Moscow Grooming a Political Team in Tbilisi

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 91

Each spring from 2007 to date, Georgia’s radical opposition has linked its regime-change campaigns with a powerful patron, in the hope of counterbalancing the state authorities. Initially that patron was an internal one the tycoon, Badri Patarkatsishvili, whose resources rivaled those of the state until his death in 2008. In 2009 and this year, however, top opposition figures reached out to the Kremlin for support.

Such a move had seemed unthinkable after almost two decades of Georgian independence. But it became possible after the 2008 invasion, which demonstrated Russia’s ascendancy in the region while failing to achieve regime change in Georgia. This created the basis for Moscow to recruit an alternative Georgian political team, for the eventuality of a regime-change attempt in Tbilisi. From Moscow’s standpoint, any such attempt must not merely present Georgian faces, but some familiar faces that were only recently at the core of Georgia’s political establishment.

Moscow is apparently grooming the former Prime Minister (2005-2007), Zurab Noghaideli, and former Parliamentary Chairwoman (2004-2008), Nino Burjanadze, for such roles, in the event of a Russian-assisted toppling of the Georgian government. In turn, the two are actively positioning themselves for such roles, calling for regime change in Georgia to repair Georgian-Russian relations.

In October 2009 Noghaideli became the first significant Georgian politician to switch sides. He has paid eight visits to Moscow in eight months, by his own count; and has been received demonstratively by Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, several times. Burjanadze rediscovered the Moscow road slightly later than Noghaideli and is apparently trying to catch up with him. Burjanadze has been granted two meetings with Putin this year.

Noghaideli and Burjanadze attended the May 9, 2010 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, and were received by Putin again in separate meetings. They also attended the ceremony of laying the foundation stone to the replica of a towering Soviet army monument, to be rebuilt in Moscow following the demolition of the original, 45 meter (150-foot) monument in Georgia (Interfax, May 8, 9).

Russian policy planners apparently contemplate the possibility of a Moscow-oriented “tandem” for Georgia. To Moscow’s added advantage, Noghaideli and Burjanadze are known to distrust each other. From Moscow’s standpoint, these two politicians are well suited to serve as leaders in a Georgia de-aligned from the West. Both Noghaideli and Burjanadze come from the midst of Georgia’s political and business establishments and had promoted Georgia’s Western orientation, before changing course in 2009.

While preparing for political deals with establishment figures, Moscow has not reached out politically to the radical groups active in Tbilisi’s streets. Russian outreach to those radical groups is likely to occur mostly at the covert level, without political deals or honors in Moscow. The only exception thus far is the leaders of the Conservative Party, Zviad Dzidziguri and Kakha Kukava, who have joined the Moscow-oriented camp within the opposition. The party’s conservative label is meant to denote Georgian nationalism, identification with values promoted by the Georgian Orthodox Church, and a critical attitude toward modernization of society. Dzidziguri and Kukava paid their own visit to Moscow in April and met with high-profile, though somewhat eccentric Russian Duma politicians, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky and some communist deputies.

Noghaideli and Burjanadze are positioning themselves as Moscow’s preferred interlocutors in Georgia. They also try to substitute themselves for the Georgian government in terms of “solving problems” with Russia. Thus, Noghaideli tells Georgian and Russian audiences about his purported attempts in Moscow to reopen (“at least partially”) direct airline flights between the two countries, to restore (again “partially”) access for Georgian agricultural products to Russian markets, or to return Georgians to their homes in Kodori and Akhalkalaki (involving a very small proportion of Georgians ethnically cleansed from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively). The message is that politicians agreeable to Russia have a chance to obtain at least some token concessions, and that Georgia could hope for more, if Moscow-oriented politicians come to power in Tbilisi.

Moscow is also using these politicians to tell the Georgian public that Russia may yet facilitate Georgia’s reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in some form, provided that new Georgian leaders demonstrate loyalty to Russia.

On that condition, according to Noghaideli, “such a miracle could happen” under Russian guarantees. As an interim step, Russia’s Duma could arrange for the “realistic” politicians Noghaideli and Burjanadze to hold direct talks with Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities toward agreements on non-use of force (Civil Georgia, May 4, 8; Ekho Moskvy, Interfax, May 7).

Russia’s message is that Noghaideli, Burjanadze, and others who would follow their example are “realistic” and “responsible” politicians, who realize the futility of Georgia’s Western orientation and seek to reestablish “traditional ties” with Russia. However, Noghaideli and Burjanadze cannot offer more than illusions to Georgia. Their political rating is in the low single digits, and they have no organizational base or even political “teams” to speak of in Georgia for the time being. However, Russian resources could address these problems for them.