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For five straight days, thousands of Georgians have filled the capital of Tbilisi demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili is under fire for his handling of the August 2008 war with Russia. Real News Senior Editor Paul Jay was in Georgia earlier this winter looking to better understand the causes of conflict in this resource-rich region.

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The Georgian trap

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Georgia’s opposition vowed Monday to boost pressure on President Mikheil Saakashvili with round-the-clock protests outside his office, as up to 20,000 people rallied for a fifth day to demand his resignation. The demonstrators are expressing disapproval of Saakashvili’s handling of the war with Russia last August. They also claim he’s become increasingly autocratic since taking office. Saakashvili has been a close ally of the United States in the region and was supposed to be one of the success stories of the color revolutions. Georgia has been a flashpoint for US-Russia relations, as the US pushed for Georgia to join NATO. Russia has called this a provocation. While dealings between the US and Russia seem to have warmed since President Obama took office, during the election campaign Obama denounced Russia as the aggressor in the Georgia conflict, despite reports at the time that Georgia had initiated the war.

First Presidential Debate
September 26, 2008

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: —because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region. Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable, they were unwarranted, and—.

JAY: Earlier this winter I went to Georgia to learn more about the roots of the conflict.


JAY: Hi. This is Paul Jay, reporting from the Dusheti region in Georgia. Behind me is a natural gas pipeline. This is gas that originates in Russia, makes its way through Georgia, ends up in Armenia. Another pipeline heads through Georgia and goes to Turkey, and then on to markets in Western Europe. These pipelines [are] one of the reasons Georgia has become such an important pawn in the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Russia. The war between Georgia and Russia began on August 8, 2008, and Russian troops pulled out of most of Georgia early that October. Russia has claimed since the beginning that its actions in August were protecting Russian citizens living in South Ossetia from Georgian attacks.

Courtesy: CNN

SERGEI IVANOV, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RUSSIAN FEDERATION: The attack was started by the Georgians on August 8—same day, like, the Olympics opening in Beijing—when Georgians massively attacked the province of South Ossetia, which in fact is not under their control, and they started what I might describe as ethnic cleansing and genocide. I just heard what you said on the situation in Gori. You mentioned that dozens were killed. In Tskhinvali, the capital of Southern Ossetia, in the last four days, thousands were killed, mostly civilians, and nearly all of them are Russian citizens.

JAY: Saakashvili claimed that the Russians entered the region first and Georgia was defending its territory.

Courtesy: Al Jazeera

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI, GEORGIAN PRESIDENT: We have a situation of ethnic cleansing. We have, in a country of less than 5 million people, almost 500,000 refugees that are people of all ethnic origins, that were thrown out because of their either wrong language they spoke (for the occupiers) or they had wrong loyalties. And these are people from all different ethnic communities, and the whole idea of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural. Georgia was attacked by this brutal Russian invasion.

JAY: The war became a key point in the US presidential electorial campaign, as fears of an Imperial Russia took center stage. In the aftermath of the war, John McCain jumped ahead of Barack Obama in the polls for the only time in the campaign.

Courtesy: MSNBC

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): We’ve got to show moral support for Georgia; we’ve got to show moral support for Ukraine. We’ve got to advocate for their membership in NATO. We have two make the Russians understand that there are penalties for this kind of behavior, this kind of naked aggression into Georgia, a tiny country and a tiny democracy.

JAY: Saakashvili, who was often portrayed by US leaders as a hero of democracy in standing up to Russian aggression, was very open about his support for McCain.

SAAKASHVILI: Well, I’ve been talking to Senator McCain several times a day, and he has been very assuring, he has been really helpful in raising our morale. You know, I think he spends less time on his presidential campaign these days and lots of time on Georgia, and I really appreciate that.

