Georgia Grapples with Wildfires and the Russian Question

Tbilisi asking enemy Russia for help in putting out a devastating, seven-day-long wildfire has kindled a national debate in Georgia about putting pragmatism before patriotism in the face of disaster.

The blaze that kept the entire country on tenterhooks for a week broke out on August 20 in central Georgia’s Borjomi area, a mountainous, pine-tree-covered recreational area known for its natural springs and seen as the lungs of the nation.

The Georgian foreign ministry confirmed today that Tbilisi’s point man for talks with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, had asked his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, for emergency assistance with tackling the fire that threatened this territory. The ministry defended Abashidze’s move, asserting that the Georgian government had to explore all aid options in the face of the worst wildfire in recent memory.

“We looked at all response equipment available [in the region] . . . including equipment at the disposal of the Russian Federation,” an unnamed ministry employee told Interpressnews.  Moscow offered a Il-76 plane for dousing water on the fire.

Ordinary Georgians, though, hold a bitter grudge against Russia for allegedly setting ablaze Borjomi forests during the 2008 war in a bid to smoke out pockets of Georgian troops. (Moscow has ardently denied the accusation.) To help restore the woodland, volunteers have planted over 30,000 trees since 2008, only to see most of them destroyed over the past week.

Added to that emotion was longstanding opposition and intelligentsia anger against the government for supposedly not doing enough to pressure Russia to withdraw its troops from separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to scuttle its recognition of the two regions as independent states.  

Against that backdrop, no Russian water plane was going to fly.
Faced with public criticism for saying the help should be “welcomed,” Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili ultimately rejected the aid.  Instead, the rest of Georgia’s immediate neighbors -- Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia -- rushed in to help.

The fire, nonetheless, wiped out some 250 hectares (about 618 acres) of woodland.

Yet Moscow-friendly political groups see an additional loss. They maintain Georgia has missed an opportunity for rapprochement.

“There’s a Russian expression “нет худа без добра“ [roughly, “April showers bring May flowers”], so perhaps through this fire we could’ve established the much-needed neighborly relations,” said Ada Marshania, a member of the Patriots’ Alliance, the Georgian parliament’s smallest party member.  

The Borjomi region has a long history in Georgian-Russian relations. Russia’s imperial viceroys and, later, its grand dukes, wanted to turn the area into a resort destination like Germany’s Baden-Baden. Borjomi spring water remains widely popular all across the former Soviet Union as a cure for anything from hangover to intestinal conditions.

But that history did not deflect Georgian suspicions of Russia's intentions.

When kerosene canisters were found in the disaster zone last week, many were quick to point a finger of blame at Russia. Police have started an investigation into potential sabotage.

Reinforcing the suspicions is the fact that nearby breakaway South Ossetia began digging firebreak trenches across its de facto border with Georgian-controlled territory earlier in August. It claimed that this was to prevent the wildfire from spreading.

Even within the cautious Georgian Dream, some found the coincidence peculiar. “Let’s not jump to conclusions . . .but we should not rule out anything,” said senior party member Gia Volski.

His comments prompted speculation about a supposed Russian plan to start the fire and then arrive, deus ex machina, to save the day; all in order to sweeten Georgia’s perceptions of the Kremlin. 

The weather  (higher temperatures and lower precipitation than average ) was considered, though, a more plausible explanation for the disaster.

For its part, Moscow has dismissed the arson allegations as “sick fantasies” meant to feed anti-Russian sentiments. Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova advised Tbilisi to overcome both the fire and the conspiracy theories.

Rain and thunderstorms are now in the forecast for Borjomi for the rest of this week, but as wildfires continue to break out elsewhere in Georgia, the theories about Russia -- and the wider debate -- are unlikely to subside.

Georgia Grapples with Wildfires and the Russian Question

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