Scapegoating Russia


For the West, Russia is the best candidate to criticize and blame for all its woes.

Twenty years ago, when the Russian economy was in tatters during the turbulent presidency of Boris Yeltsin, few could imagine that within a period of just two decades, Russia would be in the media spotlight as one of the West’s key troublemakers. Today, many opponents criticize Russia for its perennial human right abuses, assertive foreign policy and authoritarian regime. It is natural, at least because they can score political points: Russia has become a global player that is worthwhile and politically expedient to lambast.   

Without doubt, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy is very controversial, but this is not the only reason why the West has seemingly launched a crusade against the Kremlin. Some experts and politicians tend to point their fingers at Russia no matter what has happened: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hidden machinations are everywhere, his influence is omnipresent.

It remains to be seen whether it is true or not, yet this should be addressed via thorough and competent investigation and the court, not through allegations. No matter what, but one thing is clear: behind this campaign against Russia is the West’s natural need to find a real adversary who might pose an existential threat.

It is no secret that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western free and liberal world came up with the idea of “the end of history,” promoted by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama. NATO members started believing that they were invincible, with their values and views becoming more viable with every passing day. Thus, the West rigorously encouraged other countries to accept its system of values and sometimes tried to impose its rules.

The military operation in Afghanistan was only the beginning; when that was completed, it turned into another campaign – in Iraq. The West’s attempt to expand its influence in the post-Soviet space was interpreted by the Kremlin and its like-minded supporters as attempts to orchestrate a “color revolution,” be it in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) or Kyrgyzstan (2005). The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in 2011 was another stage of the West’s endeavor to spread its values abroad. Finally, the apex of the Western crusade became the attempts to overthrow the political regimes in Syria and Libya, both of which turned into bloody and never-ending civil wars.

Ironically, the West didn’t achieve its results and plans in most cases, and all its noble attempts to “export” democracy abroad only backfired. Far from becoming more democratic and stable, the countries and the region was faced with a severe crisis. It became obvious that the Western scenario could not keep up with the harsh reality. Naturally, this discredited democratic values and democracy itself (as a tool of foreign policy).

When Barack Obama came into the Oval Office, the image of the United States had been already tainted and the new president had to shoulder this burden. Yet he was not able to deal with it — he didn’t fulfill his pre-election pledges to close the notorious prison in Guantanamo or withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, regardless of his plan to shy away from an assertive foreign policy, he didn’t stop U.S. attempts to interfere into the domestic policy of other countries. This also hampered America’s reputation as well as the image of Obama’s Democratic Party in general. This created a fertile ground for the emergence of populist forces and the rise of flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump, who finally won the U.S. presidency. He promised to stop the democratic crusade abroad and focus more on domestic problems.

In this situation, oddly enough, Russia might play a very important role in returning the Western liberal forces back to power. Paradoxically, Russia has already started bringing the West’s politicians together — but not as a positive factor, but rather, as a threat. As indicated by the 2017 Munich Security Conference, the West does understand the need to unite and refute anti-democratic and populist forces.

The mainstream narrative, which is actively circulated in America, is crystal clear: Putin and, specifically, Russia’s hackers, contributed to Trump’s victory in the presidential election and Brexit; Russia’s intelligence rigged the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia to bring to power pro-Russian parties. This narrative is consistent even in the context of the upcoming elections in France and Germany: the media and pundits are mulling over a possible victory of pro-Russian candidates Francois Fillon or Marine Le Pen; they speculate about the possible failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, well-known for her tough and intransigent approach toward the Kremlin.

However, one relevant question comes to one’s mind: Did Russia really have such an impact on all these political processes? Why Russia, not China or some other country, let’s say? If Russia is so powerful and omnipresent that means that the U.S. is no longer a superpower — it has been replaced by Russia, as Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Derek Averre of the University of Birmingham ironically implied during one of the 2016 meetings with Georgian pundits, who warned about Russia’s increasing influence.

To follow such logic, only a country that is economically, politically and militarily equal to the U.S. might have an impact on America’s domestic policy. But Russia is far from this level at the moment. The hacking attacks were commonplace, they have been undertaken and they will be carried out from both sides in future. And this is natural.

