Paul Goble reports:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has often described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest tragedy” of the 20th century, has now said that the “reunification” of Georgia has “already been decided,” a suggestion some of his listeners believe was a call for restoring Moscow’s control over Georgia and even the former USSR as a whole. In an intriguing commentary published on Gazeta.ru, Bozhena Rynska describes both the celebration of the 80th birthday of longtime Soviet and Russian official Yevgeny Primakov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s two very different toasts on that occasion .
The celebration took place at the Center of International Trade. Among those in attendance were Vice Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov, Governor Valentina Matviyenko, Federation Council First Vice Speaker Aleksandr Torshin “and other government people of the first rank,” Rynska said. Primakov, she continued, has close ties to Georgia – he spent part of his childhood there, his first wife was a Georgian, and his mother was a Georgian Armenian – and consequently it was not surprising that many of the guests at his birthday celebration were people “with Georgian roots.”
Among them were former foreign minister Igor Ivanov (whose mother was Georgian, current foreign minister Sergey Lavrov (whose father was a Georgian Armenian), the oligarch Shalva Breus, Academician Viktor Gelovani, the singer Nani Bregvade, sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, and the master of ceremonies (“tamada”) was Moscow chief cardiologist David Ioseliani. Rynska noted that “throughout the entire evening, Ioseliani the tamada called Putin who was sitting next to Primakov the first person of the state,” a description that others in attendance followed, including apparently some who are serving officials and thus know that in protocol terms at least that title belongs to someone else.
In his first toast, Putin said “the history of Russia is complicated and at times bloody,” the prime minister said. “But in it,” he continued, there are its Primakovs, and therefore these blood lettings end and sometimes do not even begin.” Primakov responded in kind. He said, Rynska continued, “that he will always be devoted to Mr. Putin because the latter saved Russia.”
There followed entertainment including singing. And then Putin made his second toast. He “immediately warned that he very well understood that everything said will go beyond the walls of this hall. More than that,” Rynska continued, the Russian leader indicated that he was “counting on exactly that. Following that introduction, Putin declared that “the question of the reunification of Georgia had been decided. And that there are no questions which we cannot resolve.” Primakov, Putin continued, “is involved with this question,” a statement that sounded to many in attendance as a direct appointment in the tsarist style.
After some more singing, Putin left the hall, and the remaining participants began to talk among themselves as to what the prime minister’s intentions had been. Some of those with the closest Georgian ties concluded that Putin “’had said that he will return everything to us!’ That is, Rynska said, they heard exactly what they wanted to hear.”
“Those not affiliated to Georgia interpreted [Putin’s] programmatic toast entirely differently.” They heard as a promise that “all that we consider ours will remain ours.” And a few of them concluded that what Putin had committed himself to was “the restoration in a new form” of the entity that was once called “the Soviet Union.” Putin’s remark certainly was enigmatic enough to permit these various interpretations. Indeed, that may have been exactly his intention. But his participation in a session with so many Russians who have Georgian roots and ties will certainly be read in Tbilisi as yet another indication that the Russian prime minister has no plans to reduce pressure on Georgia.
At the very least, it suggests that Putin’s understanding of Russia’s sphere of influence includes not just Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow has already recognized as independent, but also the remainder of Georgia and the remainder of the former Soviet space, an understanding that will exacerbate rather than calm tensions in many other capitals as well.