Center for the National Interest Executive Director Paul J. Saunders spoke with Alexander Torshin, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament, about the January 24, 2011, Domodedovo Airport bombing.
Paul Saunders: You were quoted recently attributing responsibility to the Georgian government and President Mikheil Saakashvili personally for the recent terrorist bombing at Domodedovo airport. How did you come to this conclusion? Is there any evidence you can share to support this charge?
Alexander Torshin: As you may know, after the 2008 conflict there was evidence that terrorist groups and extremist groups that were operating in the North Caucasus region of Russia had links with Georgia.
PS: Do you mean that there was evidence linking the Georgian government to terrorist groups operating in North and South Ossetia or in Chechnya and Dagestan?
AT: That should be natural if the government of Georgia was able to put under strict control what was going on in its own territory. But the problem was related to refugee camps in Georgian territory and in fact, there was some sort of headquarters of these terrorist and extremist groups in these areas, I mean areas where these refugee camps were located.
PS: I see. Can you identify any specific terrorist group that the Georgian government had contacts with or links to, and what kind of links or ties would they be?
AT: There was evidence, direct evidence that Sanakoyev was collaborating with the Georgians [Dmitry Sanakoyev was prime minister of the anti-Georgian government in South Ossetia a decade ago; he switched sides to head the pro-Tbilisi “Provisional Administration of South Ossetia] He flew to Georgia. That’s a real fact. That’s confirmed information. That he flew to Georgia.
PS: And is there any evidence that would link Mr. Sanakoyev to the attack at Domodedovo?
AT: Well, certainly there is an investigation now and there are facts to be confirmed. So it’s pretty early to say something concrete about that. But, what’s clear since the establishment of a non-visa policy [a Georgian government decision allowing visa-free travel to permanent residents of Russian North Caucasian republics to Georgia], is that people can now move quite easily between Russia and Georgia and vice-versa. So that brings another problem, terrorists with narcotics, with drugs for example, with weapons can leave Russia for Georgia and vice-versa.
There is also evidence that one of the very close friends of Magomed Yevloyev, the Domodedovo bomber, was noticed many times crossing the border between Russia and Georgia. And there is an expectation, not confirmed yet, that he could be in Georgia now.
PS: President Saakashvili did not endorse the Domodedovo attack or other terrorist attacks on Russia. However, some of his statements created the impression that he thought Russian conduct provoked terrorist attacks. How do Russian parliamentarians and officials view these statements? Will they make it more difficult for Russia and Georgia to reach an agreement on Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization?
AT: There was just another declaration by Saakashvili saying that Russia, Russian policy in the Caucasus, was responsible for this Domodedovo attack. This is very cynical. It could be compared, for example, with a foreign political leader saying that the United States was responsible for al-Qaeda’s attacks because the U.S. started prosecuting al-Qaeda’s leadership and the response was bombardment and terrorist attacks against the U.S. and U.S. citizens. So it’s the same cynical declaration.
PS: How did people in the Russian parliament view what Saakashvili was saying?
AT: Well, people in Russia, I mean people in the government, people in the parliament, they’re used to such declarations made by Saakashvili but the real problem is that there are one million Georgians living in Russia. They live in Russia. And they work in Russia.
We are not making the same sharp criticism against Saakashvili because we are taking into consideration the possibility of growing national antagonisms within Russia, especially antagonisms against Georgians who live in Russia.
PS: Will this have any impact on the negotiations for Russia’s WTO membership?
AT: We should separate those two issues because the WTO issue is related to trade and economic spheres and this is politics. We should not mix these two issues. We should keep them separated.
We always keep in mind that there is a huge difference between Saakashvili and the Georgian people and especially Georgian people living in Russia. And we have a long tradition of friendship between Russians and Georgians, between Russian and Georgian people. So that’s completely different from Saakashvili. We should separate Saakashvili from his own people because there is in fact no Russophobia and antagonism against Russians inside Georgia.
PS: President Saakashvili has repeatedly offered assurances that Georgia will not use force to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Do you trust his assurances? Do you think there could be a new military confrontation between Russia and Georgia?
AT: We’d like to think that there will not be any civil agitation, clashes, and war, and all the things in the Caucasus between Georgia and Russia. But we should always keep in mind that it has already happened. So we think that it could be possible, there could be another attack from Georgia.
PS: So you do not fully trust President Saakashvili?
AT: I do not trust Saakashvili because he made declarations on television [a cease-fire declaration immediately prior to the attacks in South Ossetia that started the August 2008 war] and attacked peaceful sleeping people in the city of Tskhinvali the same night. So we already witnessed that.
PS: Under what circumstances could Russia use force again?
AT: Only if there is another Georgian attack. We will not be the first.