The FINANCIAL — Per Gahrton, Swedish politician, chair of Green Think Tank and Palestine Solidarity Association PGS, has recently published the book “Georgia- Pawn in the new great game”.
The book describes the modern history of Georgia, American and Russian policy towards the country as well as the Rose Revolution and the mysterious death of prime-minister Zurab Zhvania.
Gahrton’s analysis is based on private interviews with key politicians Zhvania, Shevardnadze, Baramidze, Saakashvili, Natelashvili, Khidasheli, Burjanadze and Zurabishvili.
Gahrton was a Member of Parliament of Sweden, holding a seat for the Liberal Party for 1976-1979, and for the Green Party from 1988-1991, and in 1994-1995. Moreover, he was a Member of the European Parliament from 1995-2004.
In his interview with The FINANCIAL, Gahrton speaks of the main points in his book and analyzes the political and economical situation in the modern history of Georgia.
Q. Georgia is the pivotal point between East and West Geographically. How does this fact support the country’s development, politics and economy?
A. I make the point in the book that Georgia has a choice between being a puppet or a buffer. By joining NATO Georgia would be a puppet of the USA. By opting for a non-aligned policy Georgia might be a real buffer state – between NATO and Russia, between the West and the Islamic world. This would not exclude closer relations with Europe. Six EU states, including Sweden and Finland, are EU-members.
A buffer state has the advantage of good working relations with all sides, while a puppet state is just a powerless attachment to one of the sides. As a buffer state Georgia could exploit its geo-strategic position, as Zhvania put it, by becoming a full-fledged “transit country”, in all directions. As a puppet Georgia is reduced to a marginal instrument of one side, with more or less closed borders with the other side. This is of course disastrous for the economic development.
Q. What role does the U.S. play in the development of Georgia’s political and economical environment?
A. After the complete passivity of the USA (under Bush) during the Ossetia War I think most Georgians have understood that US interest in Georgia has nothing to do with the security and welfare of Georgia, but only with US control over and access to the oil and gas of the Caspian Region.
The USA likes to have Georgia as a wall against “enemies” of the USA. Nice words about “democracy” and “liberty” have proved to by very hollow when Georgian opposition parties and international NGOs have reported all kinds of infractions of democratic rules and human right by the Saakashvili regime. Such reports have increased rapidly in number and severity during the years since the death of Zhvania. But the US political support (during Bush) did not diminish. Maybe the policy of Obama will be different; it is too early to judge.
Q. Against the background that the U.S. supports Georgia, while Russia sets restrictions and embargos in trade and mobility of people, how justified is Georgia’s position to be “pro-western”?
A. It is justified to have a European ambition, because Georgia is a member of the Council of Europe and just as European as Romania or Bulgaria. But, as I have already explained above, it is not good to be a puppet of the USA, it is counterproductive to go for membership of NATO.
The basic fact is that Georgia needs Russia much more than it needs the USA – economically, socially and culturally. Some of all the links to Russia might be replaced in the long run by Europe, but never by the USA. However, even Russia is a European country, member of the Council of Europe, and should in the long run be integrated into a “Common European House”. Just as Germany after the fall of Nazism was integrated, not excluded, Russia after the fall of Communism should be integrated, not excluded.
Q. What is the difference between U.S. and Russian politics towards Georgia? How does Georgia’s geographical position influence their behaviour in the country?
A. Russia’s behaviour has for several years, at least since the introduction of visas for Georgians and the banning of Georgian wines and mineral waters, been unacceptable. It has also been incomprehensible. Why is Russia only using its whip against Georgia, when it could have used carrots? Most Georgians have a lot of contacts with Russia and basically want good working relations – but on the condition they are based upon mutual respect.
Georgians, naturally, cannot accept becoming Little Brother to a Big Bear. But Georgia is not innocent; the inability to understand that the secessions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have other causes than Russian manipulations is one important flaw of most Georgian politicians. Of course Russia has exploited the minorities in an unacceptable way, put Russia did not invent their ambitions for more self-rule. What Russia wants with Georgia is unclear. However, I don’t believe that many Russian politicians sincerely want to make Georgia a full-fledged puppet of Moscow. However, Russia wants to prevent Georgia becoming a full-fledged puppet of anybody else.
This is different from the US policy during the Bush era, where every state was given the choice of being “for” or “against” and no room was left for being neither, for being a non-aligned, sovereign buffer. This is, hopefully, changing with Obama. Thus, both Russia and the USA might be satisfied with Georgia as not being a puppet of the other, but instead being a buffer between them. That is an opportunity that Georgian politicians should grasp.
