No Rose Is Without a Thorn

16 august 2004

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Research Professor, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

Resume: There already was a Georgian president who failed to live up to his own popularity and subsequently drove his country into the abyss.

There already was a Georgian president who failed to live up to his own popularity and subsequently drove his country into the abyss.

When, three months ago, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili triumphantly dethroned the Ajarian leader of many years Aslan Abashidze, a wind of change blew softly over the vast spaces of the CIS, the commonwealth of post-Soviet republics that gained independence in the early 1990s.

The ’Revolution of Roses’ rendered such astonishing results in Tbilisi and Batumi that leaders of many post-Soviet regimes, both legitimate and self-styled, shuddered.

What has Mikhail Saakashvili done? He offered an alternative to the people who have long submitted to their irremovable autocratic leaders.

All of a sudden it transpired that those autocratic regimes were not as strong as they were believed to be once when people were given no choice.

Appealing directly to their citizens, the leaders of the Revolution of Roses, it seemed, removed a veil from their eyes, telling them, look, you can live in a better world, better than the one you are used to.

Could there be any doubt that any normal human being would prefer a peaceful life in a full-fledged country to wearisome existence in a besieged fortress unrecognized by anyone as a sovereign state?

Carried away by the euphoria produced by their first victory, the leaders of Georgia’s revolution leaders failed to resist the temptation to continue the triumphant onset on the country’s breakaway provinces. Saakashvili, however, refused to admit that there was an important difference between Ajaria on the one hand and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other.

Residents of those territories, too, believe, that Georgia’s authorities are offering them an alternative. But that alternative is not a better, worthier life in the revived Georgia but war. At any rate, this is what they are certain of.

Basically, the ’rose’ know-how, offering ’flowers instead of guns’, could help solve old conflicts, such as have been simmering in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for years.

But this requires tolerance. For, while in Batumi the besieged fortress psychology was actively instilled in public consciousness by the ruling clique for the purpose of strengthening its own authority and had no objective foundation, for Tskhinvali and Sukhumi a war with Georgia is not a propaganda trick but something the memories of which are still fresh.

A smallest sparkle would suffice for all fears and complexes to flare up anew. No doubt the ruling clans in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are taking great pains to boost such sentiments, since those sentiments alone make their power seem more or less legitimate.

This, however, does not deny the fact that the population, indeed, dreads a new confrontation and does not believe in Tbilisi’s good intentions.

To persuade people of his sincerity, Saakashvili will need a lot of ’roses’, at least, great tact and patience. It could take Tbilisi a year or two to peacefully restore control over Tskhinvali by way of carefully winning over Ossetian residents, considering that, fortunately South Ossetia is not as cut off from external influences as Abkhazia. Furthermore, changes for the better in Georgia could contribute to the progress.

The first peaceful attempt to win South Ossetians’ sympathies — a visit by Georgia’s First Lady to Ossetian villages together with a humanitarian mission — failed. However, instead of patiently persuading the residents of South Ossetia that Tbilisi is not their enemy, the president swooped down on the region, alternating small ’carrots’ with threats of heavy sticks, just as was the case in Ajaria.

But in case of Ossetia the stick provides weighty evidence of Georgia’s aggressive intentions. And, with
a new wheel of fear and distrust set going, scattering roses around is pointless. That is why, to Ossetians, at least, war seems to be the most likely of all alternatives.

Saakashvili is clearly vexed at the failure in the tested mechanism. In his public statements of late he no longer looks like a pragmatic and far-sighted politician, as he was seen by many after his election to the presidential post, but rather as a street idol of a year ago, dubbed “Georgian Zhirinovsky” by Russian journalists, to whom he seemed to bear resemblance to the flamboyant leader of Russia’s ultranationalist LDPR party.

Actually, he is no Zhirinovsky and no ’democratic Putin’, as Stephen Sestanovich, an advisor on the CIS in the Bill Clinton administration, for some reason described him, but a typical Boris Yeltsin in the days of his early presidency: aggressive, impatient, deriving inspiration and legitimacy from popular support.

It was Yeltsin’s wont to settle a conflict by driving the crisis towards its acme, blowing up the situation while counting on his own insight and combat qualities. Such characteristics are indispensable in an era of destruction. But the Georgian leader faces a different task — the task of creating. Having seen several civil wars over the past decade, his country is fed up with destruction. And his strive to undermine the foundations of the separatist regimes will only further strengthen them.

Saakashvili is a politician who relies on popular support and hopes. Such type of leadership demands fast and impressive results, or else euphoria may easily give place to undisguised hatred.

It is hard to tell what the head of state spoiled by his popularity will do when he understands that he is failing to live up to overrated expectations of the public. In such cases the temptation to find an enemy and finish him off before the public sometimes becomes irresistible.

Georgia already had a president who plunged his nation into a disaster the consequences of which it still suffers. Incidentally, Saakashvili has ordered to re-bury the man with honors in Tbilisi.


Last updated 16 august 2004, 12:31

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