Former president: Georgia won’t go to war with Russia

Eduard Shevardnadze, who was the Soviet Union’s foreign minister during Mikhail Gorbachev’s term as president, and later president of Georgia until unseated by a coup on November 23, 2003, spoke to Kathimerini in a wide-ranging interview. He analyzes the causes of the Russo-Georgian crisis that is threatening to destabilize the Caucasus; warns of a domino effect in the region should Abkhazia and South Ossetia secede; believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of a bloodbath in the Caucasus are intended to frighten people; and warns that a war would rally the people of the Caucasus around the Georgians. He also revealed why he argued with Gorbachev and resigned from his post on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Will the recent deterioration in Russo-Georgian relations get to the point of war? Nobody can guarantee it 100 percent, but I don’t think we’ll reach the point of war. It is not in Russia’s interest and much less in Georgia’s interest to fight Russia, especially taking into account the lessons of the recent past. Why? Because we lost Abkhazia. In 1993 the population was 17 percent Abkhazians and 48 percent Georgians, but with the help of the Russians, Kazakhs, Chechnyans and others, they threw us out of there, they expelled the Georgian population. But Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili did not rule out the possible use of military force by Russia. The minister expressed his opinion, but I have my opinion of Russian policy, just as I know the policy of Georgia, in terms of vital interests, I mean. That’s why I repeat, there will be no war. You can understand how the international community would see acts of war by Russia against Georgia. Chechnya boomerang Are the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia important enough to cause a serious crisis, like the recent one in Russo-Georgian relations. The issue of South Ossetia can be resolved easily. It is not a large area, nor is it densely populated. As for Abkhazia, however, Russia needs that area. Pavel Grachev, the defense minister of Russia in Yeltsin’s administration, said that if didn’t defend Abkhazia we would lose the entire Black Sea. Why? Russia had many ports on the Black Sea, such as Sevastopol and Odessa… But after [Nikita] Khrushchev gave the Crimea to Ukraine, Russia had only one large port left on the Black Sea, Novorossiysk, and that is closed to shipping for two to three months a year. That’s why the Russians need the Abkhazian coast. Of course the Russians will do their best to stop the Abkhazians and Georgians from coming to an agreement, even though we are related peoples, practically one family. In that case, would it be a solution to impose order by force of arms if both regions declared their independence or their incorporation into Russia? When we were defeated in Abkhazia in 1993, the Georgian population was expelled from that part of the country. The international community unanimously condemned ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population, with some 300,000 refugees. Since then the Abkhazians, with new forces, have raised the issue of incorporation into the fabric of the Russian Federation, and between us this idea has begun to find a positive response in the Russian state Duma. Then that stopped. Why? Because the war in Chechnya started. The rationale was as follows: If Abkhazia can secede from Georgia and unite with Russia, why should that right be denied to Chechnya or Tatarstan, for instance? Five million people live in Tatarstan, which produces 100 million tons of oil. Why can’t it become an independent state? As you can see, the boomerang effect can apply here as well. I believe that is why talks about incorporating Abkhazia into Russia have stopped. I suppose that clear-thinking people in the state Duma, being able to predict how such events will develop, will not pay too much attention to that issue now. I don’t think that the independence of states that have seceded will be recognized by the international community. As for our northern neighbor’s attempts to acquire new access to the «fish bowl» of the Black Sea, I have often proposed a joint Russo-Georgian construction plan for a large port in the Abkhazia region of Georgia that could serve the interests of both countries. Deterrent But at the recent European summit in Finland, President Putin warned of a bloodbath in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I didn’t hear him say that. It is not his style to make such statements. But even if he did permit himself to utter such a phrase I believe he would have done it merely as a deterrent. In general I would rule out Russia getting into a military conflict before the presidential election. And nobody knows what the outcome of such a conflict would be. Try to imagine what would happen if the people of the northern Caucasus rose up to support Georgia. So why are the Georgians feverishly building up armaments, as the Russian and the international media say? Georgia is not preparing for war. This is the official policy of the Georgian authorities. I have no contact with the present leadership, but I pay close attention to what they do. I can say with great certainty that the Georgian government does not want war, even though we have a good army that we formed with the help of the Americans. The existence of such a powerful army does not necessarily imply a desire for war. But who would we fight? The Ossetians? But they are our brothers. The Abkhazians? So are they. Do you believe that the arrest of four Russian officers by the Georgian authorities on charges of espionage is what led the two sides to this unprecedented war of words, or does this crisis have deeper causes? Everything was done on the basis of international law. If a person is a spy we have to put him on trial. But there is another method. Let’s say, for example, the Russians caught a Georgian spy and the Georgians a Russian one. In such cases they exchange them. But this caused a scandal in Georgia. I would have handled it differently. The fact that Russian officers were arrested caused a negative reaction in Russia. And the expulsion of Georgian citizens by Russia caused a similar reaction. The latter did not even occur in czarist Russia. Because of their creed, the Georgians had always served Russia, especially those who loved it there and still do live there permanently.

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