Moscow Keeps Pushing for ‘Regime Change’ in Georgia

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

A peaceful transfer of power in Ukraine from Viktor Yushchenko to Viktor Yanukovych was widely hailed as the ultimate triumph of democracy in the post-Soviet country. But the speed at which the highly significant treaty on the extension of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s stay on Ukrainian soil was negotiated, signed and ratified casts doubt on the democratic nature of the new leadership in Kiev. It also shows the Kremlin’s unquenchable desire to push forward its sphere of influence agenda amid Washington’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and Iran and the window of opportunity President Obama’s Russia “reset” policy, Europe’s enlargement ‘fatigue’ and the world financial crisis so fortuitously present to Moscow.

The promptness with which Yanukovych acquiesced to Russia’s demands is a response that would likely be encouraged in other post-Soviet countries as well. For those who fail to cooperate, apparently, there is a “Kyrgyz scenario” pending as a sword of Damocles. Russia’s propaganda machine has already started to contemplate on “theoretical” feasibility and “practical” utility of the Ukraine and Kyrgyz scenarios across the region that the Kremlin calls “near abroad.” To show how those two “options” could interact in Moscow’s strategic designs, Regnum, a Russian news agency on the Internet, has dedicated a special article, entitled “Bishkek Night as the Turning Point for the Post-Soviet Space.”

Ex-prime minister Zurab Noghaideli, who now champions the pro-Kremlin cause in Georgia, was quick to discern the ‘reality’ with which a reemerging Russia leaves the post-Soviet space. He has already threatened that the “Bishkek scenario” will be repeated in Tbilisi if the upcoming local elections in Georgia “are rigged,” which is a euphemism for a loss by his political party. While the opinion polls show that Noghaideli and his allies are supported by no more than 9% of the Georgian public, they are conducting their election campaign under the slogan “It’s already falsified,” putting their signs at subway stations, government buildings, apartment houses and construction sites in the Georgian capital.

Noghaideli’s actions and verbal statements have long been barely legal. On April 28 he announced, “no one should think that we will go to our homes if the elections are falsified. We will overthrow this government in an uprising.” Commenting on Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili’s interview to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper in which he predicted that the pro-Russian forces “will be defeated” in the local elections, Noghaideli warned on April 7 against “ballot fraud” and menacingly said “This may cost [Merabishvili] his life.” On April 8, Noghaideli and a few dozen of his party activists were trying to break into one of the printing houses in Tbilisi. Although several of them were briefly detained for “misconduct,” no criminal charges were filed by Tbilisi police.

On April 23-24 a controversial Russian businessman of Georgian origin, Alexander Ebralidze, using his ties with the Kremlin, organized a lavishly funded “Congress of Peoples of Georgia” in Saint Petersburg. Noghaideli’s party associates Koba Davitashvili and Kakha Kukava used the occasion to fly to Russia to participate in the gathering and to deepen contacts with Russia’s political establishment. On April 28 they met with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian ultranationalist and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, who chairs a large faction in Russia’s legislative organ, the State Duma. Lecturing the Georgian guests on the merits of “Russo-Georgian friendship,” Zhirinovsky refused to shake their hands and angrily told them, “Do you know why we stood by the Abkhaz and Ossetians? Because they say only good things about Russia…If Tbilisi said good things about Russia, the Russians, [and] the Russian army, there would be no problem [between us].”

Going back to the “Ukraine vs. Kyrgyzstan scenarios,” on April 28 Noghaideli showed his understanding of how those two developments could interact in Georgian reality. “If Ukraine decides to recognize [Abkhazia and ‘South Ossetia’],” he said, “then our goal should be to overthrow the [Georgian] government.” Pretty related to this pronouncement was the earlier statement he made on Georgian Public Broadcaster’s popular political show on March 7. To the journalist’s question on what he would do if Russia once again invaded Georgia, Noghaideli responded that the first thing he would do would be “to start liberating Georgia from [Georgian President] Saakashvili’s regime.”

Last spring the pro-Russian opposition forces’ push to oust President Saakashvili’s liberal government in three-month-long protests ended in a complete fiasco. Unlike past events though, the Kremlin now openly supports its proxies in Georgia; Ukraine is led by a pro-Moscow president; and there is a bloody “Kyrgyz scenario” to present an “alternative” to those who would not cooperate voluntarily. On top of this, at least from the Georgian standpoint, the West is even more aloof from the post-Soviet space than it was a year ago. That is why Georgia now depends almost solely on itself to cope with the problems of immense proportion.