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 GEORGIA DIALS DOWN CONFLICT WITH RUSSIA

GEORGIA DIALS DOWN CONFLICT WITH RUSSIA

The war in Ukraine reinforced the lesson among Georgians they say they had already learned in 2008: In case of a Russian invasion, the West will not fight for you, or sell you weapons to fight for yourself.

Aleko Grigolashvili was just 11 years old when he and a friend ran away from home to join Georgian fighters battling Moscow-backed rebels in Abkhazia, a separatist enclave on the Black Sea.

The adventure barely lasted a month in the early 1990s, before Aleko returned to his panicking grandparents, and to school. But it set the tone for a lifetime of war against Russia. In 2008, Mr. Grigolashvili, by then an officer in the U.S.-trained Georgian military, fought Kremlin-backed separatists and regular Russian troops in South Ossetia, another breakaway region of Georgia. He was wounded in the knee.

So when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, using a script honed in Georgia, Mr. Grigolashvili went to war again. "He saw it all as one war, our war," recalled his wife, Christine Svanidze. On a reconnaissance foot patrol in December, near a dreary east Ukrainian town named Happiness, Mr. Grigolashvili was ambushed and killed.

Many Georgians viewed Mr. Grigolashvili as a hero, but in a reaction that illustrates the country's shift in its foreign policy stance, Georgia's Defense Ministry criticized him and other Georgian volunteers for embarking on a dubious foreign adventure.

The small Caucasus country had for years pursued a staunchly pro-Western course that led to the 2008 Russian invasion. Now, it is moving away from a vehemently anti-Kremlin line toward finding a modus vivendi with Russia.

The change comes at a time when a new Cold War is gathering strength in Europe, with the conflict in Ukraine drawing the West and Moscow into a contest for spheres of influence-economic, political and military.

U.S. officials say they understand Georgia's balancing act. "This government is treading more carefully and has attempted to dial down the more confrontational relationship that existed with Russia," a senior U.S. official said. "At the end of the day, the U.S. isn't interested in confrontation between Russia and states on its periphery."

Among Georgians, the war in Ukraine reinforced the lesson they say they had already learned in 2008: In case of a Russian invasion, the West will not fight for you, or sell you weapons to fight for yourself.

Security considerations are underpinned by economic ones. In 2013, after Moscow lifted a trade embargo against Georgia, the pull of the Russian market began to provide a counterargument to closer economic integration with Europe. The embargo had been imposed as punishment for Georgia's pro-Western course, although the official reason was the alleged health hazards of some Georgian products.

"NATO membership is not the question of today, or of tomorrow. Why create illusions for people? We are not defended, and this is the reality of this difficult region," said Zurab Abashidze, Georgia's special representative for Russia, a post created in 2013 as a backchannel to repair ties with Moscow.

The two countries severed diplomatic relations after the 2008 war and still don't have embassies. Joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still Georgia's declared ambition, Mr. Abashidze said. "But we have to get to that day without destroying the country."

For years, it was hard to imagine a more pro-Western state than Georgia, a country that took an outsize role in international diplomacy after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The peaceful revolt brought to power Mikheil Saakashvili, who campaigned to elevate Georgia from post-Soviet morass and bind it to the West. Mr. Saakashvili battled corruption and organized crime, improved the economy and slashed bloated bureaucracy.

In pursuit of NATO membership, he transformed Georgia's moribund military into an expeditionary force that has since deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in large numbers. Mr. Grigolashvili, the Georgian volunteer who would die in east Ukraine, gained combat experience during a nine-month tour in Afghanistan.

In Washington, the U.S.-educated Mr. Saakashvili became a celebrity. But the West lacked the political will to admit Georgia into NATO, which would have extended the alliance's collective security doctrine deep into the Caucasus. In May of 2008, despite the U.S. support, NATO balked at giving Georgia a road map to membership because of French and German objections. The snub was repeated at another summit last fall.

In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, using as a pretext Mr. Saakashvili's efforts to restore Tbilisi's writ over two breakaway provinces where Moscow had long manipulated and encouraged local separatist sentiment. A cease-fire ended several days of fighting, but Russia recognized the two breakaway regions as independent states and has strengthened ties with them.

In 2012, the combative president's political party lost an election to Georgian Dream, a party led and bankrolled by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had made a fortune in metals and banking in Russia. During the campaign, Georgian Dream made clear it would avoid provoking Russia while continuing to pursue closer ties with the West.

