Paata Zakareishvili / Photo © Georgian News

‘‘There used to be more guard posts along the dividing line. The Russians and Ossetians took advantage of the lack of Georgian watchtowers and killed Tamaz Ginturi. I think that Georgian Dream is willingly surrendering conflicted zones to Russia and deflecting blame to the National Movement. Tbilisi and Moscow have a common agenda and narrative today. Moscow is yet unable to fully subjugate the Georgian authorities – they failed to impeach the president. Georgian Dream can’t fully align with Russian interests – to their dismay, the European Commission still issued a recommendation in our favor,’’ says political scientist and the former State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zakareishvili in an interview with Georgian News. He also spoke about the expectations of the Abkhazians and Ossetians following the positive recommendation by the European Commission to grant Georgia the status of a candidate country for EU membership.

- After the killing of Tamaz Ginturi in Kirbali, the issue of the safety of the population of the borderline regions regained focus. What exactly can the central government of Georgia do to secure the safety of these people and why is it not taking these steps?

- This indeed raises questions for the authorities – there used to be more guard posts along the dividing line. According to locals, a significant number of them were dismantled and relocated or scrapped altogether. Why were these guard posts disassembled? There must be some rationale. If there is an economic justification for removing the guard posts, that the state could not provide for so many policemen there, that is understandable, but it has weakened the security in the area. The population was worried about the abolition of guard posts and told me about it. When I asked the policemen and the Ministry of Internal Affairs about it, they told me that those policemen were standing there in vain, they had no purpose and the money was being wasted. This position would be acceptable if nothing bad had happened. But then Ginturi was murdered. So, it turned out that

Someone took advantage of the absence of Georgian watchtowers, and these were Russians and Ossetians. We can set up more posts without the EU mission seeing it as a problem.  

Regarding Ginturi, Ossetians are manipulating the fact that he was a soldier who fought in the 2008 war and was buried with military honors. They might twist his military status to claim that he was sent there on some spy mission. Spinning such myths and fairy tales for propaganda is very easy.

- In the media of occupied Tskhinvali, it was repeatedly brought up that Tamaz Ginturi was a loyal and active supporter of Saakashvili's party. What is the Ossetian side trying to achieve with this emphasis?

- This means that the instructions are coming from Moscow. For example, whether it's Lavrov, Zakharova, or Peskov, Saakashvili's name is often mentioned by Kremlin officials, because not many people in Russia know National Movement, but everyone knows Saakashvili.

I think that Georgian Dream is willingly ceding contested territory and scapegoating National Movement. That’s why Tbilisi and Moscow have a common agenda and narrative.

Moscow is dictating to Tskhinvali what language to use, to make sure Saakashvili’s name keeps being voiced and the responsibility of the National Movement is seen. I see in this the strategy of the Georgian Dream to gradually relinquish Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russia and to accustom our society that whatever happens will be the fault of Saakashvili and the National Movement, while the Georgian Dream will remain happy, flawless, and fluffy.

- The de facto authorities of Tskhinvali released Levan Dotiashvili from illegal imprisonment rather quickly, who was in the church of Lomisi with Tamaz Ginturi and was kidnapped after his murder. Several other Georgian citizens remain illegally imprisoned in Tskhinvali and Sukhumi prisons. What resources do we have to rescue them?

- I was not surprised by the quick release of Dotiashvili. Let us recall that two other people arrested together with Archil Tatunashvili were also released quite soon. As for current prisoners, there are three major cases in Abkhazia – Irakli Bebua, as well as those of two women - Kristine Takalandze and Asmat Tavadze. Negotiations should be in progress for the release of these people, but they are not. There are no negotiations of the type we had when we exchanged prisoners with Tskhinvali and Sukhumi in 2016. No intensive talks are underway, the parties communicate solely through the ‘‘hotline’’. That is not going to do it, direct connections are needed. In the case of direct contacts and negotiations, I think these issues are solvable.

- Two days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the European Union is trying to push Russia out of Central Asia and Transcaucasia and that it will not work. Doesn't this statement resemble the reaction of Russia dissatisfied with the declaration of the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, which was soon followed by the Russia-Georgia war? In light of Georgia's progress in its integration into the European Union, what kind of reactions can we expect from Russia?

