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“Russian troops still in Georgia” SUOMEN KUVALEHTI magazine

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Mr. Gregory Vashadze, who recently paid an official visit to Finland, gave an interview to Political editor of the Finnish weekly magazine SUOMEN KUVALEHTI Mr. Teppo Tiilikainen. The article "Russian troops still in Georgia" was published in the Suomen Kuvalehti magazine on 24-29 April edition.

Russian troops remain in Georgia

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze accuses the Kremlin for violation of the ceasefire agreement.

Text Teppo Tiilikainen

Georgia panicked in mid-March when Imedi, the country's popular TV-channel, broadcast that Russian troops had invaded across the Georgian border. Tanks were told to have proceeded as far as to Tbilisi and President Mikheil Saakashvili was said to have died. 

People did not first realize that what they had seen on TV was a fake news report in a show, which used archive footage of combat in the war of 2008. Mobile phone networks collapsed, when distressed citizens were trying to find out what was going on.

The producers of the show have since been strongly condemned for the tasteless hoax. However, Saakashvili's opponents argue that the Government had been involved in the matter. According to them, the President is trying to benefit from Russia's threat to prop up his own authority.

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, who paid a visit to Helsinki a short while ago, regards the opposition's accusations ridiculous.

He said that the TV show was harmful and utterly stupid and that the President and the whole government are in full agreement about this.

Ethnic cleansing

The reactions triggered by the fake news broadcast reveal how deeply the people of Georgia still suffer from the effects of the war that they went through eighteen months back. The actual combat lasted no more than five days but Georgia lost parts of its territory when Russia occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

After the war, Georgia received worldwide support from the international community even though many considered that Saakashvili himself had started the war by sending his troops to South Ossetia.

Vashadze does not accept this interpretation - according to him, the roots of the war originate in much earlier history, in Georgia's independence. Besides, Georgian cities and villages had been bombed even earlier in late July.

Vashadze says that on 4 August some cities had already been destroyed and Georgia did not respond but after that.

Russia has since then withdrawn the majority of its troops from the country, but nearly 10,000 men have been left to five bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which still officially belong to Georgia. The regions have declared their independence but only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru, an island republic in the Pacific Ocean, have recognized their independence. 

According to Vashadze, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been subject to post-war ethnic cleansing. Persons of Georgian origin have been expelled and their houses have been destroyed.

"The Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is now having a housing area called Moskovski built near Ts'khinvali. This is the apex of cynicism, which even the Nazis were not capable of."

Furthermore, Russian soldiers are still staying in the village of Perevi on the other side of the border, although Russia admits that the region belongs to Georgia.

The Kremlin claims that the soldiers are peacekeepers. But the Georgians consider that their presence is a flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement negotiated under France's leadership.

"Russian soldiers are constantly drunk. They keep demanding bribes from the people of Perevi trying to run their errands across the road blocks."

In Abkhazia, the Russians are building a new naval base. Vashadze assumes that it is meant to replace Sevastopol, a leased base on the Black Sea, if Ukraine does not agree to extend the lease after the deal expires in 2017.

Dialogue discontinued

Foreign Minister Vashadze affirms that he is ready to start "constructive consultations" with Russia at any time. However, Russia does not accede to talks with Saakashvili or his government. There are not even trade connections between the two countries - Russia boycotts Georgian wines, mineral water and other products.

Vashadze is a former Soviet diplomat himself. He took part in the Start negotiations between Soviet Union and the USA in the 1980s and served for years in the Soviet foreign ministry prior to the country's collapse in 1991.  He is married to Nino Ananiashvili, a former prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Theatre, currently artistic director of the National Ballet Ensemble of Georgia.

"We have very close friends in Moscow even today. Not long ago, my wife made a tour of Japan with dancers of the Bolshoi Theatre. But we do not keep any official contacts with people in Moscow."

Despite all this, Vashadze does not fear a new war. He is of the opinion that the Russian army is so weak that it simply does not want to fight. But the political relations will be frozen as long as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is in power.

"For the Finns, Russia may seem a nearly normal civilized state. It invests in your country and lots of Russian tourists visit Finland," says Vashadze. "From the point of view of Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, however, Russia is as dangerous as the Soviet Union was at its worst."

Vashadze says that the Kremlin does not approve of the independence of Georgia and the other former Soviet republics, because it is still dreaming of a close union similar to the Soviet Union. The starkest repercussions of this policy are reality in the North Caucasus, where bomb attacks are an everyday phenomenon. At the end of March they spread to Moscow too, when two suicide bombers killed dozens in the metro.

The bombers were from Dagestan but the most eager Muscovite politicians were quick to accuse Georgia. Vashadze considers such talk outrageous.

"We condemn terrorism irrespective where it takes place," he says. "But it is equally tragic that the situation in the North Caucasus is addressed only when attacks are made in Russia."

Vashadze assures that Georgia will not succumb to the Kremlin's pressure. The Government's strategy is based on economic growth - it wants to outdo Russia by peaceful means.

"We shall work so that Georgia will be a success story in the same way as Finland and West Germany were after the Second World War."

The situation looks promising in this respect even though the unemployment rate is close to 20%. Because of the global recession, Georgia's economy declined last year by four per cent but it has now taken on a strong upward trend of five to six per cent.

In Georgia construction activities are booming. Cities are renovated and new airports, ports, motorways and ski resorts are being built.


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