The new government alleged Mr. Saakashvili and his close associates had developed authoritarian tendencies, and charged the former president with ordering the beating of a Georgian member of parliament and with harassing an opposition television channel, among other things.

"We made plenty of mistakes," Mr. Saakashvili acknowledged in an interview in Kiev in May, where he launched a new political career. "When you do radical reforms, you make mistakes, you overplay your strength, you cut corners." He dismisses the criminal charges as politically motivated and accuses Tbilisi of carrying out the Kremlin's script.

Georgia's Deputy Chief Prosecutor Giorgi Gogadze said the cases against Mr. Saakashvili are based on "heavy evidence."

Ukrainian authorities have ignored Georgia's extradition requests and have instead looked to Mr. Saakashvili's Georgia as an inspiration. In late May, after serving as an adviser to Ukraine's president, Mr. Saakashvili was appointed governor of the strategic Odessa province, on the Black Sea, long a target of pro-Russia separatists, and became a Ukrainian citizen. "The circus continues," tweeted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

On the ground in Georgia, meanwhile, the recalibration of Tbilisi's foreign policy away from the strident anti-Kremlin rhetoric of the Saakashvili years has taken many forms.

The new government, for instance, released from prison people convicted of espionage for Russia. Under Mr. Saakashvili, Georgian counterintelligence aggressively pursued those suspected of being Moscow spies.

One alleged spy network, disrupted in 2010, collected intelligence on Georgian armed forces and their cooperation with Western militaries, and passed it on to Moscow through a Russian handler working as a businessman in Georgia. In another case, a group of Georgian officers with suspected links to Russian intelligence mutinied on their base in 2009, urging fellow servicemen not to fight in case of another war with Russia, according to former Georgian security officials.

Spy games

In 2012, the new government amnestied some 200 people, including the convicted Russian spies and the renegade officers, deeming them all to be political prisoners. A senior Georgian counterintelligence officer who investigated the mutiny was then detained and accused of torturing the suspects' relatives. "You release these people, and then you arrest your counterintelligence guy, it sends a message," said Giga Bokeria, who was Georgia's national security adviser until 2012. Through a lawyer, the former counterintelligence officer, Levan Tabidze, maintained his innocence, according to Georgian media.

"There was no evidence [against the alleged spies] and everything was staged to strengthen Saakashvili's increasingly authoritarian rule," said Levan Karumidze, the Georgian government spokesman, in a statement.

While spy games were playing out in Tbilisi, a different kind of Russian influence began to reassert itself in the rolling hills of Kakheti province, Georgia's wine country.

In 2006, when Russia banned imports of Georgian wine, bankruptcies and unemployment swept through the region, where winemaking goes back thousands of years. "Some people swore at [Vladimir] Putin, others swore at Saakashvili," recalls George Dakishvili, a third-generation vintner. His startup winery found itself in a market glutted with unwanted grapes and had to look for an outside investor to survive.

Having lost their biggest export destination, Georgian wineries that managed to stay in business tried to compete in Europe. They had to make better wine than the cheap, high-volume stuff that was good enough for the average Russian drinker.

When Russia lifted the trade embargo in 2013, grape prices nearly doubled. Mr. Dakishvili's winery, Schuchmann Wines, began selling nearly 40% of its output to Russia.

But Mr. Dakishvili is worried what might happen if the Russian market collapses and people in Georgia lose jobs. "I think they want to make us dependent on Russia again, to have another lever to pressure Georgia," he said. The Russian economic slowdown-a consequence of falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine-has already reverberated in Georgia by cutting the volume of remittances Georgian migrants in Russia send home.

Last year, over the Kremlin's objections, Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU, which promises closer economic integration with the bloc. Moscow has been promoting a regional alternative called the Eurasian Economic Union, and has already signed up several post-Soviet states, including Georgia's neighbor Armenia, plus Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

In a public-opinion poll released in May, 31% of Georgian respondents supported the idea of Georgia joining the Kremlin's Eurasian Union, about twice as many as last year, according to National Democratic Institute.

But despite the economic deal, EU leaders didn't give Georgia much-coveted visa-free travel at a summit in late May, promising to revisit the issue later. Russia has indicated it is prepared to abolish the visa requirement for Georgians imposed earlier as punishment for the country's pro-Western course.

Alongside carrots to encourage pro-Russian overtures, Moscow has also used sticks to punish pro-Western drift. Shortly after Georgia made the EU economic deal, Moscow signed sweeping treaties with Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces, in what Georgian officials described as "creeping annexation."

