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As Putin’s global popularity soars, Georgia’s outgoing president warns of a new ‘Soviet Union’

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Aaron Kovac

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been notorious for his criticism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As he prepares to leave office at the end of his term this month, many wonder whether his successor will prove to be as aggressive in standing up to Georgia’s “Big Brother”.

It would be fair to say that Mikheil Saakashvili is choosing to go out with a bang. At the UN General Assembly meeting that recently took place in New York, Saakashvili used his allotted time to denounce what he perceived to be Russia’s malicious intent concerning its neighbors before delegations from every country.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.  /AFP/Stan Honda

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. /AFP/Stan Honda

“The Russian Federation has no interest in having stable states around it. Neighboring countries in constant turmoil is what the Kremlin is seeking,” the Georgian leader stated. The remarks prompted the Russian delegation to walk out of the room in outrage.

Saakashvili’s sharp criticism of Russia contrasted with the rest of the conference, where there was widespread recognition that Russian President Putin landed a significant diplomatic victory in avoiding a Western military intervention in Syria. Whereas President Barack Obama appeared indecisive, if not weak, on the world stage after his ‘red line’ of chemical weapons use was crossed, Putin came across as calm, reliable and, ironically, as an anti-war figure, penning an op-ed that pleaded against military interventionism and respect of UN decisions.

If Mikheil Saakashvili attacked Russia’s record with particular vehemence at the General Assembly meeting, it was most likely in reaction to this new wave of global approval for Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader may have suffered some public relations damage in parts of Europe and North America after the details of his controversial ‘gay propaganda law’ came to light, but, after granting asylum to American whistleblower Edward Snowden and the Syria debacle, Putin seems to have won back wary supporters.

Beyond Putin’s new-found international popularity, however, President Saakashvili’s spent much of his speech denouncing Russia’s new ‘Eurasian customs union’. The Russian-led customs union brings together neighboring ex-Soviet states such as Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia. Putin hopes it will act as a geopolitical counterweight to EU encroachment in Russia’s backyard, alarming some neighboring countries that only emerged from Soviet control less than 25 years ago.

Hillary Clinton, while she was Secretary of State for the first Obama administration has even referred to the customs union as a ‘new USSR’. Mikheil Saakashvili took up a similar line of argument at the UN, stating, “[Putin’s Russia is] an old Empire is trying to reclaim its bygone borders […] be it the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, or the Eurasian Union.”

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has instead declared his country’s desire to build bridges with the European Union, and already seems to be suffering the consequences of insubordination to Putin. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, who is hosting a summit between European Union heads of state and leaders of the Europe’s Eastern Partnership countries in Vilnius this November, accused Russia of waging an “economic war” on its neighbor Ukraine, whom it has been pressuring to join the customs union.

The Russian government for its part, later responded to Saakashvili’s speech in a statement in which it slammed the Georgian leader’s remarks, saying they amounted to nothing more than “rambling delusions which were not just anti-Russian but russophobic and anti-Orthodox”. “Luckily for the people of Georgia,” the statement adds, “the political career of this person, whose mental state requires professional evaluation, will soon come to an end.”

Indeed, Russia is counting on Saakashvili’s successor being more flexible than the current President, who has firmly aligned himself with the West. The two main candidates are David Bakradze, from Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) party, and Giorgi Margvelashvili, from the rival Georgian Dream party.

Bakradze may be expected to follow in Saakashvili’s footsteps (although he differs on domestic policy matters) yet Margvelashvili is supported by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The latter politician, a Georgian billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, was relatively unknown in his home country before he formed Georgian Dream and was swept to power in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Now, he is the most powerful man in the country and any candidate from his party is likely to seek much closer ties with Russia.

So far, the election results are far from certain, and the fate of Georgia hangs in the balance.

Aaron Kovac is a political analyst and writer based in Brussels, Belgium.

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