Nino Burjanadze Is Prepared to Play on Georgians’ Disappointment with the WestBy: Giorgi Menabde
Former speaker of the Georgian parliament Nino Burjanadze announced her decision to participate in the presidential elections that are scheduled for October and expressed her confidence in winning the race (http://en.trend.az/regions/scaucasus/georgia/2166923.html). Burjanadze is, indeed, widely considered to be the most dangerous rival to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition’s candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili. “Margvelashvili’s primary asset is the support of Prime Minister [Bidzina] Ivanishvili, but Margvelashvili does not have his own political program. Conversely, Nino Burjanadze’s chances are improving as she advances an alternative view for the future of the country,” said Iosif Tsintsadze, the rector of the Georgian Diplomatic Academy (Author’s interview, June 24). According to Tsintsadze, “Nino Burjanadze’s electoral program is imbued with absolute intransigence toward President [Mikheil] Saakashvili and his team. Burjanadze scathingly criticizes the ‘co-habitation’ policy with the previous government, calling it ‘the whim of Saakashvili’s Western friends’” (Author’s interview, June 24).
The former speaker of parliament has also been highly critical of both the previous and the current governments’ pro-Western and pro-American policies and their efficacy in ensuring security for Georgia. Yet, it should be noted that Burjanadze was not always so critical of the United States and Europe and did not always express sympathy toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
After the 2003 Rose Revolution, Burjanadze advocated negotiations with Moscow, but under the condition that Russia respect the territorial integrity of Georgia and withdraw its support for the separatist forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetian. Burjanadze unequivocally backed Georgia’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), rejecting any compromises on this question. In 2006, Nino Burjanadze was instrumental in scuttling a selloff of the strategic gas pipeline Russia-Georgia-Armenia to Gazprom. At the time, the Georgian state minister for economic reforms and multi-millionaire Kakha Bendukidze actively pressed ahead with this project with the full support of President Saakashvili. The advocates of the project, however, were forced to retreat after the emotional speech by Burjanadze in the parliament (http://www.civil.ge/rus/article.php?id=12382). She has also openly castigated Russia for its Caucasus policy in remarks she made at a special meeting of the Russian State Duma in St. Petersburg in 2005 (http://www.regnum.ru/news/631612.html). Burjanadze’s speech produced significant uproar in Russia; several youth groups organized a flash-mob in Moscow, “drowning” an effigy of Nino Burjanadze in wine (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/578447/print).
Her views started to change after Burjanadze resigned as parliamentary speaker in the spring of 2008 and following the August Russian-Georgian war. She has apparently chosen to make use of the Georgians’ disappointment in the West for its indifference toward Georgian security issues. “In the past several years, Western leaders have stopped mentioning Georgia and its security concerns at meetings with their Russian counterparts, in spite of the fact that Russian tanks are positioned 35 kilometers away from the Georgian capital,” Tsintsadze pointed out (Author’s interview, June 24).
In the wake of the Five Days War, Burjanadze harshly criticized President Saakashvili and stated she was prepared to meet with Vladimir Putin; she did so in April 2010. She later justified the appropriateness of her visit with Russian officials and her supporters that the deadlock in Russian-Georgian relations could be broken: “Of course, I do not have illusions that this will be easily achieved in a week or a month. However, I saw such willingness during meetings with [then] Prime Minister Putin and other officials, and I am confident there is such an opportunity” (http://www.georgiatimes.info/interview/70029-1.html). Vladimir Putin, in his turn, said that he was prepared to deal with her (http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=345458&cid=5).
Upon her return from Moscow, Burjanadze ramped up her criticism of the West, (http://newsland.com/news/detail/id/725861/) especially, of the US (http://www.georgiatimes.info/news/37815.html), accusing them of “supporting the criminal regime of Saakashvili that lost territories and ruined the country” (http://www.apsny.ge/2009/pol/1249596878.php). The former speaker of parliament rebuked Georgia’s NATO accession course, arguing that it was “futile” (http://www.apsny.ge/2013/pol/1369969311.php). She also advocated for a “strategic compromise” with Moscow (http://club.geurasia.org/index.php?showtopic=11121&mode=threaded&pid=253518), without ever explaining its implications—whether, for example, this compromise would require Georgia to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Georgia exited in 1999 (http://ru.delfi.lt/abroad/belorussia/odkb-mogut-ozhidat-novye-konvulsii.d?id=59100407).
Following Georgian Dream’s parliamentary election victory, Burjanadze started to criticize the new government for its unpreparedness in beginning substantive talks with Moscow. “We should stop playing with the West and do our business. We should hold bilateral talks with Russia, because if we say to Russia that we do not trust her, we will reap corresponding results,” Burjanadze stated in May 2013 (http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/news/Nino-Burdzhanadze-prizvala-k-pryamym-peregovoram-Gruzii-s-Rossiey-otbrosiv-zaigryvaniya-s-Zapadom.html). As the first step, Burjanadze proposes restoring diplomatic relations with Russia despite its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. She points to Tokyo’s experience of maintaining diplomatic relations with Moscow, notwithstanding their mutual conflict over the Kuril Islands (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1886776).
In the course of her election campaign, Burjanadze has signaled that if elected president, reorienting Georgia toward Russia will become her policy priority. In particular, she will attempt to open the Russian market to Georgian goods, reach an agreement with Moscow on a visa-free regime for Georgians, and reduce Russian troop numbers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (http://pirweli.com.ge/?menuid=8&id=34806).
Analysts say that achieving these goals would only be possible by flipping Georgian policy by 180 degrees. The more important question, according to the analysts, is what such an experienced politician as Nino Burjanadze expects to achieve by advocating policy solutions that would have been unacceptable to the public several years ago. “The primary reason [for the growing current popularity of such views] is that while a Sword of Damocles hangs over the country, the West is not prepared to provide security guarantees to Georgia,” GHN news agency analyst Nika Imnaishvili told Jamestown on June 24. According to Imnaishvili, “Georgian issues are completely absent from the agenda of Western leaders, while [Georgian] society cannot forever live by expectations for the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Georgians expect at least minimal security guarantees while thousands of Russian troops are stationed three minutes from the primary highway of the country, Tbilisi-Kutaisi. Obviously, Burjanadze makes use of this sentiment among the population for her own political ends.” He added, “Even though her actions are cynical, they are also fairly pragmatic.”
But according to Merab Pachulia, head of the social research organization Gorbi, Burjanadze’s political program may not have reached a critical mass of support thus far. “This sentiment is not prevailing in Georgia yet, so Nino Burjanadze’s chances for victory in presidential elections remain purely theoretical,” Pachulia argues (Author’s interview, June 24).