The Duck of Minerva

Turmoil in Georgia

28 September 2007

Photo: Reuters

While I’ve been fascinated by goings-on in southeast Asia, I’ve missed events going on in my intellectual backyard: political turmoil in the Republic of Georgia.

Earlier this week, President Mikheil Saakashvili and his former defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, had a very public falling out. First, Okruashvili launched his an opposition party, “For a United Georgia”. Then he alleged that Saakashvili instructed him to kill several public figures, including businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who owns the television station on which Okruashvili made these claims. He also accused Saakashvili of involvement in the death of his one-time political ally Prime Minister Zurab Zhavania, who died in 2005 of carbon-monoxide poisoning, and of far-ranging corruption.

Yesterday, Okruashvili was arrested in Tbilisi on charges of money-laundering, abuse of power, and extortion.

Today, demonstrators marched in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi; a crowd estimated at over 5,000 (ITAR-TASS reports as many as 10,000) gathered outside the parliament, accusing Saakashvili of being corrupt himself and demanding his resignation. However, the one of the main opposition parties, the New Right Party, chose to sit this one out, arguing that Saakashvili and Okruashvili are birds of a feather.

Saakashvili, however, missed out on all the excitement: he was in New York, making an inflammatory address to the UN General Assembly (it’s that time of year, again), in which he accused Russia of attempting to destabilize Georgia through “terror” missions (a reference to recent clashes in the disputed Kodori Gorge area of the break-away republic Abkhazia).

Although one might be tempted to think that, given the generally nasty tone of Russian-Georgian relations, the Kremlin would be poised to capitalize on Okruashvili’s challenge to Saakashvili, as defense minister Okruashvili took an aggressive stance toward both Abhkazia and South Ossetia, As a result, Russia does not seem to regard him as a welcome alternative. Kommersant quotes a Kremlin source thusly: “Saakashvili set up the playing field for Okhruashvili himself by practically destroying the central opposition. But that had the opposite effect. What’s going on now is a fight between Hitler and Goebbels.” Nasty.

Deciphering the right path in the ongoing sparring between Russia and Georgia is tough. It’s pretty clear that Russia is a bad actor in this conflict, supporting separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, acting repressively against Georgians in Russia, and generally throwing its weight around. But Georgia doesn’t appear to be an innocent victim either: it behaves provocatively at every opportunity. The penchant for trouble-making on both sides is very dangerous.