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Georgian Repentance: Richard Norland’s Version, by Sergey Markedonov

Sergey Markedonov

“The Georgians behaved towards the Abkhaz and the Ossetians in exactly the same way as the Russians behaved towards the Georgians. And now it is up to the Georgians to apologize for their past mistakes.” That quote is an extract from an address by US Ambassador in Tbilisi Richard Norland. He made that statement during an address to students at Tbilisi State University.

In the American diplomat’s opinion, in terms of “opportunities to return the occupied territories [the US regards Abkhazia and Georgia, which in line with Georgian legislation is referred to in official documents as “Tskhinvali Raion – SM], there is no quick solution to this problem.” Translated from the language of diplomacy into plain speech, this means that one should not expect a military revanche on the part of Tbilisi. It remains to place one’s hopes in years of negotiations and “soft power.” And in the context of this policy, Norland considers, apologies for the transgressions of previous leaders, each of whom had his own war, could be regarded as an important and essential move. By the way, there is a mention in Norland’s words of the Russians, whose negative attitude towards the Georgians made such an impression on Norland 20 years ago (the diplomat begins his thesis with a reference to his visit to Georgia at the beginning of the 1990s). And one should take a closer look as those words. If one follows the US ambassador’s logic, it transpires that apologies from the Georgian side are problematic without an appeal to Russia.

To what extent could the ideas Richard Norland expressed contribute to the formation of a new Georgian policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Could those ideas serve as the basis for advancing the normalization of relations between Russia and Georgia, which members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have talked about on more than one occasion over the past year? The mention of Russia is extremely important here insofar as, in Norland’s opinion, “Moscow will try without doubt to make use of Georgia’s weakness.” At the same time, the US ambassador in Tbilisi thinks that it is clear from the experience of Russia’s other neighbours that “there are ways to establish good relations with the RF, avoiding conflicts.”

The view exists in Russian political science and political journalism that Georgian foreign policy is under the total control of the “Washington obkom.” Like any generalization, this one has its flaws. First, it is worth pointing out that Georgia’s North Atlantic aspirations are a forced phenomenon and were not an immanent feature of the foreign policy of that Caucasian country. At the beginning of the 1990s the Georgian authorities in the person of then President Eduard Shevardnadze counted on Moscow’s help to secure control of the two former autonomous republics of the Georgian SSR that did not want to participate in the construction of the project called “independent Georgia.” It was for that that Georgia entered the CIS and agreed to a Russian military presence and even Russian border troops.

By comparison, neighbouring Azerbaijan preserved only one facility on its territory – the Gabala radar station, for the lease of which it received payment. But when those hopes proved unfounded (why and because of whom is a subject for a separate publication), a new wind began blowing in Tbilisi. The idea was floated that Georgia “will knock on NATO’s door.” That knocking has been going on for many years, the doors have opened a crack but they have not yet allowed the persistent aspirer (that is the Caucasus republic’s informal status) to defend its desired candidate degree.

Secondly, while demonstratively affirming its commitment to “Western standards and values,” Georgia has not always abided by them in practice. Which, by the way, NATO representatives remarked upon in an extremely accurate and veiled way towards the end of Mikheil Saakashvili’s second term, hinting at the need for “greater progress” in that sphere. Again, the aim of this article is not to analyse Mikheil Saakashvili’s domestic policy. I would only note that one of the reasons for the defeat of the United National Movement in last year’s parliamentary election was the news of the use of illegal methods (including torture) in prisons. And the Georgian authorities brilliantly demonstrated their preferred approach to conducting a dialogue with their opponents in November 2007 and May 2011. In November 2007 President Saakashvili even announced that “Georgia does not need to listen to all the advice offered by its friends.”That was his response to the cautious skepticism of his Western partners with regard to the imposition of a state of emergency following the dispersal by force of the mass opposition protests.

The situation surrounding the recognition of Kosovo, which the US had declared “a unique case” of ethno-political self-determination back in the early 2000s, is a separate story. Immediately the “war of recognition” of the former Serbian autonomous region began in 2008, Tbilisi declared it would not participate in this “triumphal procession” of bestowing international legitimacy on the de-facto Balkan state.

But for all the complications and nuances, the influence of the US on Georgia’s foreign policy is extremely important. The words and evaluations of any representative of official Washington are listened to attentively in Tbilisi, and those of an ambassador even more so. And at the very least they show an interest in the American opinion. As for Richard Norland, he is an experienced career diplomat, from a diplomatic family (he was born in Morocco when his father was posted there). He was proposed for his current post by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate on 29 March 2012.