Regarding Brexit and the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, these events indicated that the local political elites and their strategic partners were not able to recognize the indignation of voters as reality. In the case of Georgia, the authorities were reluctant to admit that its former President was authoritarian in his nature.       

Likewise, if the liberal and politically correct forces in France and Germany fail, their defeat will be a result of the domestic political processes in these countries. For example, the refugee crisis might play a significant role: Merkel’s noble, if utopian, plan to shelter many refugees in Germany and immediately integrate them into society might backfire.

Naturally, in such an environment it is politically beneficial to lambast and point fingers at Russia. By the same token, the Kremlin is the best candidate to blame for all Western woes. The choice is rational for a good reason: It fell on Russia because the Kremlin annexed Crimea, intervened in Georgia and now is reported to be conducting subversive activity against the Western world.

Moreover, historical memory of why the West scapegoated Moscow is also important: Everybody remembers the Red Scare. Thus, it is quite easy to nurture mistrust toward Russia in such an environment by dredging up old memories. Furthermore, the West can criticize Russia without expecting serious implications for its long-term interests, because the list of its key strategic partners includes Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel and Turkey — but not Russia.

In other words, criticizing the Kremlin doesn’t necessarily undermine the West’s strategic interests. That might be the reason why Riyadh and Doha can keep bombing civilians in Yemen without expecting sanctions from the West. That might be why Israel continued to build settlements in Palestine despite the large-scale Muslim protests. That might be why Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels impunity when he lawlessly imprisons thousands of Turkish citizens throughout the entire country.

Finally, Russia is powerful enough to be a bogeyman. It can pose a threat to the West, yet it is possible to deal with. That’s why the West chooses the Kremlin, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia (which allegedly finances terrorists and has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks against America), not Hungary with Victor Orban, not Ukraine with its political disorder, not even China with its global economic clout. However, Russia is big enough and, at first glance, very strong. With its weak economy and oil addiction, it is a good target to contain.   

Summing up, the West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests.

The article was originally published by Russia Direct.

Tagged : / / / / / / / /

Who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia?


In Georgia, whether you’re in opposition or in power, you can always call your opponent an agent of the Kremlin.

Russia may be actively involved in the Georgian economy, but our foreign policy narrative represents Russia as an existential threat. With Georgia’s status as a “beacon” of democracy in the South Caucasus taken as standard, the country finds itself under a continuous phantom threat from outside.

This is where Georgia’s domestic political narrative comes in. Ever since Mikheil Saakashvili divided society into “patriots” and “non-patriots” in the post-revolutionary years, the Georgian state has publicly searched for “enemy agents” in the form of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth columns” — these groups are “traitors” who try to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and aspirations to become a member of the civilised world.

This tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society

Indeed, these exact terms have been used to abuse, oppress and libel various Georgian opposition groups and political parties by the political elite. Fast forward to 2016, this tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society and the country’s strategic partners.

In fact, there is no clear definition of Georgia’s “pro-Russian” phenomenon. Instead, there are various interpretations that make it easy to deploy this term against “undesirable” elements and thus legitimise the use of questionable methods against them.

Saakashvili’s rise, fall and rise again

Russia’s involvement in its southern neighbour’s political life is an old story. During the 1990s, the Russian state contributed to the unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separatist regions recognised by Russia) and Georgians were fully aware of that.

Still, there was no public obsession with Russia in Georgia. Russia wasn’t the focus of discussion locally or internationally. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003, did not push the idea of Russia as an enemy, instead trying to maintain good relationships with both the west and the north.

Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”

Everything changed dramatically after the Rose Revolution in 2003. The newly elected political trio of Mikhail Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze assured the international community that they will put the state on a democratic “path”. After the death of Zhvania in 2005, Saakashvili and his political team in the United National Movement (UNM) became the undisputed leaders of Georgia. Saakashvili tried to “restart” Georgian-Russian relations, but failed.

After the events of August 2004, when Saakasvhili’s government clashed with separatists in South Ossetia’s Tskhinvali region, it became clear that there was little ground for political dialogue between Georgia and Russia.

It was obvious that Saakashvili’s enormous support had melted away. In November of that year, Saakashvili ordered the dispersal of this peaceful protest, which led to mass riots, the closure of opposition TV broadcaster Imedi and the declaration of an emergency situation.