Q. What significant changes would you outline before and after the Rose Revolution? How did political, economical life change in the country and how has the life of the population changed?
A. Shevardnadze did not lose his position because he was a ruthless dictator – he was not! His main weakness was his inability to build a modern efficient state, free of corruption. The main achievement of the Rose Revolution has been to start to modernize the state.
However the new regime has not managed to restart real economic development because the new rulers believe dogmatically that the "free market" will solve all problems. No modern market economy – including my own Sweden – has succeeded in creating development and growth without lengthy periods of strong state interventionism.
Q. Strained Georgia-Russia relations started before the August war, with the embargo imposed on Georgian products and visa restrictions. In your opinion, what were the major causes of the August war?
A. The basic cause of the war is that the Saakashvili regime has not understood that regaining Abkhazia and South Ossetia by military means is unacceptable and impossible. The EU Tagliavini report clearly states that the Ossetia War was started by Georgia. The Russian counterattack was grossly exaggerated, especially when Russian troops attacked Georgia outside South Ossetia, but the war was not caused by Russia.
Q. How has the August war changed the attitude of NATO and the EU towards Georgia? What is Georgia’s potential to be part of NATO and the EU?
A. I think NATO has lost much of its interest, because NATO does not want to risk a war with Russia because of Georgia. The EU has become less enthusiastic with the Saakashvili regime since the Tagliavini report gave a pretty harsh picture and clearly blamed Georgia for having started the war. But at the same time Georgia as a country is still very popular in the EU, most Europeans are attracted by Georgian culture and the fabulous hospitality of the Georgian people.
Q. In your opinion, how real is the fact that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be united in Georgian territory?
A. These regions will not be reunited with Georgia in the way they were during Soviet times, as integral parts of a Georgian republic and subject to orders from Tbilisi. The most important problem to solve is of course the situation of hundreds of thousands of refugees. They must be allowed to return to their homes. The borders should be made unimportant (like border between states inside the EU), all kinds of practical cooperation should be established. If this is done, the formal status of these regions would be unimportant.
In my own region, the Nordic countries, we have many, many provinces which used to belong to some other state than it is part of today. Nobody cares, because borders are open, markets are common, cooperation is ongoing in all fields. Finland was in the 1990s offered to buy back some territory – Karelia – that the Soviet Union conquered during World War II. The Finns declined. They already had close contacts with their former territory, so why waste money to buy it back?
Last year was a year of memory in Finland and Sweden, because in 1809 Russia conquered the whole of Finland which had been an integral part of Sweden since the beginning of history. Very soon Sweden decided not to waste its energy on trying to regain Finland, more so when it became clear that the Finns got more autonomy in Russia than they had had in Sweden and were not keen on reuniting. Our most famous poet of the time wrote: “Let us regain Finland inside the borders of Sweden”. Sweden started its internal economic and social development to become one of the most developed countries in the world instead of wasting its resources on trying to re-conquer an unwilling Finland by military means. History never goes backwards. Those who try to turn it back are sure losers.
Q. How will the book support those students who are studying international relationships?
A. Although the book was written not only for Georgians but also for an international audience, I think it gives a lot to Georgian students of international relationships, because it gives an account of the development of Georgia from an outside perspective. I love to read books about Sweden by non-Swedish authors because they see a lot of things that Swedes don’t observe.
I hope my book on Georgia will have a similar function for Georgian readers, that it will help them to see aspects of their own country in a new way. Georgia has a great potential, which unfortunately is not used in a constructive way. As readers will find I am critical not only of the present regime, but also of most of the opposition figures. I am not surprised that the opposition lost the local election, because the opposition does not offer a real political alternative, only new persons. Why should the Georgians vote for politicians who don’t present another, trustworthy policy, but just affirm that they themselves are honest in contrast to the “corrupt” and “criminal” president? Why should people believe that, when almost every opposition leader just recently cooperated closely with that “corrupt” and “criminal” president?
Despite the distorted image sometimes given by Western mass media of Western politics, my long experience is that basically politics in modern democracies is about issues and ideology, not about personalities and petty quarrels. There is no lack of alternative persons in Georgian politics, but a complete lack of alternative politics and programmes. If this is not changed I am afraid Georgia will have to live with the present president as the real leader for long, even if he, like Putin, will have to change position.