Russia Profile Weekly Expert’s Panel
Patrick Armstrong, retired Russian Affairs Analyst for the Canadian Government, Ottawa:
Saakashvili seems to have completely lost his credibility among most of his Western supporters, who uncritically bought the line that Russia – in his own words – wanted to extinguish the shining city with tanks. This is best illustrated by the derision with which his claims that the Russians tried to assassinate him the other day have been received: even a Georgian news outlet showed lightly veiled disbelief. His versions of the reasons for the attack on South Ossetia are fading quickly, as he invents ever earlier Russian movements. The inquiry in Tbilisi on the causes of the war is falling apart – the testimony of Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia is particularly devastating.
In that respect, Moscow has been vindicated: its story, which has not changed, is holding up, while Saakashvili’s is collapsing. Even the U.S. State Department is trying to change the subject: “I think we need to get away from looking at, you know, who did what first, because as I said, I don’t think we’ll ever really get to the bottom of that,” said Robert Wood, a deputy spokesman of the Department of State, at a news briefing on November 7. “Who did what first” was very important indeed to the State Department a month or two ago.
“Have Russian media strategies proven more successful than those of Georgia?” I would say that it wasn’t clever “media strategies” that triumphed, it was the simple truth. Tbilisi’s attack on the sleeping inhabitants of Tskhinvali is too recent and too well attested to be forgotten: this is not something that slowly came to light as, for example, did the truth of Moscow’s allegations about the Pankisi Gorge; we can, in fact, “get to the bottom of that.” But it has nothing to do with Moscow’s rather poor skills of news management – despite fantasies in official Tbilisi which intimate that the OSCE observers were bought or suborned. Tbilisi had been preparing an invasion for some time, it lied about the sequence of events, and there is evidence to prove it and people who are angry enough to want to do so.
The West is still absorbing the fact that “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.” The process will be slow and it will take time for Western governments to absorb this reality. Paris – perhaps because it has access to Salome Zurabishvili and Irakli Okruashvili, both former Saakashvili cabinet ministers now in opposition to him – understood the reality sooner than others. Perhaps people will start to learn that while, like most governments, Moscow lies some of the time, it does not lie all of the time.
My suspicion is that there will be a quiet replacement of Saakashvili by someone who is, how shall we put it, less volatile, but the real question will then be: will the West take a more realistic and fact-based view of Georgia and its problems with its large neighbor after he is gone?
The West has been gulled for years by Tbilisi. One can only hope that this latest Georgian catastrophe brought on by chauvinism and violence will finally destroy the Panglossian view of Georgia as a “shining city” menaced by Moscow.