 2008. A peculiar spin, isn’t it?

Foreign Minister Lavrov’s meeting with Dzhioev appears to be full of exotic revelations and the pro-Russia Georgian opposition’s proposed scheme does not lack exoticism either since there is no such thing as a sovereign and democratic Georgia in current Russian leadership’s geostrategic calculations.

What is more serious and less exotic though is the Kremlin’s continuing military buildup in the occupied Georgian territory. The very same day that the Russian foreign minister was testing his new language in the press conference, Russian media reported on “the Russian military base in South Ossetia being revamped with new sophisticated weapons and other military equipment”. “We have samples that will be showcased on Red Square for the first time during the military parade marking the 65-year anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War,” the commander of the Tskhinvali-based Russian military base Col. Shusharin was quoted as saying. He also added that in March they plan to have military exercises using “large caliber guns” among other weapons.