JAY: This led some to speculate that the war was started, at least in part, to help the McCain campaign. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested as much in an interview with CNN during the war.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSISAN PRIME MINISTER (VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): We have serious reasons to believe that directly in the combat zone, citizens of the United States were present. And if this is the case, then the suspicion arises that someone in the United States has on purpose created this conflict with a view to exacerbate the situation and create a competitive advantage for one of the presidential candidates in the United States.

JAY: Other proponents of this theory, such as Pat Buchanan and Robert Scheer, pointed to McCain’s top campaign adviser, Randy Scheunemann, as further proof. Scheunemann is the former director of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, and he served as a hired lobbyist for the Saakashvili administration in Washington. Russian-US relations remain a critical fracture point of today’s geopolitics, and the real story of the Russian-Georgian conflict is yet to be told. To get one Georgian perspective, I spoke with Malkhaz Gulishvili, one of Georgia’s leading newspaper publishers.

MALKHAZ GULISHVILI, PUBLISHER, THE GEORGIAN TIMES (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Everything was done for McCain’s campaign. They calculated the Russians would be so irritated they wwould take Tbilisi. If this had happened, Obama would not be president; McCain would be. The Georgian government was certain that McCain was going to be president. McCain visited Georgia two years ago. After visiting Svaneti, Saakashvili proudly declared that McCain would be the next president of the US. This is an indicator of the close ties between the McCain campaign and the Georgian government, who believed the war would make McCain for president.

JAY: Gulishvili believes the Georgian-Russian must be seen within the context of the US elections, but even more so the broader US-Russian rivalry.

GULISHVILI: All these actions have several goals. The first was to get McCain elected, the second to show Europe how aggressive Russia was so they would align with the US instead of Russia. The third would be to destabilize territory currently under Russian control, the fourth to show the real spirit of Russia to former Soviet countries, make them scared that if Russia treats Georgia like this today, how is it likely to treat us tomorrow? Meanwhile Russia had no other way out. They had said many times that they would defend their citizens. They claimed Russian civilians were living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and that they had Russian passports. According to this declaration, Russia claimed it had to rescue its citizens. That said, Russia had three goals for the operation. Number one, to get rid of Saakashvili’s government. Number two, Russia was unhappy about the pipeline project, as it was avoiding Russian territory. They wanted to show the EU that Russia has a monopoly on energy in the Caucasus by taking control over regional energy projects being planned without them. Number three, to show former Soviet countries that if they didn’t manage their energy projects in a way that pleases Russia, they will receive a similar fate to Georgia’s.

JAY: After brutally crushing opposition demonstrations in November 2007, Saakashvili’s popularity plummeted. But there was wide support amongst Georgians for regaining control of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, their Russian-supported independence movements had fought Georgian control.

GULISHVILI: Saakashvili’s poor approval rating, both domestic and international, motivated him to set a series of objectives. Generally, the main objective for the Georgian people is regaining the country’s territorial integrity, a view shared by both the government and the opposition. Saakashvili was fulfilling this objective quite well, but he spends $2 billion annually on the military over four years. From 2003 to 2007 that meant $8 billion. That is a huge amount of money for a small country like Georgia. He set up a TV channel for militaristic propaganda. When a man assures himself that he is the smartest, he has already trapped himself. Saakashvili fell for his own public relations campaign. There is a historical analogy for this situation. Mullah Nasreddin once lied to the people, saying they were giving away free honey. After several hours he noticed a long line of people. When asked what was happening, they said there was free honey. So he got in line to wait his turn. That is what happened to Saakashvili.

JAY: Georgian society still furiously debates the causes and execution of the war. Many believe that Saakashvili is to blame for starting an unwanted and unwinnable conflict as upon in a global geopolitical game. Others believe that he should resign for his failure to win the war once it began. And, of course, he retains some support for what many see as a successful battle against corruption. But it’s that bigger chessboard of the US-Russian rivalry that’s likely to determine what happens next. Please join us for the next segment of “The Georgian Trap.”


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Malkhaz Gulashvili is the Owner and Publisher of the Georgian Times, a newspaper from Tbilisi, Georgia that is published in Georgian, Russian and English.