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Analysis & Opinion
23.12.09 Monumental PR
By Tom Balmforth

The Russian-Georgian relations were brought back into the spotlight last week when a Soviet memorial to Second World War veterans was demolished in Georgia to make way for a new parliament building. On December 22 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the memorial could be rebuilt in Moscow with the help of Georgia’s local expat community. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has come under fire from the Georgian opposition and Russia for the demolition of the memorial to Georgian soldiers. So what was Saakashvili’s true agenda?

The Russian Foreign Ministry called the demolition of the 46-meter-high monument “an act of state vandalism” and accused Georgia of trying to “erase the historical memory of its people.” “According to our specialists, this memorial has historical value. However, this is not the point. This is another attempt to erase the memory of the Soviet Union and the memory of our shared past, including our heroic past. Bearing this in mind, I think it is possible to rebuild the memorial in the capital of the once-united state – Moscow,” said Putin on Tuesday.

United Russia, which holds all but three seats in the Moscow City Duma, said it will support these efforts. And yesterday, Itar-Tass reported that the Union of Georgians has announced its intentions to build the replica. “I am glad to hear that there are plans to rebuild the monument at the expense of the Union of Georgians…I think it would be a bad idea for the Russian government to finance such a project because it would look like the Russian government is fighting Georgian nationalism at the Russian taxpayers’ expense,” said Dmitry Babich, a political analyst at RIA Novosti.

The demolition process itself has been embroiled in controversy since the blast killed a woman and her eight-year-old daughter. Four more people have been hospitalized in serious condition.

But tearing down the monument has been above all condemned as an attempt to rewrite Georgian history. “A country that doesn’t remember its past has no future. What Saakashvili has done is greatly traumatic for the Georgian people…and those people who became victims in the blast on Friday, their deaths are on the consciences of those who ordered the demolition,” said Vladimir Khomeriki, a Georgian community leader in Russia.

“The demolition of the monument is very divisive in Georgia because there are still many war veterans in the country, they have a lot of relatives. And, of course, Saakashvili’s competitors on the political stage will try to exploit this to their advantage,” said Babich. Throughout the first half of 2009, Georgia’s opposition led numerous civil protests against the president, demanding that Saakashvili resign over his role in the Russia-Georgia conflict in August of last year. Tearing down the memorial in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city, has provided the opposition with more reasons to accuse Saakashvili of being indifferent to public opinion, Reuters reported.

The former Georgian Prime Minister and leader of the opposition party For a Free Georgia Zarub Nogaideli is currently in Moscow discussing reconstruction of the monument. “It’s obvious that Nogaideli is trying to build up his political career on mending relations with Russia,” said Babich.

So what was Saakashvili trying to achieve by demolishing the memorial? Babich believes that the Georgian president was trying to win backing from the West by provoking Russia into behaving aggressively, a charge sometimes leveled against Saakashvili for sending Georgian troops into South Ossetia last year. “He’s a very good media operator,” Babich said. “Of course he knows that Russia’s government is very sensitive to attacks on and damage to World War II monuments in these republics; this is government policy.”

In April of 2007 a Soviet war memorial was removed in Tallinn, Estonia, provoking a furious official reaction from Russia. A week later, Estonian government Web sites came under cyber-attacks that redirected users to images of Soviet soldiers. The BBC reported that some IP addresses of the hackers matched Russian government addresses, but responsibility was never pinned on the Russian authorities and many analysts said it was the work of independent hackers. But whoever was responsible for the cyber-attacks on Estonia, it is clear how important preserving the shared memory of the Soviet Union is to Russia.

Georgia’s president was looking to exploit that, said Babich. “Saakashvili’s tactic is to provoke Russians into doing something aggressive and dramatic so Saakashvili can say: ‘look, I’m the victim.’ That has been his policy since Russian troops intervened in South Ossetia,” he said.

Another example of this tactic was Georgia’s interception in August of a Turkish vessel carrying goods to Russia-backed Abkhazia. A diplomatic scandal broke out when the Georgian courts sentenced the Turkish and Azeri crew to 24 years in prison. Georgia’s local press subsequently quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that “attempts to enforce a sea blockade on Abkhazia could lead to a serious armed incident.”

And Saakashvili appears powerless to regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops remain stationed in both breakaway republics even in contravention of the peace treaty terms brokered by the EU. “He’s not able to solve the problem of South Ossetia and Abkhazia diplomatically because his reputation in the West was tarnished by the EU’s report that he was the first to attack; and he has no contact with Russia because Russia refuses to talk to him. So now, the only thing he can do is stage lots of PR actions, such as this Turkish vessel and this monument. In the future, I think we can expect lots more of these kinds of actions from Saakashvili,” said Babich.
The source
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