Analysis: Russia and Israel are on Georgia’s mind

On the 10th anniversary of the 2008 war, Tbilisi’s ambassador reflects on the lessons of the conflict and relations with Israel.

Georgian Ambassador Paata Kalandadze (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Georgian Ambassador Paata Kalandadze
In 1990, Paata Kalandadze – a young diplomat from Georgia – was serving in the Soviet Union’s diplomatic delegation in Israel that was operating out of the Finnish Embassy in Tel Aviv.
This was a time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev was the Soviet leader and his foreign minister was a Georgian by the name of Eduard Shevardnadze. The Soviet Union had not yet disintegrated, but huge change was already in the works – as evidenced by the fact that the Soviet Union, which had been so anti-Israel for so long, opened a diplomatic delegation in Israel.
Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian Federation opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, and Kalandadze’s stint as a Soviet diplomat representing Moscow’s interests in Israel ended. More than two decades later he was back in Tel Aviv, but this time as the ambassador of the independent state of Georgia.
And now, rather than representing Moscow’s interests, he represents those of Tbilisi – interests which are diametrically opposed.
Georgian diplomats around the world initiated interviews this week with the local media where they are stationed to draw attention to an anniversary that – outside of Georgia and perhaps some parts of Russia – few people noticed: The 10th anniversary of the five day Russo-Georgian War that began on August 8, 2008. During that war, which is often referred to as the first European war of the 21st century, Georgia lost control of two regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have ever since been occupied by Russia.
This anniversary, Kalandadze said during an interview in the lobby of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, is an “opportunity to see clearly the intentions of some actions done in the past.”
In the telling of the Georgian ambassador, who has been in Israel for the last four years, the seeds of Russia’s military engagement in Syria, and especially its invasion and occupation of Crimea and parts of Ukraine, were planted in that summer war in Transcaucasia.
“TODAY, AFTER 10 years of the Georgian-Russian war, we can quite clearly identify what the intentions of the Russian Federation were. Why this war took place – what was the plan, was it a separate episode in the region, or a stage of greater plan.”
According to Kalandadze, the war was part of a greater Russian plan, “which later on developed into the annexation of Crimea, and the activities and developments we are witnessing in regions of Ukraine.”
Moscow, he said, has a plan to “harshly impose its will over its neighbors” who are opting for democracy and the West, and quashing Georgia was part of that plan. Moscow, in his telling, wants to keep Georgia and Ukraine “under its control, to not allow the independent countries to make a choice of their own way of development, and establishment of their own countries.”
Russia’s’ war in Georgia and six years later in Crimea were not only a blow to the security of those two countries, he continued, but a blow to European security, since in his mind “it is quite clear that one of the main intentions of Russia is to shake the stability of the EU as a stable and progressive entity.”
Kalandadze said that Russia will not be “limited from the geographic perspective” and will try “to tackle the international order “everywhere, whether in Georgia, in the vicinity of the EU border, “or in any other part of the universe” – which, in his mind, is the link to Syria.
“This is a part of the big plan, which is the shattering of international law and order, by extending the influential areas from where they can dictate their will,” he said.
That brings up Israel’s relations with Georgia, and with Russia.
The Russian-Georgian war posed serious diplomatic challenges for Jerusalem, torn between sympathy for the small South Caucasian country with its history with the Jews going back to the destruction of the First Temple, and not wanting to antagonize Moscow, which at the time was considering major arms sales to Syria and Iran.
And Moscow could have found an excuse to get annoyed at Israel, if it desired, since Israel, for the decade before the war, sold Georgia an estimated $300-500 million of military hardware, and – perhaps even more significantly – defense contractors were involved in training the Georgian military. Among those involved were former generals such as Yisrael Ziv and Gal Hirsch.
According to a Wikileaks cable from September 2008, a month after the war, Russia – in the words of then-US ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle – urged Israel not to resume arms sales to Georgia.
Kalandadze acknowledge that no new defense contracts between Israel and Georgia have been signed since the war, though existing ones were completed. The defense cooperation “was completed in due time, in accordance to agreements by both sides,” he said.
If Israel had to calibrate its defense relationship with Georgia carefully in 2008 – because it did not want the Russians to retaliate for Israeli arms sales to Tbilisi by selling state-of-the-art weapons to Tehran or Damascus – today it has even more of an interest in keeping relations with Moscow running smoothly because of Russia’s involvement in Syria. This has resulted in a close relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem, evident in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three visits to Moscow so far this year, and his 10 telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin – more than with any other world leader.
KALANDADZE DENIED that this has impacted on Israeli-Georgian ties, which he said are getting “stronger and stronger.
“As I mentioned, the State of Israel and Georgia are friends, Georgia considers Israel a friendly state,” he said. “Because of this friendship Georgia did not, does not and will not impose any kind of agenda on Israel that will violate – or be against the national interests – of the State of Israel.
In the next breath – and in what seemed his way of saying that Israel should remember who its real friends are – he said that there is “26 centuries of friendship between Jews and Georgians, which is very important.”
He added that both Israel and Georgia are free in choosing their friends, but at the same time – in a reference to the United States – “have the same strategic partner.”
Asked whether he thought Israel was making a mistake by developing such close ties with Russia, he replied that this was none of Georgia’s business.
“Whatever Israel is doing is their own domestic agenda, they have a right and obligation to serve their natural interests. I am not interfering in the internal issues of a friendly state,” he said.
While the defense relationship between the countries fell victim to the war, cooperation in a wide array of other fields – from agriculture to hi-tech, education and tourism – has surged. For instance, regarding tourism, some 35,000 Israelis visited Georgia in 2014, compared to more than 135,000 tourists in 2017. This month, during the height of the tourism season, there are 26 weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Tbilisi.
Kalandadze said that not only are bilateral relations between the countries “perfect,” but “we also have a wonderful record of cooperation in multinational forums as well.”
And, indeed, Georgia generally abstains on anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations. There were, however, two recent exceptions. Most recently, Tbilisi voted with another 119 countries in June to provide “protection for the Palestinian civilian population” following the violence along the Gaza border fence – 45 other countries abstained, and eight voted against.
And in December, Georgia was among 20 countries not present for the UN General Assembly vote that condemned the US for its decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. That vote passed 128 to nine, with 35 abstentions.
Kalandadze appeared a bit annoyed when asked about his country’s votes on those issues. He refused to explain Georgia’s absence from the hall on the Jerusalem vote, and said that the reason it voted for the resolution calling for protection for Gazans was “purely humanitarian, and not political.”
Asked if there was any chance that Georgia might move its embassy to Jerusalem, the ambassador replied, “There are always chances, and these chances will appear at the proper time.” He added, however, that he “did not think” there were any immediate plans to do so.
As to whether Israeli officials are talking about this with him, he replied, “We talk about it, we talk about every issue because we are friends.”