Georgia recently complained that Moscow-backed local authorities were quietly moving the South Ossetian administrative boundary markers deeper into Georgia proper.

Alarmed by the conflict in Ukraine, Washington has tried to reassure some of Russia's worried neighbors that it isn't abandoning the region. In May, the U.S. and Georgian forces held a military exercise in Georgia, one in a series of regional moves designed to deter Moscow.

In Georgian politics, pro-Russian voices, long viewed as nothing short of seditious, have gained new prominence in recent years. "Loyalty [to Russia] doesn't mean slavery," said Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of the Georgian parliament whose political party has staked out a pro-Kremlin niche. "Russia must see that Georgia doesn't pose a threat."

Air-defense system

Moscow has steadily objected to Georgia's plan to deploy a sophisticated air-defense system to thwart a repeat of the 2008 invasion.

Following that war, the U.S. and Western Europe, eager to avoid provoking the Kremlin, imposed a de facto embargo on supplying weapons to Georgia. Last year, after years of Georgian lobbying, a deal on the air-defense system with France appeared within reach in Paris.

The timing was fortuitous for the Georgians: France had agreed to sell amphibious assault ships to Russia, which in light of the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea proved to be a public-relations disaster. Though that sale was later canceled, it helped the Georgians make a case that if the West was selling advanced weapons to Russia, then Georgia should be allowed to buy something too.

Irakli Alasania, Georgia's 41-year-old defense minister, said that in late October in Paris, the day before signing the memorandum, he received a call from Mindia Janelidze, a high-ranking Georgian official, urging him not to sign. Although the Georgian cabinet had agreed in principle on the French deal, the last-minute hitch signaled "fundamental disagreements on how to defend the country," Mr. Alasania said. Mr. Janelidze confirmed making the call, according to the government spokesman.

Mr. Alasania signed anyway. Within days, he was replaced by Mr. Janelidze, who himself was later succeeded by a defense minister viewed as more pro-Western. Mr. Karumidze, the government spokesman, said in May that Mr. Alasania's claims "are not grounded in reality" and that the government was committed to finalizing the air-defense deal.

Earlier this summer, Georgia did sign a pair of deals in France to buy an air-defense system. Mr. Alasania, who is now in opposition to the government, said those deals were more limited in scope than the agreement he had tried to negotiate-in part to make the arrangement seem less aggressive to Moscow.

Mr. Karumidze reacted angrily to the allegation, saying the deals include "a complete defense system with significant capabilities" and accused Mr. Alasania of spreading "misinformation" for political reasons. The Georgian government declined to release any details about the deals, saying they are a state secret.

After Mr. Alasania's ouster, the Defense Ministry slammed Georgian volunteers fighting pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine. "There was some panic [in Georgia] that this would be seen as Georgia launching a war against Russia," said a senior Western official.

The government spokesman said the statement criticizing the volunteers was "mistakenly released" and has since been "retracted."

Mr. Grigolashvili, the volunteer killed in an ambush, had joined the Georgian Legion, a group led by a teetotaling, nonsmoking mixed-martial arts expert Mamuka Mamulashvili. A veteran of wars in Abkhazia and Chechnya, Mr. Mamulashvili said he is picky about whom he admits into the legion, preferring people who know the "psychology" of fighting the Russians.

He said he tells many prospective recruits not to come to Ukraine because he doesn't want to be responsible for their safety. "Aleko came by himself and just called me from Kiev airport," Mr. Mamulashvili recalled.

At home in Tbilisi, Mr. Grigolashvili's widow, Ms. Svanidze, said she can't pay for surgery she needs. She also said she can't afford rent for the dilapidated one-bedroom she shares with her 2-year-old daughter, Nino. She said the government refused to bury her husband in a Georgian military cemetery.

The government spokesman said she is eligible for a military pension and that she herself had declined the honor of a state burial.

Ms. Svanidze said she was baffled by the assertion, and said she is still "fighting to get him reburied in the military cemetery."

On a recent evening in Tbilisi, Nino was talking to her late father's photos scattered around the apartment. He used to call every night from Ukraine on Skype to say good night. "Now Aleko doesn't call, and she doesn't want to sleep," Ms. Svanidze said. "I tell her 'Aleko will visit you in your dreams.' "

Philip Shishkin, The Wall Street Journal

 
 
 
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