Polish, Georgian Presidents’ Motorcade Shot at from South Ossetia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 225

At dusk on November 23, machine-gun fire from the direction of a Russian checkpoint forced Presidents Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Lech Kaczynski of Poland to cut short a visit with Georgian refugees from South Ossetia. By most accounts, three bursts were fired into the air over the presidents’ motorcade near the Metekhi refugee shelters. Saakashvili and Kaczynski were visiting the Georgian side of the demarcation line to see how the armistice agreement was being implemented in the area adjacent to South Ossetia.

The incident occurred close to the demarcation line between the Russian-occupied Akhalgori district and the rest of Georgia. That Russian military outpost is situated deep inside Georgia, a mere 40 kilometers from Tbilisi. The armistice is, in fact, honored largely in the breach by Moscow.

Returning to Tbilisi, Kaczynski told a news conference that the shots were fired from only about 30 meters away, and it was not immediately clear whether the fire was aimed at the motorcade or overhead. Kaczynski remarked that the incident demonstrated the weaknesses of the armistice arrangements, mediated by the European Union’s French presidency on the EU’s behalf. Indeed, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) and OSCE monitors are supposed to patrol both sides of the Georgia-South Ossetia demarcation line, but Russia does not allow them to enter South Ossetia (or Abkhazia).

For his part, Saakashvili acknowledged that he had not expected the Russians to open fire and that such an unpredictable reaction underscored their “flagrant violations” of the armistice. Russian forces are “occupiers with no right to be there or to position themselves in the heart of Georgia,” he told the joint news conference with Kaczynski. The Polish president was in Georgia for the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution.

Georgian officials noted that the shooting “shows what kind of treacherous power we are facing” (Parliament Chairman Davit Bakradze) and was consistent with the Russian forces’ “aggressive and irresponsible behavior,” potentially endangering the lives of two presidents (National Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia) (Rustavi-2 TV, Civil Georgia, November 23, 24).

In Moscow Defense Ministry spokesmen ruled out any possibility that Russian soldiers would have shot at the motorcade (Interfax, November 23, 24). Deputy Minister and State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin, however, went beyond mere denial, almost implying that Saakashvili would have desired to be shot at: “this was another case of wishful thinking on the Georgian side” (Interfax, November 23). Karasin’s diplomatic insinuation adds to a series of far less subtle threats to the life of the Georgian president by the Kremlin, its propagandists, and its operatives.

Those threats date back to the 1990s, with two assassination attempts against then-president Eduard Shevardnadze (1995 and 1998) and multiple verbal threats against him via the Russian media. The prime suspect in the 1995 attack (which wounded Shevardnadze), KGB officer Igor Giorgadze, fled to Moscow and was interviewed time and again on Russian state television, agitating for the overthrow of Shevardnadze and subsequently of Saakashvili, on Kremlin-favorite TV host Mikhail Leontiev’s show. Two years after the Rose Revolution, Kremlin political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky opined on a popular TV program that Russia’s problems with Georgia could be resolved by “a single, well-aimed bullet.” During the August 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin crudely expressed the wish to kill Saakashvili during a conversation with Nicolas Sarkozy, according to a statement made by the French president’s foreign policy adviser Jean-David Levitte in widely-quoted Western media interviews last week.

Georgia is the prime example, but not the only one, in which high-level Russian authorities encourage violence against pro-Western leaders. Earlier this year, Kremlin-appointed TV program chief Konstantin Semin explicitly praised the assassination of Serbia Prime Minister Zoran Dzindzic and the mob assault on the U.S. embassy in Belgrade (see EDM, February 27). Moscow resorted to such “propaganda of the deed” both during the 1990s when it was weak (“on its knees,” as Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev retroactively claimed) and also recently after “rising from its knees.” Western leaders tolerated such methods during both periods, on the rationale that transgressions could be excused when Russia was weak and must be excused after Russia became strong.

The EU, nominal broker of the armistice between Russia and Georgia through the French presidency, lacks the means to enforce the armistice terms. Instead of returning to the lines held before August 7, Russian forces have beefed up their presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and expanded into areas that they had not held previously, such as Akhalgori, from where the presidents’ motorcade was shot at.

The 300-strong, unarmed EUMM is not allowed into Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russians, unless the mission agrees to some arrangements that would in practice recognize those unrecognized authorities. The EUMM under its German chief Hansjoerg Haber is trying hard to carry out its mandate, which covers Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of Georgia, without succumbing to that blackmail. The EU collectively, however, agreed on November 14 to start negotiations on a EU-Russia partnership agreement, without making this proposed partnership conditional on any way on Russian compliance with the armistice agreement or their cooperation with the EUMM (see EDM, November 17). This approach has weakened the EU’s own hand on the ground in Georgia.

These developments, capped by the November 23 shooting from Akhalgori, underscore the need for access by EU monitors into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and an introduction of international police and peacekeeping contingents in the two areas.