- Something else is more noteworthy in Lavrov’s statement – if anyone is supplanting Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it is China and Turkey, but Russia is powerless against this. For example, Turkey has completely assimilated Azerbaijan – Azerbaijani policy is Turkish policy, and vice versa, they are absolutely on the same page. China is consolidating its foothold in Central Asia. Russia does not dare object to this, and only bemoans the growing influence of the European Union, because

If Russia fears anything, it is democracy. It is scared of not the EU, but of democracy. That is why there is a war in Ukraine and that’s why Moscow does not want to let Georgia stray too far.

The encroachment and strengthening of the European Union is much more troublesome for Russia than that of Turkey and China, because in the eyes of the Kremlin, the latter states are authoritarian regimes with which it can easily find a common ground. Russia will never find a common ground with the EU.

Thus, the statement of Lavrov is in itself a statement of a weak and desperate person, and testifies that

Moscow could not manage to fully shackle the government of Georgia. For example, they failed to impeach the president. Georgian Dream cannot fully align with Russian interests – to their dismay, the European Commission still issued a recommendation in our favor.

Lavrov made that statement annoyed by this. Russia was also spewing threats regarding Finland, that they wouldn’t allow NATO at their doorstep, but Finland was admitted, NATO expanded, and Russia’s state border with NATO grew considerably, so what did Russia do? Nothing. There is nothing they can do but emptily threaten. It is better they focus on dealing with the Ukraine situation and think of an exit strategy from that mess.

Therefore, Lavrov's statement should not be a cause for concern for us. Russia can’t dare challenge the real players - Turkey and China, and instead found a weak link of the EU in the Caucasus to direct their anger. They are in effect warning Georgian Dream – I see that you failed your homework, Europe is still gaining a foothold there, even though I know you are against it.

- In different formats, you manage face-to-face meetings with Abkhazians and Ossetians. What do they think about the positive recommendation of the European Commission on granting Georgia the status of a candidate country for EU membership? 

- They have an unequivocally positive reaction. Everyone I talk to there is happy. They know that Georgia will be more restrained and reasonable, and Brussels, on its part, will be principled and strict towards Georgia. Besides, Georgia in the EU is more interesting for them.

At this stage, the most important thing is for them to see how safe Georgia will be. The EU has written to Moldova that it recognizes its territorial integrity, while at the same time urging it to consider a special status for Transnistria. It will be very good if the European Union uses this type of wording in relation to Georgia after the accession negotiations begin. On the one hand, Abkhazians and Ossetians will know that we are talking about the territorial integrity of Georgia in terms of the internationally recognized borders, and on the other hand, it is up to Georgia to find a special angle in relations with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. This is a proven formula that has already been used in the case of Moldova. Someone responsible in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali read this and they know that Georgia will be given the same formula.

- What is the attitude of the Abkhazians to the plan to station a permanent base of the Russian Navy in Ochamchire?

- Negative, there is a negative attitude towards this matter at all levels. Some declare it openly and loudly, others cannot express it publicly. The representatives of the de facto government of Abkhazia say that they had no other choice, that Russia needs it and they could not refuse. In Abkhazia, they think that this creates a real danger and do not rule out that Ukraine may bomb Ochamchire at some point, should tensions escalate further.

- Work on dual citizenship with the Russian Federation is actively underway in both occupied regions. In early November, the representatives of the de facto government in Abkhazia once again discussed this matter, and in Tskhinvali, the process is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

- This is total annexation - Russia is trying to tie the citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to its legal framework as much as possible. When this process goes the way they want,

Moscow will gradually raise the prospect of giving out dual citizenship for Russian citizens as well, which the Abkhazians are categorically against.

South Ossetia may not be of interest to most Russians, but Abkhazia definitely is - many Russians want to have Abkhazian citizenship. There may not be a direct correlation, but as citizens, Russians will be able to buy real estate in Abkhazia.

Author: Manana Mchedlishvili

Georgian News
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