Last Updated: Friday, 22 August 2014, 15:07 GMT

Georgia: Russia bets on ex-Georgian prime minister as Saakashvili alternative

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 10 February 2010
Cite as EurasiaNet, Georgia: Russia bets on ex-Georgian prime minister as Saakashvili alternative, 10 February 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b966e7028.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
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Giorgi Lomsadze: 2/10/10

With chances for reconciliation with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili close to non-existent, Russia appears to be trying to gain political currency with ordinary Georgians via a cooperation pact with Georgia's former-premier-turned-opposition leader Zurab Noghaideli.

Bucking the general Tbilisi consensus that there can be no diplomacy with Moscow until Russia withdraws from the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Noghaideli, the leader of the Justice for Georgia Party, signed a cooperation agreement on February 9 with Russian Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. The speaker is also a leader of the United Russia Party, which is chaired by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Amid boos and jeers from Georgian officials, the two parties agreed to restore "good neighborly" relations, exchange information on political issues, and build inter-party ties. "This is a very important, historic document that lays the groundwork for tomorrow, when the feud will be replaced with friendship," Noghaideli commented after putting his signature on the agreement in Moscow.

To seal the deal, Gryzlov presented Noghaideli with a recording of Russian pop-stars Oleg Gazmanov and Georgian-born Soso Pavliashvili singing praises to the past love and friendship between Georgians and Russians.

Many Georgian government and opposition supporters have denounced Noghaideli's action as treacherous.

On February 2, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used a crude colloquialism to charge his former prime minister with collaborating with Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "If certain politicians are, excuse me, somebody's bitch ("chmo," meaning a subordinate or slave), Georgia will never become one," Saakashvili said in televised comments.

Noghaideli and his supporters are brushing off such criticism. "We are not negotiating with the Russians [over] the prospects of the reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia," said parliamentarian Petre Mamradze, a senior member of the Justice for Georgia Party responsible for foreign affairs. "This is a long-term perspective. To use a loose comparison, it took 45 years for Germany to reunite. The Abkhaz and South Ossetians must find it in their hearts to return to Georgia, but for this, Saakashvili's 'democradura' ('false democracy') ... must end."

After resigning as prime minister in 2007, Noghaideli, known as a reserved financial policy wonk, struggled to find a niche as an opposition leader. If nothing else, the overture to Moscow gained him publicity.

Noghaideli started courting the Russian establishment in 2009, when he blamed Saakashvili for antagonizing Moscow, while promising to drop Georgia's aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He helped negotiate the release of four Georgian teenagers held by separatist South Ossetians, and also claimed credit for the brief resumption of Moscow-Tbilisi charter flights over Orthodox Christmas in January 2010.

The ex-premier's efforts came to a head in December 2009, when a World War II monument in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi, was blown up to make space for a new parliamentary building. Two people died in the blast. Seizing the opportunity, Noghaideli partnered with United Russia to criticize the demolition. On December 23, 2009, he appeared on Russian television with Putin, who offered to reconstruct the shattered Kutaisi memorial in Moscow.

Given the Kremlin's frequently expressed desire to see Saakashvili out of office, many Georgians scoffed at Noghaideli's action. "Moscow is holding a casting call for the role of Georgian president and Georgian politicians are invited to audition," sniffed parliamentary majority leader Petre Tsiskaridze in an interview with Tbilisi's opposition-friendly Kavkasia television channel.

Both the moderate opposition group Alliance for Georgia, headed by ex-United Nations Ambassador Irakli Alasania, and parliament's largest minority party, the Christian- Democrats Party, have distanced themselves from the reconciliation campaign.

Soso Tsintsadze, rector of the Georgian Diplomacy Academy, said that Moscow has taken a "gradualist approach" since the 2008 war with Georgia, and wants to cast Noghaideli as a Viktor Yanukovich-type figure, a reference to Ukraine's apparent president-elect. The Kremlin wants a figure in Tbilisi who would set up a "neutral regime" and "not seek integration with NATO."

But Tsintsadze sees a slim chance for Noghaideli, generally perceived as a second-tier politician, prevailing at the polls.

Nonetheless, Noghaideli's emphasis on repairing relations with Russia reflects a widespread desire among Georgians to put the active acrimony of the past few years behind them. A survey conducted in August 2009 by Tbilisi's Caucasus Research Resource Center showed that while most Georgians are leery of Moscow, 54 percent of more than 1,600 respondents favored "very close political cooperation" with Russia.

"Politically, it is risky to propose a pro-Russian orientation as a campaign platform," commented Caucasus Research Resource Center Regional Director Hans Gutbrod. "While most Georgians want to improve the relationship with Russia, they don't trust the Kremlin to deliver in return. To succeed with this strategy, you would have to convince the electorate that the Kremlin is sincere about a constructive and respectful relationship for the next few years, and not just for a few weeks or months."

To shore up its chances of making that case to Georgians, the Kremlin appears to be hedging its bets. After signing the agreement with Noghaideli, Duma Speaker Gryzlov invited other Georgian politicians to follow the ex-premier's suit and start talking to Moscow as well.

Editor's Note: Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

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