An Anti-Russia Campaign

From textbooks to statues, Tbilisi is hitting back at Moscow

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

When the new school year starts, Georgian students will receive a new history textbook chronicling 200 years of Russian occupation. The textbook is the result of a special commission created by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to examine the shared history of the two countries. Russians are not impressed. “Where is the logic?” asked Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chairman of information policy during an interview with Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. “Do they really want to raise a generation that will consider Russia a monster?”

The textbook is but one example of Saakashvili’s anti-Russia campaign, which he has been running since being elected to power in 2004. He seems determined to purge Georgia of anything Russian or Soviet. Last June, in the town of Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, Georgian authorities removed a historic six-metre monument of the Soviet leader from the central square where it had been standing for 48 years. The intention was to replace it with a memorial “to the victims of the Soviet dictatorship, victims of Stalin’s policies inside and outside Georgia, and victims of the 2008 war,” said Georgian Culture Minister Nikoloz Rurua.

But is the campaign doing Georgians any good? It’s been almost two years since Aug. 7, 2008, when Georgia shelled Tskhinvali, the capital of the secessionist province of South Ossetia, in an attempt to take control of the breakaway region. When Russia retaliated in a massive show of force, the ensuing war left 850 Georgians (including South Ossetians) and Russians dead and 138,000 people displaced. “Everybody has lost,” wrote Heidi Tagliavini, the head of the EU’s independent commission into the war, in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Georgia is divided; the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized only by a handful of countries; and, most importantly, more than 35,000 people are in forced displacement for an indefinite future.”

Meanwhile, though, Saakashvili has continued to capitalize on anti-Russian sentiment, and fear. In March, Imedi TV, a television station in Tbilisi, ran a “satirical” broadcast of a Russian invasion, sending hundreds of Georgians out into the streets in panic. Analysts say that Saakashvili was behind the programming, in a ploy to keep the fear of the Kremlin high. “This is a government that lost a war, and whose economy has been stuck in neutral. One of the ways they remain popular is by being the Georgian nationalist party,” says Lincoln Mitchell, an international relations expert at Columbia University.

Saakashvili’s politics can, in part, be attributed to his close ties with the U.S. Saakashvili has long been the beneficiary of the United States’ political support—particularly during the Bush administration. As Tbilisi and Washington grew closer, Georgia lobbied to join NATO and dramatically increased its military spending, stocking up on old tanks, combat aircraft and tens of thousands of small arms. But the country has its U.S. critics as well. “The previous [American] administration oversold how wonderful a democracy Georgia is,” says Dmitry Gorenburg, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. “They certainly made progress from the previous regime, but it’s a quasi-democracy rather than some shining beacon of hope.” An April survey of 2,378 Georgians by the National Democratic Institute, an American non-profit organization that supports democratic institutions, showed that 52 per cent disagreed with Georgia’s policy toward Russia, and 46 per cent said the country was not a democracy.

Though experts don’t forecast another war soon, as long as Saakashvili is in power in Tbilisi the anti-Russia rhetoric will likely continue. “I think people would be happy to have some sort of alternative to Saakashvili,” says Gorenburg, “but they don’t see any opposition leaders as a credible alternative.”