Thursday, October 19, 2006

Georgia's Always On My Mind

Is the current xenophobic campaign against Georgians in Russia run by Putin and the Kremlin? Much indicates that this is actually the case. Since Moscow launched its sanctionist policy towards Georgia earlier this year, living conditions have become next to unbearable for many Georgians living in Russia, making them the new "Jews" of Russia.

Police harassment and controls of Georgians have become commonplace during the last month. Even people with work and residence permits, who have lived for decades in Russia, are now experiencing the repercussions of the current Russian-Georgian crisis. A growing number of Georgians are also forcibly expelled from Russia. Popular sentiments about Georgia unavoidably also reflect upon its nationals living in Russia. So, how does Kremlin's attitude influence the Russian people?

Putin and several leading politicians consistently treat Georgia with great rancour. Recently, Defence and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said: "banditry in Georgia has taken on a nationwide scale." Following up on this statement, the state run All Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies asked Russians whether they agreed with Ivanov.

The result was a devastating 61% positive replies - that "Georgia is a bandit state." Only 29% disagreed. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, attitudes against Georgians were even worse with 78% agreeing with Ivanov. In the rest of Russia, results spanned from 55-61% among respondents. Also, 40% advocated "an economic blockade against Georgia and taking other tough measures in response to the Georgian authorities' unfriendly policy toward Russia." Additionally, 37% backed expulsion of Georgians without residence permit from Russia, 20% advocated a break in transports and postal services, and 20% thought that Russia should severe diplomatic relations with Tbilisi. In contrast, only 30% wanted to normalise bilateral relations and de-escalate the belligerent emotions now running high. A minuscule 5% held that no measures at all should be taken against Georgia.

There are, regrettably, no prior figures to compare with, but popular sentiments against Georgians have never seemed very negative in the past. However, over the last half year, Georgia and Georgians have suddenly become the pariah of Russia, almost on the level of Chechens when hearing Putin and other politicians talking on the subject. That an opinion poll thus takes a statement of a vice Premier as its starting-point is probably no coincidence. The Kremlin both wants to demonstrate that it leads the way and that it has the support of the people in this policy. Admittedly, the particular poll is on Georgia and not Georgians. However, it is quite evident, that these negative attitudes are reflected also on Georgian nationals - assumably to almost the same negative levels - when leading politicians practically portray Russia and Georgia on the verge of war.

The development of Moscow's policy towards the "near abroad" over the last 2-3 years - since the coloured revolutions - contrasts to Russia's prior policy. Previous policy was based on the understanding that the costs for an active policy in post-soviet space were too great in comparison to what could be achieved in other areas. It was a policy of droit de regard and not a droit de suite for an empire creating states by oppression. As Russia is again claiming real influence over post-soviet space, one must ask if we are heading back in the USSR. Surprisingly, it is not difficult to imagine Putin telling the 'ignorant peoples' now back in the fold: "Hey, You don't know how lucky you are, boy."


Dan O'H said...

Interesting post. As for Russian opinion polls about Georgia, look here for some older data - not directly comparable, but it looks as though Russian opinions of Georgia have been steadily worsening since saakashvili came to power.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Dan,

Well, there is perhaps no wonder that Russian relations with Georgia have deteriorated under Saakashvili since the rose revolution.

Saakashvili himself is quite erratic in foreign policy and the things he has been saying about Putin and Russia are doing anything to help the situation.

However, being headstrong is perhaps as well, while things cannot get much worse, and this is still a language Moscow understands.