Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Shock and Anger as Russia Recognises Breakaway Regions

Analysts in Tbilisi say decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia will rebound on Moscow.
By Mikhail Vignansky
A crowd several thousands strong is rallying outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi, with many participants carrying Georgian flags and banners saying “Stop Russia!".



“The world has now seen the real face of Russia,” said one protester, 24-year-old Dato. “The country is an aggressor; it’s an empire of evil.



“We have nothing in common with them, they’ve wiped out everything, they’ve declared war on us, they’ve been trying to occupy us, annex our territories, and all of it is happening in the 21st century.”



On August 26, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recognised Georgia’s two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as independent states. His final approval followed decisions passed by the two houses of parliament the previous day.



“I had been expecting it, but the news that Medvedev had signed the document gave me the shivers, and I cried,” said Marina, one of the protesters outside the Russian embassy, who is herself a refugee from the Abkhazian war of the early Nineties which left the region a de facto separate entity, albeit an unrecognised one.



The secretary of Georgia’s Security Council, Alexander Lomaia, said Russia’s move had brought the relationship between the two countries to a halt “for a long time to come, if not for good”.



Lomaia said Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had no legal significance for Georgia, as sovereignty over the two territories were underpinned by its constitution.



President Mikheil Saakashvili described Moscow’s decision as “absolutely illegal” and a “strategic mistake”.



In a televised address after an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Saakashvili spoke of a “Russian imperialism newly reborn”, and assured his people that Europe would not tolerate the redrawing of national borders.



“Georgia will come out of this crisis ten times stronger – we won’t be brought to our knees. And may God preserve us,” he said.



Some diplomats and analysts had expected Saakashvili to break off diplomatic relations with Russia, but he did not go as far as that, although the Georgian parliament may yet seek to do so.



“I’m depressed, I’m at a loss,” said Dmitry, a 41-year-old engineer. An ethnic Russian, Dmitry was born in Tbilisi and has spent all his life there.



“I hope attitudes towards Russian people in Georgia won’t change, whatever the Russian leadership does.”



Dmitry had been planning to meet former classmates to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their leaving school, but the war foiled their reunion.



One of the group of friends, Khristo, came back from Greece especially for the party. An ethnic Greek, he emigrated in the mid-Nineties to Salonika , where he works as a medical equipment engineer.



“In Tbilisi I left behind one small part of my heart – my school friends,” said Khristo.



Driving from Turkey to Georgia by bus, he never made it as he was held up at Borjomi, 190 kilometres from Tbilisi, because of the Russian incursions into Georgia.



“For the two days I was on the road, I only heard snatches of reports about the war. But what I ultimately saw was not at all what I had expected to see,” he recalled. “There were Russian tanks on the main highway connecting Tbilisi with the country’s west. We could not proceed on our way, and it also transpired that the Russians had blown up the railway.”



Temur Yakobashvili, the Georgian state minister in charge of reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia, told IWPR that Russia’s decision would be a headache for that country, by isolating it from the international community.



“Russia is trying to legitimise ethnic cleansing,” he said. “No serious country will support it in these efforts.”



He added, “What kind of independence are they talking about, when there are only 45,000 people living in Abkhazia and 15,000 in South Ossetia?”



In its conflict with Moscow, Tbilisi has urged the international community to condemn Moscow’s actions unequivocally, and highlighted the Russian incursions into areas south of Abkhazia including the key port of Poti – far from the South Ossetian conflict zone.



In these western regions, local residents have staged a series of rallies in which the central slogan is “Hands off Georgia!”



Georgian commentators are predicting that Russia’s military actions and now its diplomatic recognition of the two territories will backfire on it.



“Russia will fall victim to its own moves, as they are sure to lead to instability in Russia,” said former foreign minister Irakli Menagarishvili, who now heads the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tbilisi. “Overall, world stability has been placed in jeopardy. The empire of evil has reared its head again.”



Caucasus expert Mamuka Areshidze said the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were now “doomed to live next to Russian military bases”.



Despite the continuing protests near the Russian embassy in Tbilisi, the mission’s spokesman Alexander Savinov told IWPR, “The diplomats have been working as normal. Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko is in situ. The consular division continues to issue visas to Georgia citizens.”



Meanwhile, Khristo is already planning his next attempt to join his friends in Tbilisi in five years’ time.



“I’m going to start saving up again for another visit,” he said. “I hope there are no Russian troops in Georgia on the 30th anniversary of our graduation.”



Mikhail Vignansky is a Tbilisi-based commentator with the Vremya Novostei newspaper.