Will Russia Succeed in Ousting Georgian President Saakashvili?

By Nicholas Dima | December 7, 2008

There are indications that Moscow is taking steps to remove the president of Georgia with the consent of the West. On November 28, the Russian press agency ITAR-TASS (formerly the official Soviet news agency TASS) announced that friends of Georgia in NATO are very much discouraged about the prospects for President Mikhail Saakashvili, who could be deposed. Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, declared in a televised interview that Saakashvili himself realizes that Washington has taken the decision to have him replaced by another leader. The same source claims that the new president will most likely be the Speaker of the Parliament Nino Burdzhanadze, who allegedly has been approved by Washington. “I think, for the West, it will be a better alternative than mister Saakashvili,” Rogozin concluded.

It should be emphasized at the outset that Russia is a master chess player and that the former KGB, presently FSB, is still hard at work. It is difficult to compete with Moscow in the area of disinformation. The Russian announcement may be just a ploy, but it could also reflect a confidential consensus with the United States, in view of the incoming Obama administration. Either way, the announcement represents at least a precondition set by Moscow to renormalize its relations with the West. And it is possible that the State Department conceded at Moscow’s insistence to have Saakashvili removed from office.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004 on a platform that emphasized total independence, recovery of the two breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a firm pro-Western and pro-American stand, and most importantly, a strong determination to join the North Atlantic Alliance. In reality, Moscow could not allow Georgia in the Caucasus area and Ukraine in Eastern Europe to join NATO. This is the reason Moscow became insistent. As it is known, with Russia’s help, Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia and over the last several years the two have continued to provoke the Georgian authorities. To make good on his campaign promises, on August 7, 2008, Saakashvili ordered his troops to enter secessionist South Ossetia. It is not clear why Saakashvili’s government made this decision and chose this particular timing, but the Russian response was quick and devastating for Georgia. Looking back, it appears that it was a trap set up by Moscow to provide an excuse for its own military action. The brutal Russian intervention was denounced by the United States and Western Europe, following which the French President Nicolas Sarkozy was appointed by the EU to negotiate a cease fire. Initially, the West was very vehement against Russia and promised considerable financial assistance to Georgia. Saakashvili wanted more than promises, but the response of the United States and Western Europe stopped short of what he expected.

The official position of the United States was stated clearly by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on September 18 at the Washington meeting of the Marshall Fund:

“all sides made mistakes and miscalculations.  But several key facts are clear…On August 7, following repeated violations of the ceasefire in South Ossetia, including the shelling of Georgian villages, the Georgian government launched a major military operation into areas of the separatist region…But the situation deteriorated further when Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – and launched a full scale invasion across an internationally-recognized border…Russia’s leaders established a military occupation that stretched deep into Georgian territory…”

The official Russian reaction to Secretary Rice came without delay the very next day, when its Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared:

“It is not the first time that events provoked by Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia are crudely distorted in a speech by a member of the American leadership. Not particularly surprising, given Washington’s predisposition to support the bankrupt regime in Tbilisi. There is no need to rebut yet again the false interpretation of what happened…The Georgian army and special forces killed hundreds upon hundreds of civilians in South Ossetia, most of whom were Russian citizens. It was an attack on Russia, and we had no choice but to use our self-defense right in full compliance with Article 51 of the UN Charter…”

The truth of the matter is that ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 the new Russian Federation has made desperate efforts to regain its power status and to impose itself upon the “new world order.”  Following the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin, the ascent to supreme power in Moscow by a former KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin in January 1999, marked the beginning of the new Russian geo-politics. Having served two elective four-year terms as President of the Russian Federation, Putin is now prime minister, following the election of his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, a lawyer by profession. Yet, Putin remains the power behind the throne and he has already prepared the terrain for a future presidential comeback.  In the meantime, the Russian authorities have re-imposed quasi-totalitarian order at home and have muted the independent press and the political opposition. Internationally, with new financial resources resulting from the sale of high-priced oil and gas, Moscow launched a new policy.

In brief, Moscow wants its exclusive sphere of influence and international recognition. However, Russia does not want a confrontation with the West nor a new Cold War, which it may lose again. This is why Moscow has played its hand in a cool and calculated manner. It negotiated, it offered some small compromises and it proposed new energy deals to Western Europe, especially with Germany. At the same time, Moscow insisted categorically that its official recognition of independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia was final and non-negotiable. Slowly, the United States and the bigger Western European countries softened their stand and began to warm up to Moscow. The result is that President Saakashvili lost his attempt to reunify his country and at the same time his domestic backing diminished considerably. Apparently, Saakashvili had aggravated Georgia’s situation without any guarantees of real international support, while his political adversaries, and most surely the Russian agents inside Georgia, organized public rallies and demanded that he step down. Putin, the architect of the new Russian geopolitics, could not be any happier. He actually declared that he wanted to catch Saakashvili and hang him.

In this regard, Putin had a discussion with French President Sarkozy when the two met in the Kremlin on August 12. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by his balls,” Putin crudely stated.  “Hang him?” Sarkozy exclaimed in surprise, “Yes, why not? Did not the United States hang Hussein?” retorted Putin.  “But you do not want to become like President Bush,” Sarkozy continues. “Here you have a point,” Putin replied. This “undiplomatic” dialog was reported by The Times of London and by the Russian daily, Pravda.

It is obvious that Moscow has marked solidly its sphere of influence and does not want to make any other concessions. If NATO wants Georgia and Georgia wants to be integrated into NATO, then it has to do it with its territory mutilated. For the time being, Russia is playing a strong hand while the U.S. position seems to be weak. The Russian message is clear. You send your military ships to Georgia, we send ours to Venezuela. You play hard ball with us in our neighborhood in the Caucasus area and we do the same in Latin America. Quid pro quo!

As the U.S. press has already reported, in November Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited several Latin American countries and among them were Venezuela and Cuba. In Havana he met Fidel and Raul Castro and renewed Moscow’s old ties with this still Communist country only 90 miles from the Florida Keys. In Venezuela, he signed several accords of cooperation with Hugo Chavez. And, in a show of power and posturing, the Venezuelan state-run news agency announced a Russian-Venezuelan joint naval exercise. The just ended military exercise involved a Russian naval squadron led by the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great and eleven Venezuelan ships. The American response was cautious.

America is presently at a turning point between two presidential administrations, while the world is changing rapidly. Western Europe needs Russia and Russia needs Europe. The United States also needs Europe, but it is caught between new players with new agendas and it has little room to maneuver. At the last NATO Summit in Brussels, held at the very beginning of December 2008, Condoleezza Rice conceded that Georgia and Ukraine were not ready for now to join the Alliance. Strangely, however, the chief American diplomat also warned the European countries not to enter any military activities with Russia, as if some odd links would be established, thereby bypassing the United States.  Although, Secretary Rice added that Russia was invited to continue its cooperation with NATO.

In the chess game of global geopolitics, it appears that Moscow is winning the last move. If Russia insists that Saakashvili should be removed from office, it is possible that it already has received an approving nod from the West. However, his removal would be just a symbolic Russian victory because Ms. Burdzhanadze is also pro-West and pro-American.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.