After Saakashvili was forced to resign and announce new presidential elections, it was clear Saakashvili was in need of a new political campaign that could consolidate Georgian society around him and legitimise his actions. He found it in Russia.

From November to November

The people who gathered in downtown Tbilisi in November 2007 came out against authoritarianism, abuse of rights and corruption. But prominent figures from UNM initially labelled it as a “pro-Russian rally” that aimed to dismantle Georgia, its sovereignty and overthrow the democratically elected pro-western government.

Saakashvili told local news agencies that “high-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this”. Givi Targamadze, the former chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, warned protesters that the government would not let the Russian flag be raised on Rustaveli avenue, Tbilisi’s central thoroughfare. Moreover, Targamadze argued, the participants of these events would “drown in blood”. This was the first case in which a high-ranking Georgian official directly accused a foreign country of an attempt to overthrow the government.

Step-by-step, and using “secret recordings”, Gvaramia explained that the leaders of Georgia’s main opposition forces, such as Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party, Giorgi Khaindrava of the Equality Institute, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leader of the Freedom Party and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labor Party, directed the 2007 protests under the guidance of foreign agents. From November to November thus introduced the concept of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth column” into Georgia’s domestic political culture, justifying the government’s actions as a “necessary evil”. Despite these allegations, no one was arrested or with treason or the organisation of an attempted coup.

By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”

Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”. As Koba Turmanidze, the director of Caucasus Research Resource Center, argued, an openly “pro-Russian” position could provoke a “harsh response”. This “response” was revealed several years later on 26 May 2011, when protesters led by Nino Burjanadze in Tbilisi were accosted by security officers and brutally beaten. Four people were later found dead.

The government called this protest “pro-Russian”, and easily justified its actions while members of Georgian society — afraid of the same fate — turned a blind eye to this “punitive” operation. By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”.

Russia, again

Even though Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution government tried hard to stay in power, it lost parliamentary elections to the “pro-Russian” political party Georgian Dream in 2012.

Saakashvili’s attempts to represent Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarchic leader of Georgia’s opposition movement, as a close ally of Vladimir Putin failed. As soon as these “agents of foreign states” came to power, they assured Georgian society they would normalise Georgian-Russian relations.

But while there were hopes that the new government would dismantle the dubious concept of “pro-Russian forces”, Georgian society was deceived. Saakashvili’s legacy remained strong. Just like UNM in the past, Georgian Dream slowly haemorrhaged support thanks to its frequently illogical and ineffective reforms in various fields, including the extremely sensitive judicial and electoral systems. And on top of that, the failure of the Georgian-Russian “reset” intensified dissatisfaction among the electorate, on the one hand, and positions of anti-Russian groups, on the other.

So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.

By September 2015, one year before parliamentary elections in October 2016, and in the wake of Georgian Dream’s falling approval ratings, Russia became relevant again. In a BBC interview, Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s defence minister at the time, urged western states to support Georgia on its way toward NATO and EU integration — otherwise pro-Russian forces would be represented in the new parliament. Funnily enough, it was a colleague of Khidasheli’s who appeared in the secret recording with a Russian intelligence operative in From November to November that “proved” Russia’s involvement in the November 2007 events.

It is a paradox that Tina Khidasheli, an active participant of the “Russian-led” events in November 2007, began a search for “Russian spies” among opposition members in the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. Nowadays, both the government and opposition use the concept to corral votes and marginalise one another other.

For instance, take July’s OSCE parliamentary assembly annual meeting in Tbilisi. During the session, OSCE members should have voted for a new president. The UNM presented its own candidate Gigi Tseretely, while the ruling party opposed. By the end of the day, the dispute was not about Tseretely’s candidacy, but rather about which side was cooperating with the Russian delegation. It should be noted that while the Bush administration was previously keen to trust Saakashvili on “pro-Russian forces”, nowadays, it is a less popular topic abroad.

Russia is both an important trade partner and a threat to Georgian security, but Mikheil Saakashvili managed to transform the country into a popular political method to marginalise his political opponents and oppress them.

Now, two months before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, which is unable and unwilling to crack down on opponents, is also using the concept to consolidate the electorate.

So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.

The article was initially published by OpenDemocracy.

Tagged : / / / / / /
RussiaUSAGeorgia