Norland has considerable experience in the countries of Eurasia. He gained experience at the US embassy on the USSR at the last stage of “perestroika,” then worked at the OSCE Mission in Tbilisi (so he is well acquainted with the details of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), then the US Embassy in Afghanistan. It is understandable that an ambassador is not an expert and cannot express his personal opinion about the events taking place in the country where he is stationed. Mostly he speaks in the capacity of a relayer of the approaches that are being formulated in his capital. Of course, his own judgment is as essential to a diplomat as cunning and flexibility. But these qualities cannot extend radically beyond the framework imposed by the state leadership. Andin this respect Richard Norland is no exception.

At the present time official Washington has retreated in its relations with Georgia from those extremes that were part of the ammunition of the team of President George Bush Junior. The Caucasus republic is no longer proclaimed “a beacon of democracy” and a role model for its neighbours. Its “great success and significant progress” is acknowledged, but no unnecessary advances are made. The North Atlantic partnership (in the first instance, the operation in Afghanistan) is publicly highly praised, but no concrete date has been named for Georgia’s admission to NATO. The country is no longer identified with one individual as it was during Mikheil Saakashvili’s first presidential term. In its Georgia policy Washington today also demonstrates its unwillingness to be turned into a dog wagged by its own tail. That applies to Russian-Georgian relations. The American authorities declare their support for the normalization of bilateral relations and their unwillingness to use US resources to extinguish Caucasian ethnopolitical fires. At the same time, the Obama team, like the previous administration, fears the restoration of Russian influence in Eurasia. Today representatives of the White House and the State Department do not resort to such colorful metaphors as “re-sovietzation.” But this in no way negates the existence of phobias with regard to “Russian dominance” over the territories of the former USSR. Richard Norland’s November declaration should be seen in this context.

Characteristic of him are such stylistic features as lowering the level of responsibility for contenders to the title of New Democracy and obligatory mention of the negative Russian influence. At the same time (and this too is characteristic of pronouncements by American officials and many experts) Soviet and Russian are conflated.

The question arises: why is it useful to mention “the Russians’ bad attitude towards the Georgians” when the issue under discussion is the imperative need to restore trust between Georgia on the one hand and the Abkhaz and Ossetians on the other? And more to the point, which Russians and Georgians are we talking about? And over what time period? Since “the accursed imperial past?” In that case it is worth remembering that for all the complexities and ambiguities of the incorporation of Georgia into the Russian Empire, the national territory of the future independent country (not the separate princedoms) was brought together “behind friendly bayonets.” By means of a whole series of wars with the Ottoman Empire and Persia. A significant proportion of the Georgian ruling class was successfully incorporated into its Russian equivalent.

It is indicative how Dmitrii Kipiani, the leader of the Tbilisi nobility, greeted the viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Mikheil Nikolaevich Romanov, on 9 June 1864: "Your Imperial Majesty! You have completed the subjugation of the Caucasus and thus inscribed into a history an event of enormous importance that is inseparable with your name. Selected by the Georgian nobility, we convey greetings to Your Imperial Highness in the name of our entire class.” Of course, Georgia suffered many hardships during the Soviet period.But that is just one side of the coin. The other is the participation of a large number of people from Georgia in the party and Soviet organs of power and control. Beginning, as they say, with Stalin, Ordjonikidze and Beria and ending with Shevardnadze. And, by the way, Russia was no less affected by the political repression of the Stalin period.

It’s not an idle question: didn’t representatives of the Georgian intelligentsia write odes praising the “best friend of all athletes,” did they not create his image in cinema, literature and architecture? The film director Mikheil Chiaureli, winner of five Stalin prizes (first class), author of “The Unforgettable 19th” and “The Fall of Berlin,” the poets Simon Chikovani (also a Stalin Prize winner), who wrote Ushgul Komsomol, and Giorgi Leonidze, who lauded Stalin in his epic poem “Childhood and Adolescence” about the Leader’s childhood years. These people were not transported to the former USSR from another planet! Let’s not forget that in was in Stalin’s time that the policy of Georgianization in Abkhazia reached its peak, and Georgia’s territory expanded in 1943-1944 at the expense of the annexation of lands from Karachayevo-Cherkessia (after the deportation of the Karachais the town of Karachayevsk was given the Georgian name of Klukhori), Checheno-Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria.

These territories remained part of the Georgian SSR until 1957, that is until the start of the process of rehabilitation of the deported peoples. Meanwhile, the rehabilitation of the Meskhetian Turks who had been deported from Georgia was not completed either in the Soviet period nor after the formation of an independent Georgian state in 1991.

The RSFSR and Georgia, like the other union republics, were part of a single state. And for that reason they bear shared responsibility for both the crimes and the achievements of that country. It’s even strange to try to explain such simple things, although if what is wanted is not a multi-coloured picture but a simplification, then one has to make the attempt. And will probably have to do so again more than once.

