Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Saakashvili saved Georgia from coup, former Putin aide says

The Georgian president had no other option than to attack South Ossetia in order to save his country from a Russian coup, Andrei Illarionov, former advisor to Vladimir Putin has said in an interview with EUobserver on the margins of the "European Resource Bank" conference which took place in Tbilisi last weekend (9-12 October).

The official explanations of the Russian authorities, that they defended the "life," "health" and "dignity" of Russian citizens - regardless how these people were granted citizenship in the first place - "do not hold water," since there were many other conflicts like in Chechnya or Beslan where they did not care about the Russian citizens, Mr Illarionov said.

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Currently a senior fellow with the Washington-based Cato Institute, Putin's former senior economic advisor in 2000-2005 said that contrary to how it is being portrayed, the conflict did not begin on 7 August 2008, but was carefully planned and built up since the spring of 2004, when the Russian authorities started supplying South Ossetia and Abkhazia with military equipment and training their military forces, building military bases and strategic highways and railroads.

"The build up culminated with the amassing of 80,000 regular troops and paramilitaries close to the Georgian border, at least 60,000 of which participated in the August war," he explained.

"On 7 August it is estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 Ossetian and Russian troops and 240 tanks were in South Ossetia," he said, adding that the Georgian army has altogether 29,000 troops and 200 tanks, with the main part being stationed to the west facing Abkhazia.

"In the proximity of South Ossetia there were perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 troops and 42 Georgian tanks," Mr Illarionov said, reminding that president Mikhail Saakashvili declared unilateral ceasefire on 7 August, only to see unprecedented shelling of the Georgian villages in South Ossetia that night.

"All of a sudden they understood that if the Ossetian-Russian troops move, it could be a matter of hours for them to get to Tbilisi."

President Saakashvili's decision to move against Tskhinvali "was self-defense, though it was quite a risky self defence," Mr Illarionov said.

"Saakashvili had received a very clear signal from the West - that America and Europe would not help. Even if the US would have decided to help, it was completely unrealistic, because it would have taken at least two weeks to deploy the very first troops. And it was very clear that 2 weeks was too late to defend Georgia. That is why he took this decision, clearly understanding that he would be left alone in front of Russia," he explained.

While conceding that it must have been a "painful" decision that would damage the president's reputation and credibility in his own country, especially after making the public pledge of a ceasefire, "imaginatively replaying the events, it looks like this was the only possible decision that actually saved the independence and statehood of Georgia," Mr Illarionov said.

In regards to the Georgian opposition raising its voice against the war, Mr Illarionov said that "the very fact that this opposition continues to exist and express its views, is to high extent thanks to this decision to self-defense."

"If Saakashvili wouldn't have counter-attacked, there would be probably no much opposition here. There would be Igor Giorgadze [a Georgian politician who attempted to kill former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995] sitting here in Tbilisi. It would be a different story."

Russian frustration over failed coup

The unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian authorities seems to be a "plan B" that Moscow is not genuinely happy with, Mr Illarionov says.

"It appears that plan A was to disorganize the Geogian government and society with some kind of civil war, coup d'etat or revolution, with the participation of Ossetians and Georgians within Georgia to change the regime."

"But since Georgian troops went into Tskhinvali and were able for a number of days to keep the Russian army from moving into Georgia, it was enough time to relocate the rest of the army from the West of the country to defend Tbilisi, to attract world-wide attention, to 'wake up' the public and politicians around the world and to mobilise international support."

"After a few days it became evident that plan A, to organize a revolution or civil war failed. The Russian authorities were forced to move to plan B. But it was a big frustration for the Russian authorities. When you hear bad words used by the Russian officials for Mr Saakashvili, it is just expression of their deep frustration that Mr Saakashvili was able to destroy their well-prepared plan A."

"Plan B was that Russia is trying to defend the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This was made public only a few days after the war and ultimately they have chosen to pretend that they are in favour of their independence. But it is in deep contradiction with the position the Russian authorities have kept for so long, on non-recognition of Chechnya, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Transdnistria."

"The last thing that Russia needs is these [Georgian] breakaway regions. It's a big problem for the Russian government. It's a serious financial drain, they're not quite sustainable and there's a big criminal problem as well ... All of a sudden you have tens of thousands armed people who can easily enter Russian territory. It's an incredible headache."

Georgia's democracy, a threat to Moscow

As for the reasons for Moscow to invest "billions of dollars" for these military operations and to be ready to face "such heavy diplomatic losses and isolation," Mr Illarionov said there is no other explanation "but the existential threat" that Georgian democracy poses to the Russian regime, because it shows that a culture with a very similar background can reform and integrate with the West.

"This model of integration with the world, of modernizing, opening society, with an accountable government - is quite different from the model that is been built in Moscow. Georgia and Ukraine as countries and societies play a special role in the internal Russian debate, because both countries share the same 'cultural background.' These are Orthodox Christian countries that have been long time part of the Russian empire, and the Soviet Union.

"On countries with different religious traditions like Poland or Estonia, some Russian commentators would be ready to say that there is something really different about them when they choose genuine democracy, accountable government and integration with the West."

EUMM a better security guarantee for Georgia than MAP

The EU monitoring mission (EUMM) in Georgia has a very positive impact on the country's security, Mr Illarionov said, to some extent even more than if the country had been granted offical NATO candidate status (MAP) at the Bucharest summit in April.

"At the moment EU observers appear as the first line of the the protection of Georgia's security, in some sense probably even slightly better compared to MAP. MAP without observers does not provide any guarantees for defence. But people on the ground are a very serious constraint from any aggression," he explained.

Putin's former advisor added that in some sense "it is even better than it was three months ago when there was neither serious international interest, no international observers on the ground."

"Only history will judge whether this is correct or not. If you compare the intensity of provocations in July on the internal Ossetian-Georgian border, with regular shelling, burning, and attacks - and today - with almost no provocations - you can make your own judgement which situation in reality is better," he concluded.

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