By Giorgi Kvelashvili
On January 22 2010, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a press conference to sum up his country’s foreign policy activities in 2009. As it has already become a peculiar tradition for top-level Russian leaders, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, Lavrov’s press conference was a huge media event drawing local and foreign journalists, opinion-makers and diplomats from Moscow-based embassies.
Predictably, the Russian foreign minister tried to use the opportunity to once again voice Moscow’s position on the never-fading “Georgian question” and extensively elaborate on issues related to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. At one glance, what Lavrov said was in line with the already-publicized Russian interpretation of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 that immediately followed the Russian military aggression. He once again blamed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for starting the “aggression,” stating that the Russian Federation’s recognition of “the two independent states… was the only way to ensure not only the security of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also the very survival of their peoples” (https://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/0B514CB49F82A439C32576B40053C70E). Still, Lavrov found it appropriate to bring in additional “evidence” to justify the recognition, which arguably highlights the difficulties the Kremlin encounters when selling its own version of August 2008 to the international community in general and “the friendly Georgian people” in particular.
Sergey Lavrov mentioned Russia’s proposing on August 13 – a time when the French-brokered ceasefire agreement was being negotiated between Moscow and Tbilisi – that “international discussions…be [held] not only on security issues but also on the questions of the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” According to the Russian foreign minister, “this indicates…that we had no plans to either occupy any Georgian territory or recognize unilaterally the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” After the Georgian president “categorically rejected” the Russian proposal, Lavrov went on, and “a statement [was made in] Tbilisi that territorial integrity and constitutional order in these areas would be restored,” Russia recognized Abkhazia and “South Ossetia.”
Lavrov, apparently, meant a statement made by President Saakashvili in Tbilisi on August 15, 2008 at a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which he said, “I want the world to know, never ever will Georgia reconcile with occupation of even one square kilometer of its sovereign territory; Never, ever” (https://www.president.gov.ge/?l=E&m=0&sm=2&st=10&id=2712). Habitually, Foreign Minister Lavrov gave a distinct interpretation of the Georgian leader’s words.
One should not expect Russian leaders to openly state that what they wanted to accomplish by invading Georgia was to cause a regime change (or at least a change in Tbilisi’s foreign policy orientation), and to reincorporate the country into its sphere of influence. No Russian leader would say this publicly, at least for now. Instead, calling brazen military aggression “a humanitarian intervention” would be not only more fashionable but à la West as well, easing Russia’s hassling with proper justification. But then again, the Kremlin has a hard time justifying ethnic cleansing and destruction and the bulldozing of Georgian villages that it has methodically undertaken in the occupied Georgian territories, as vividly evidenced in the E.U.-funded “Report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia” (https://www.smr.gov.ge/en/home).
During and shortly after its military aggression against Georgia, the Kremlin repeatedly claimed that the intervention was necessary to protect “the Russian citizens” living in Tskhinvali. But after the E.U.’s fact-finding mission concluded that the granting of Russian passports to Georgian citizens in Georgian territories was illegal and “the vast majority of purportedly naturalized persons from South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not Russian nationals in terms of international law,” top Russian leaders now try to avoid the tricky issue of illegal “passportization” altogether. Instead, Foreign Minister Lavrov claims his government was trying in August 2008 “to protect…people whom [Tbilisi] logically should have considered as citizens of [the Georgian] state.” The Kremlin has apparently discovered that its “humanitarian intervention” can be seen as more convincing internationally if it is presented not as a measure to protect persons holding Russian “passports” but to protect Georgian nationals “oppressed” by their own government.
Russia has a harder time justifying its recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state. During the August war, Tbilisi made no move in that region. Still, the Russians did not only recognize Abkhazia, but also resorted to ethnic cleansing of Georgians living in the mountainous part of that region, Upper Ubkhaiza, controlled by the Georgian government antebellum. This is more proof that geopolitical, rather than humanitarian, motivations were behind Russia’s military assault against Georgia in 2008 – as it had been in Chechnya and elsewhere during the long tenure of the Tsarist and Soviet empires.
In his press conference, Lavrov said: “States which use brutal military force [to settle their internal ethnic disputes], respect for their right to territorial integrity generally becomes subject to doubt.” But does this statement not precisely reflect the Russian behavior vis-à-vis Chechnya throughout the 1990s?
Speaking of the early 1990s, it is worth recalling that after Tbilisi’s rule was treacherously ousted in Abkhazia and mass ethnic cleansing and other atrocities were perpetrated against the Georgian majority, the Russian government issued several statements strongly condemning the actions taken by “Abkhaz leaders.” What Russia wanted to show by issuing those statements was both to distance itself from the crimes and clear its name as an “objective” and unbiased mediator for the future.
Thus, one statement issued on October 4, 1993, read: “Russia unwaveringly supports territorial integrity of Georgia… Renouncement by the Abkhaz leadership of the Sochi Agreement on ceasefire has brought about new bloodshed. Russia denounces the facts of genocide [and] gross violations of human rights [in the Abkhazia region]” (https://ftp.wayne.edu/ibiblio-academic/russian-studies/Moscow_Events_Oct93/Complete_Chronicles/202.koi). In the same statement, the Russian government called “for the creation of the international tribunal to investigate these crimes and duly punish the culpable.” Needless to say no one was punished. Quite the contrary, Moscow further encouraged those who committed crimes against the native Georgian population and did everything to obstruct the return of internally displaced persons and the restoration of Tbilisi’s de facto control over Abkhazia and Tskhinvali.
Russia’s current leaders are posed to justify the dismemberment of Georgia on “humanitarian grounds,” but the analysis of the recent and distant events show that the only intention Russia ever had vis-à-vis Georgia and its multi-ethnic population has been geopolitical, no matter how hard the Kremlin tries to prove the opposite.