Some may object that an ambassador has no need to draw on ancient history. Norland probably had in mind the events of April 1989, when the mass protest in Tbilisi was dispersed with the participation of servicemen from the Transcaucasus Military District, and 19 people were killed. But here too everything cannot be reduced to a simple template. Let me remind you that the then USSR Supreme Soviet created a special commission (known as the Sobchak commission) in the wake of those events that published a Conclusion criticizing the actions of the Soviet army and the party leadership.

The text of that document stresses, by the way, that “the leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia was unable to establish contact and engage in a dialogue with society.” Not only was unable, mind you, but tried to play the nationalist card. Or perhaps the US Ambassador in Tbilisi is unaware that in April 1989 the head of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia was Djumber Patiashvili, and his successor, Givi Gumbaridze, took part in the “march on Tskhinval/i” that served as the catalyst for the conflict with South Ossetia?

There is absolutely no doubt that the death of 19 people on Rustaveli Prospect in April 1989 was a terrible tragedy, and the actions of the Soviet leadership were not distinguished by their wisdom and professionalism, to put it mildly. But how can you compare that figure with the number of victims of the war in Abkhazia? As the Irish political scientist Donnacha Ó Beacháin rightly pointed out, “in one terrible year of war (1992-1993), the Abkhaz, a small ethnic group, lost 4 percent of their population. In terms of the population of the US, that would be 12 million people! People frequently told me in Abkhazia that the international community did nothing to protect the Abkhaz people who were struggling with pressure from Georgia or with the post-war blockade of the 1990s.”

By the way, in 1996 Russia was implementing this blockade together with Georgia. At that juncture, however, none of the representatives of the American establishment began comparing the Georgian and Russian attitudes to the Abkhaz. At that point the issue of human rights in an ethno-political conflict zone did not figure among the priority issues on the agenda.

Of course you can find black pages in recent Russia history too connected with a bad attitude to ethnic Georgians. The campaign in 2006 to compile lists of Georgian students and deport Georgians was bad enough! But neither then nor earlier did Russian bureaucrats not permit themselves one tenth of what issued from the mouths of Georgian politicians, military personnel, and cultural figures with regard to the Abkhaz and Ossetians. Take the speech by Georgian General Gia Qarqarashvili on Sukhum/i television, when he announced: “I can tell these separatists immediately that if 100,000 Georgians of our share of the population die, so will every one of your 97,000 share.” He was referring there to the pre-war population of Abkhazia.

It’s worth asking how and why it is worth trying to equate the negative attitude of the Georgian elites to the Abkhaz and Ossetians and the negative attitude of the Russians to ethnic Georgians?

As we see, the phobias and fears rooted in the era of the Cold War are winning out. Russian as a geographical term, Russian as an ethnonym, Soviet (even though the USSR under Stalin was very different from what it was under Brezhnev) are described as a single unchanging concept – and one that is responsible for everything negative. Even where such responsibility cannot be determined as a priority. An American diplomat does not and cannot hold a conversation with educated Georgians about their responsibility, separating the problem from the mythology concerning their northern neighbour. Such a conversation is probably not possible without negative connotations addressed to Moscow. The risks of a change of style and huge, and there is no desire for such a change. It’s so much easier to see in the policy of the Russian Federation an immanent aspiration to overcome and subjugate its neighbours.

But the problem is that the genuine breakthrough in relations between the USA and Russia which both countries desperately need is impossible as long as the discourse about “re-sovietizaton” in its hard or soft form continues to figure in the speeches and addresses of representatives of the American establishment. As long as Russisa is considered exclusively responsible for the crimes of the Soviet period, the collapse of the USSR is viewed not as a complex and contradictory process but as the “national-liberation struggle of the new democracies,” and the current Russian policy in Eurasia is construed as “imperial revanche,” it will be difficult for Moscow and Washington to find a common language, regardless of well-meaning rhetorical references to a breakthrough. The problem here is not so much commitment to historical truth as that the absence of a nuanced picture of the past leads to the simplified practical steps in the present. That was the case with the “lighthouse of democracy” and with “imperial revanche” which prevent [the West] seeing the Abkhazians’ and Ossetians’ own aspirations, and with the “re-sovietization” that provokes not just harshness with regard to Russia but also anti-Western sentiments within Russia. And it is difficult to explain rationally to the Russian elite that it is imperative to seek ways of cooperating with the US, if in response you hear appeals like those that issued from the mouth of the US ambassador to Tbilisi in November. Emotions tend to generate an emotional reaction.

This article was published by Politcom and is translated from Russian.

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