A Georgian Oppositionist’s Russian Gambit

Is a politician who signs a friendship pact with the people who recently invaded your country a traitor? That’s what the government here in Georgia has been saying after a former prime minister turned opposition party leader started hanging out in Moscow with Vladimir Putin and his cronies recently. On his latest visit to Russia last week, the alleged quisling, Zurab Nogaideli, agreed a ‘co-operation treaty’ with the ruling United Russia party, causing one pro-government commentator to suggest that he was being “groomed” as a Kremlin stooge.

Nogaideli has never been a flamboyant political performer with vigorous support, but he’s now become headline news in Georgia. Before this, he was probably best known as the prime minister who announced a state of emergency on behalf of President Mikheil Saakashvili after his controversial crackdown on opposition protests in 2007. But like all the other insiders turned oppositionists – including several other ex-ministers – Nogaideli now denounces his former boss with the same certainty he once praised him.
According to Nogaideli, it’s time to rebuild relations with Russia after the August 2008 war, in the hope of ensuring peaceful co-existence and bosting the economy by overturning Russian bans on Georgian imports. Some Georgian analysts have suggested that he could pick up on post-war discontent among those who believe that the government’s Western orientation and eagerness to join NATO infuriated the Kremlin, triggering the war and causing Georgia it to lose the Russian-sponsored rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – people who believe that Saakashvili has also failed to deliver widespread prosperity or European-style democracy. As one woman suggested in a public-opinion survey in one Tbilisi newspaper: “It will be very good if he really does improve the relationship between Russia and Georgia. I do not see anything bad in his behaviour.”
But in recent days, hundreds of pro-government students in several Georgian cities have protested furiously against Nogaideli’s Moscow pact, condemning him as an avaricious dupe who’s being manipulated by the Kremlin for its own despicable ends. This view was also echoed in the newspaper’s survey: “It is not nice when a politician goes officially to a hostile country and signs a collaboration document with the government which is still occupying our territories,” declared one man. For his part, President Saakashvili has said that cosying up to Georgia’s “sworn enemy” is a “sin”. (It’s worth recalling here that the Russian leadership has absolutely refused to deal with what it describes as the “criminal regime of Saakashvili” since the war, and has made no secret of the fact that it wants him overthrown.)
With wartime anguish still festering and Russian forces holding positions just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi, in defiance of the ceasefire agreement, the majority of Georgians aren’t likely to trust any Kremlin-friendly politician. But nevertheless, Nogaideli’s Russian gambit has brought a question which was previously seen as heretical – should Georgia abandon its Euro-Atlantic dreams in favour of a more harmonious relationship with its powerful northern neighbour? – back into mainstream political discourse here.