Mikheil Saakashvili: 'The land they took is rocky. Its only use is for attacking us'
The President of Georgia tells Kim Sengupta how he hopes to win support in his struggle against his nation's powerful neighbour, Russia – with a little help from Hollywood
Tuesday 15 February 2011
For a leader who has lost 20 per cent of his country's territory to a foreign power, Mikheil Saakashvili remains remarkably ebullient. It may be impossible to regain land from the Russians by force, but Georgia is making giant strides, he insists, in advocating its case and spreading its influence through the Caucasus.
Later today, the British Government will press Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during his visit to London, to resolve the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were brought under effective Russian control following the 2008 war between the two countries.
David Cameron, when he was opposition leader, was the first Western politician to visit Georgia during the conflict and Downing Street insists he remains committed to seeking justice on the matter. Nato will soon hold a new round of talks with Moscow on the issue, with the Alliance maintaining that it will not back down in the demand for the withdrawal of forces.
But, nearly three years since the brief war in the south Caucasus, Russian troops have consolidated their positions in the two breakaway regions. Sitting at his office in the presidential palace in Tbilisi, Mr Saakashvili, complains: "They don't recognise our borders, they don't recognise our government, they don't recognise the ceasefire. The Russians have just deployed missiles 40km away, enough to destroy this place 20 times over. This is not just a performance, it's a big issue."
Georgia had its own version of the upheavals now sweeping the Middle East with the Rose Revolution eight years ago, when Mr Saakashvili led protesters into parliament and forced the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Speaking to The Independent, casually dressed in an open-necked shirt, sports jacket and black jeans, the President argues that the West should stand by a country, that has tried to follow democratic values.
The Georgian government has officially renounced the use of force to reclaim the lost territories. In reality, it's nothing but a gesture, but Mr Saakashvili insists that he is in it for the long haul and expects to get the promised support of the West.
"I don't think Russia has any illusion that we will attack them. A lot of the area they have taken are piles of rocks. There is zero value, the only value would be if they used it launch attacks."
In the meantime, Georgia has begun a non-military offensive encompassing diplomacy, media, culture and governance. A Hollywood film about the war, 5 Days of August, directed by Renny Harlin, whose previous productions include Die Hard 2, has Andy Garcia playing President Saakashvili and Rupert Friend a journalist who exposes atrocities by Russian-backed militias
The film, which is set to present a sympathetic account of the conflict, is independently financed and the Georgian government stresses that it did not influence the script.
Mr Saakashvili says: "I met Andy Garcia for lunch, he was all the time asking how to pronounce certain words. I haven't seen the final footage, but one film is not going to change any perceptions. With a war the people get fed up with the news and they focus on something else. But the Russians never give up, they have a big machine which is constantly work, work, work."
The Georgian government is, however, backing a satellite channel financed by the government, Kanal PIK, which has now started broadcasting, in Russian, into Russia as well as the Russian regions in the North Caucasus.
The station's journalists are an experienced and a respected international group, and the Georgian government stresses that the channel will not be an anti-Russian propaganda vehicle. There is a talk show hosted by Alla, the widow of the Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, killed in a Russian missile strike in 2006, but she will steer away from politics.
But beaming First Caucasus News into regions such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, where the Kremlin has been involved in ferocious conflicts has led to recriminations and presents inherent risks.
The night before the channel's debut, a suicide bomber killed dozens of people at Domodedovo Airport outside Moscow, with Islamists from Dagestan the suspects. Mr Saakashvili, while deploring the attack, added: "The last time I had a conversation with Vladimir Putin I warned him, I asked him 'what about North Caucasus, what happens when you encourage separatists in other countries?' and he said northern Caucasus is 'over' and every time some militant emerges there he will just deal with them like a cockroach, and then he squeezed his thumb on to the table."
During a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, Mr Saakashvili laid out a vision of a "united North and South Caucasus" that would "join the European family of free nations, following the Georgian path". Continuing the theme, he said that North Caucasus had become a ghetto. "These people have been given to the local feudal lords, who can kill them, rape them, hang them by their feet, torture them, deprive them of their belongings. Basically that's what Russia gave North Caucasus."
Georgia has dropped visa requirements for some of the North Caucasian regions, a move that the Russian foreign ministry has described as "another propaganda step" while some Moscow officials have claimed it will provide safe passage for terrorists especially with the Sochi winter Olympics set for 2014.
The Centre for American Progress, a think-tank based in Washington says in a soon to be published report that "regardless of the Georgian government's motives, this policy will be seen in Moscow as designed to stoke instability".
Mr Saakashvili is quick to point out that North Caucasian irregulars came in the slipstream of Russian forces during the war and carried out looting and killings and thus Georgia has no choice but to interact with these countries.
"Some of my friends from the West would tell me, 'why do you need the North Caucasus, won't it be an extra headache?' I ask, 'next time our friend Vladimir sends 50,000 Chechen soldiers to us, will your soldiers protect us?' When people like the Chechens come to Georgia they behave in a very law-abiding way because they are in a country where there is the rule of law."
The Georgian president held that it was the reforms carried out by his governments on issues such as corruption and encouraging private enterprise – praised by the international community –that will be the driving force for co-operation in the region.
"We have actually had some think-tank people from Russia, coming and saying we should follow Georgia's brilliant political reforms. We know Russian police officers are saying we should copy police reforms from Georgia. We have had the president of Tajikistan who proclaimed Georgia as a role model. We have had Ukraine expressing interest."
And there will be no slacking in the pace of reform and modernisation: "We are getting farmers coming from South Africa to help with agriculture. We are going to have big changes to our education system – 10,000 American, British and Canadians coming to teach English. We are investing millions in new technology. We look at Singapore and we know we can be the harbour for this region. We have no bureaucracy, no red tape."
But will embracing these values bring the political support and acceptance Georgia craves? Nato is desperate to get Russia's help for its mission in Afghanistan. The US wants to bring Moscow into the fold in its European nuclear defence shield programme.
International realpolitik appears to dictate that Tbilisi will not be joining Western "clubs" such as the European Union and Nato for a while yet. "Yes, it's like we are the best pupils in the class for Nato. We comply with all their regulations. They say: 'You are perfect! You meet all the requirements! Blah, blah, blah.' But then you are never allowed to go to the next level. This needs to change."
Mikheil Saakashvili Born in 1967, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili trained as a lawyer before becoming an MP in 1995. He led the bloodless "Rose Revolution" in 2003, which forced his predecessor and former mentor, President Eduard Shevardnadze, to resign and saw Saakashvili elected President in January of the same year.
* In 2005, he survived an assassination attempt at a rally in Tbilisi and in 2007 he drew criticism for declaring a state of emergency in response to public demands for elections, after his administration was accused of corruption. Despite these events, Saakashvili and his National Movement-Democratic Front party won overwhelming majorities in the 2008 elections. Support was further strengthened later that year during Georgia's war with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. However, when the conflict ended, Saakashvali came under criticism from voters for helping to spark the conflict with Russia in the first place, and mass protests demanded his resignation.
* In 2010, he supported parliamentary reforms to limit presidential powers in favour of those of the Prime Minister. But critics accuse Saakashvali of planning to adopt this empowered role when his term ends in 2013.
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