Tension With Russia Re-Emerges As Campaign Issue In Georgia
Georgia says a Russian military buildup on the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper is intended to destabilize the country ahead of October 1 parliamentary elections. Georgia accusing Russia of nefarious deeds is nothing new, of course, including in connection with its elections. But over the last few days those accusations have become more specific and pointed.
For one, there are the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises, which Saakashvili said were timed in order to interfere with Georgia's elections:
“I know well what is happening in respect of Georgia in the condition when there is Russian money, Russian methods, Russian compromising materials and Russian army, deployed near our borders holding very dangerous military exercises, under conditions when the occupant of our territories has vowed to accomplish in next few weeks and months what it failed to do in 2008 and to use elections for this purpose,” Saakashvili said.
(For what it's worth, when Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, testified before a Congressional committee last week, he was asked if he thought the Kavkaz-2012 exercises were intended by Russia to influence Georgia's elections, and he said he didn't.)
Georgia also has accused Russia of building up its forces over the last week along the de facto border with South Ossetia -- and EU monitors agree. And on Friday, a Russian helicopter ("delivering humanitarian aid") landed inside the territory of Georgia proper after it got lost. Russia says it was an innocent mistake, but Georgia said it risked a "dangerous provocation":
In recent weeks, the armed forces of the Russian Federation have been concentrating manpower and offensive equipment in the areas adjacent to the administrative borders of Georgia's occupied provinces, which increases the risk of dangerous provocation. This was confirmed today, as a helicopter of the Russian military made landing at in the area controlled by the central Georgian authorities, in proximity to Tskhinvali region.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs voices stark protest in relation to this incident and calls on the Russian Federation to desist from amassing manpower and military assets in the occupied regions.
As the Ministry has stated earlier, the large-scale military maneuvers of the Russian Armed Forces "Kavkaz-2012" have been purposefully rescheduled to coincide with the pre-election period in Georgia. Our concerns for subsequent risks and provocations have also proven valid.
Ivanishvili, for his part, has seemed to stay fairly quiet on this issue, instead hammering the government on the prison abuse story. With the elections just a week away, the tension is mounting and the accusations on both sides -- over prison abuse, bribery of police, cyberattacks -- are coming fast and furious. In this atmosphere, is tension over Russia likely to be a factor? According to the most recent poll (pdf) by the International Republican Institute, relations with Russia are in fact a big issue on voters' minds. Asked "What is the most important issue Georgia is facing?" the second most common response was "the return of lost territories" (behind only "unemployment.") Asked "What issue do you fear the most?" by far the most common response was war with Russia. But polls also show that voters don't show a clear preference (see the video, around 1:12:00) for either President Mikheil Saakashvili's party, the United National Movement, or the main opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, when it comes to relations with Russia. So will this last-minute upsurge in tension with Russia affect the results?
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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