Russia and Georgia, At It Again

Bomb plots. Intelligence conspiracies. Invasion hoaxes. Welcome to the Caucasus.

I am in Tbilisi to talk about what is (or at least should be) of deep concern to Georgians: the country’s long-term domestic evolution, economic problems and political transition. But a lot of Georgians, especially in the government, want the conversation to get back to the enemy just outside—Russia. Is this because the Georgians are paranoid and want to use the Russian bear to distract attention from their own problems? Or because the Russians are actually out to get them? Or perhaps a bit of both?

The headline story is a series of violent incidents on the borders between Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Georgian regions next door. In early June the Georgian government loudly proclaimed it had foiled two Russian bomb plots. The authorities in Abkhazia accused the Georgians of a series of raids inside their territory.

Rationally speaking, neither Georgia nor Russia needs a fight with the other. The Georgian government needs to get on with state building and attracting foreign investment, which has fallen over the past two years. Russia needs Georgian cooperation to get into the World Trade Organization and to make a success of the Winter Olympics in 2014, which will be staged just across the border in Sochi.

Until recently, the trend lines looked positive. A year on from the August war of 2008, there was a summer full of trepidation in 2009, when the White House was actively involved in stabilizing the situation. Then both Moscow and Tbilisi started acting more responsibly. The Obama administration’s reset made Russia more predictable and Georgia safer.

So what lies behind the new alleged bomb-plots? This being the Caucasus, there are a number of versions:

1. The Russian government was behind them. We should definitely consider what is often discounted in this part of the world, the possibility that the face-value version is the actual reality. The Georgians have presented a lengthy dossier that contains some detailed evidence. For example, the European monitoring mission reportedly received a call last October about an alleged explosion on a railway line. There was no explosion, but a few days after this an unexploded device was discovered on the line. Why would the Russians do this? Because Russian officials have decided they want to destabilize Georgia and sow disorder. If so, they fail to understand that this kind of campaign actually strengthens their hated adversary, Mikheil Saakashvili. But when did rational strategy get in the way of Russian policy?

2. The Georgian government staged it. The first reaction of many acquaintances in Tbilisi was to be sceptical. Pro-government media has run many stories over the last year about “Russian agents,” several of whom are actually pro-Western members of the Georgian opposition. Then there was the “War of the Worlds” incident last year when the Imedi channel broadcast reports of a Russian invasion, which turned out to be an irresponsible hoax. The most outrageous episode of this kind occurred in May 2008 during the last presidential election campaign in the village of Khurcha near the border with Abkhazia. A bus carrying voters on a soccer field was fired on and one woman was injured. Pro-government television reported it as an attack by Abkhaz or Russians. Subsequent sleuthing by a UN official found out the attack had been actually staged by Georgian security forces. The smoking gun was, believe it or not, a melting chocolate wrapper: he found that the serial numbers on a chocolate bar given him by local Georgian policemen and of a wrapper found in the place where the rocket was fired were almost identical.

3. Elements in the Russian intelligence forces were behind it. The FSB is all-powerful in South Ossetia and influential in Abkhazia. Perhaps they combined with local security forces in both places to stage attacks on Georgia.

Version 3 is quite a plausible one for me. If these plots are really emanating from Russia, the wisest approach of the Georgian government would be not to publicize them at all, quietly inform Western governments and get on with proclaiming “business as usual.” As it is, foreigners are getting mixed messages: one moment, “Our country is under attack,” and the next, “Please invest in stable Georgia.”

In the meantime the latest foreign-investment figures are disappointing. The headline figure for the first quarter of 2011 is an improvement on last year, but the sources of the investment—Cyprus, the British Virgin Islands, the United Kingdom (almost certainly offshore bits of it)—are less encouraging. Georgia does need to concentrate on getting its domestic economic house in order and spend less time blaming the enemy without.