Author: Amb. Giorgi Badridze, the Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
The summer of 2017 will probably go down into the collective memory of Georgians by the massive forest fires. I can’t blame those who suspect that the fires may have resulted not just from unusually hot and dry weather but by someone’s foul play. No one can recall this many and so intensive forest fires in so many different places at once. On the 9th of August, after the first major fire which burned down the forest at the top of Vera and Mtatsminda in downtown Tbilisi, I wrote this in my facebook page: “The conclusions that Georgia’s ill-wishers may have taken after yesterday’s fire is this: it would take just one matchstick to cause as much destruction as normally caused by an air-raid or an assault with a massive army”. In a week’s time fires started ravaging Georgian forests in Borjomi valley, Abastumani, Adjara, Kakheti, Tusheti and many more places. I can’t assert that they were caused by Georgia’s enemies, but at the very least it is a possibility, particularly given not so distant experience – in August 2008, during the Russian invasion, the very same forest in Borjomi was burned down after the Russian military helicopters dropped incendiary flairs.
The very first fires demonstrated that Georgia was completely unprepared to deal with such a challenge. It became clear that Georgia did not have adequate technical means to fight forest fires, particularly on the mountainous terrain which requires the use of specialized aircraft.
Naturally, in such circumstances one seeks the help from partners and the closest neighbors. Azerbaijan and Turkey sent their helicopters and vehicles at the first request, which is only natural – many thanks to them. Even Armenia sent fire brigades and did all they could, even if more on the symbolic level.
The odd things started when we learned about Russia’s offer of help by sending an IL-76 firefighting plane. Absolute majority of Georgians responded with hostility to such an idea and the representatives of the Georgian government explained that they never requested any help from Moscow. They told us that after they heard about Georgia’s problems, Russia offered its help on its own initiative, which Georgian government, allegedly, declined.
Later, Prime Minister Kvirikashvili added that he considered such an offer by Russia as a very positive development. It was at the very end when we learned from the Russian officials that, actually, they had received quite specific and absolutely official request for help directly from the Georgian government (without any mediation of the UN). It transpired that initially this request was communicated by the Special Representative of the Prime Minister Mr. Abashidze to the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Karasin, after which it was sent via official channel – a Note Verbale of the Section of Georgian Interests at the Swiss Embassy in Moscow to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.
When this became obvious, virtually all political parties and the entire society sharply criticized the government for its actions.
Here I will humbly attempt to offer my own view on why I think it would be a bad idea to accept Russia’s help, let alone – to ask for it, regardless whether these fires were caused by Russia itself or they were caused by the angry mother-nature.
The main argument which the Government provided after the revelation of their secret request to the Russian foreign ministry was that both the appeal for help and Russian offer were the expression of good will by both sides and that it could contribute to improving of the troubled bilateral relations.
This would indeed signify a positive development, if in the recent years, including during the five years of the current government, Russia had shown even slightest interest in improving of these relations. Instead, it has been methodically pursuing the policy of creeping occupation, regular abductions of our citizens, the integration of the “Abkhaz and South Ossetian armed forces” into its own army and many more, of which the Georgian government should be well aware.
So why would Russia want to extend this supposedly friendly gesture and send the IL-76 plane of the Russian Ministry of Emergencies to fight the forest fires in Borjomi? Surely our government would remember that in 2008 the massive fires that destroyed many miles of the national park forests there were caused by the Russian air force. The motive, in my view, is quite simple: in the eyes of the international community (or at least for Russia itself) the acceptance of the Russian help in such a way would give some legitimization to the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Sadly, whether they like it or not, by sending the formal (even if secret) request for help to the Russian authorities, the Georgian government has signaled their readiness for such a scenario and the Russians were only eager to reveal it.
Like I said, because the lack of direct evidence I can’t accuse Russia of setting forest fires in Georgia but what is clear to me is that these fires served the Kremlin interests: they exposed Georgia’s weaknesses and secured the desirable plea for help from the Georgian government. On this occasion, sharply negative reaction of the Georgian society prevented Russian planes from entering the Georgian air space. In the hot days of August, the majority of our compatriots deemed it as a matter of dignity to reject the help from Russia. I personally think that, apart from the issue of dignity, such a move would represent direct and long-lasting threat to our national interests and security. I have already mentioned Russia’s desire to legitimize or at least normalize “the new realities on the ground” – e.i. the occupation of the two occupied regions. But there might be other goals too: what would Georgian government do in case of Russia, after generously extending the helping hand and sending the fire-fighting IL-76 plane, asked for the over-flight permission for another IL-76 – this time of the Russian air force, carrying military hardware to the military base in Armenia or even Syria?
Those who still have an illusion that it is possible to make any deals with Russia’s current regime without conceding our national interests and sovereignty obviously have very poor understanding of Russia and the Kremlin’s not so veiled plans regarding Georgia. Those who can’t recall the past decades, or blame the Georgian leaders at the time for the Russian hostility, should take a fresh look at the events of the last five years under the present Government.
Russia has been trying to legitimize it aggression and occupation of parts of Georgia for years. The Kremlin invested heavily in the campaign of international recognition of the non-existing independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It resulted in utter failure. Only five countries were persuaded by Russian promises and bribes and, as a result of the efforts of the Georgian diplomacy, later took their recognition back. Last month, however, we witnessed how the Kremlin has been trying to offer us a kind of the Trojan Horse, by accepting which, as I said above, Georgia would indicate its readiness to reconcile with the Russian occupation and it international legitimization.
PS In the 1980-s popular “Yes Prime Minister” TV series there was an episode in which an adviser is explaining to the PM how the Russians would use the “salami tactics” if they decided to invade Western Europe. In the words of the adviser, Russians always act in a planned manner and use unconventional methods to limit the options of the West. He offered Prime Minister the following scenario to illustrate his assumption: massive fires break out in West Berlin, East Germans send in their fire brigades, then they are followed by the East German police, and then by the army (for “security”), and then the Russian army replaces the East German army. Of course it is a comedy but like every good joke it’s only partly a joke.
Yes Prime Minister, “Salami Tactics” episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKbDKsNsjac