Over the last five days many commenters and politicians have raised their voices over the 11th commemoration of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. The statements highlighted a downward spiral from the government side: the war has increasingly become a topic of political blame-game rather than of national unity, eleven years since it was waged.
A strong current among the ranks of the Georgian Dream has been to blame the war and its consequences on the then ruling United National Movement (UNM) and specifically the third President Mikheil Saakashvili. This seems to have strengthened further. Perhaps, a sense of electoral challenge has driven this process, since it has become obvious that the UNM has rebounded from the lows of its popularity ratings since 2012.
Blaming UNM and Saakashvili for the war was one of the central elements of the Presidential elections campaign in 2018. Salome Zurabishvili, endorsed by the Georgian Dream as its presidential candidate, used the 10th anniversary of the war for her partisan campaign, lashing out at Saakashvili and the UNM , whose candidate Grigol Vashadze became her main competitor.
“…stupid and treacherous behavior by Saakashvili and his inner circle was a necessary precondition for implementation of Putin’s scenario. I will always reiterate it, no matter how bitter this truth may appear for the National Movement and its satellites, who were and remain Russia’s stronghold in our country” (August 9, 2018)
Zurabishvili went as far as accusing the UNM and Saakashvili of implementing the Kremlin’s agenda. These talking points were repreated this year by Georgian Dream representatives repeated this year. Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said:
“The supreme task of any government is to defend its citizens, ensure peace and protect the country from ordeals. Unfortunately, the past irresponsible government has failed to do this; instead, its anti-state policy made implementation of the occupation plan possible.“
While taken separately and from a distance this may not sound very unreasonable, the argument of some leading Georgian Dream representatives is more ominous. MP Gia Volski, head of the Georgian Dream faction in the Parliament, claimed in his 9-point statement that Saakashvili acted on Russia’s orders. While all three branches of government are transmitting the same basic message, MP Volski is taking it to the moon:
“It was just Saakashvili’s regime that deliberately thwarted the peace plan approved by partner countries. […] Upon Russia’s instructions, Saakashvili bombed already evacuated areas, then recorded this “operation” and spread the footage throughout the world.”
Accusing the opposition of serving Russian interests or even being Russian agents is a recurring theme in Georgian politics that goes way back to 1990s and also to the Saakashvili administration. Blaming Russia is an easy smokescreen for own wrongdoings.
Just last month the government has accused the opposition of causing the Russian sanctions on flights to Georgia by their anti-government and anti-occupation protests, instead of reflecting on the root causes of the Russian overreaction: the mishandling by ruling party deputies of the controversial visit of the Russian MPs.
As for the former President Saakashvili himself, he chimed in on the commemoration with a lengthy IWPR interview looking back on the 2008 war and the way he feels about Georgia’s western partners. While refraining from commenting on the current government, the interview drew an agitated response from President Zurabishvili.
Campaign or dialogue?
What has become increasingly clear is that the Georgian Dream government has now increasingly and permanently politicized the 2008 war against its only real political challenger, the UNM, openly accusing it of acting as a Russian proxy.
The campaign to the 2020 parliamentary elections is seeing an early lift-off, and it is a pity to see the war becoming a matter of partisan rift, rather than the cause for real national unity and dialogue – something President Zurabishvili pays a lip service to in her statement. A national and inclusive dialogue on this matter is long overdue.
Zurabishvili’s statement does not seem to propagate the real national unity for the entire nation within the international recognized borders, neither it shows tangible ambition for an all-inclusive national dialogue. It seems to consider, for example, reconciliation with Abkhazian and Ossetian citizens secondary to the coherence of the rest of the Georgian society.
If the wars in Georgia taught us one thing, it is to treat every citizen as equal, regardless of ethnicity. Addressing the suffering, need for reconciliation and appeals to human rights equally, wherever they may be situated in the country is crucial. Gali residents suffer just as much from the occupation as those in Sokhumi or Tskhinvali.
The President states the country needs consensus-building to overcome its national traumas, and not polarization. Which is all very well and true, but rings hollow when taken with polarizing official statements these days.
“The issue of war needs to bind our society together and not create grounds for its polarization. For this to happen, it is necessary to overcome hatred and to raise the level of our culture and our national consciousness.“
The President states she remains the main advocate in achieving public reconciliation. It is time for her to live up to those words. It is time to take the lead in this national healing.