“In the next few days we will know if Russia wants to be part of the international community or if they don’t give a damn what the worlds thinks of them”, is the stark warning given by 42 year old Georgian artist and writer Nick Gabrichidze, who is also coordinator of SOS Georgia.
This new NGO was set up by members of the Georgian community in Belgium to focus efforts to raise humanitarian aid and to promote Georgian independence by advocacy and campaigning. They are looking for donations and professional volunteers to help those in the improvised refugee camps.
Being based in Brussels they are close to the European institutions but Gabrichidze has found them unimpressive so far. “They’re all on holiday! We’ve had some discussions with the European Commission but we’re waiting for people to come back from their vacation. Throughout this crisis the European Parliament has been on vacation.”
“Although the French have made some initiatives, I haven’t noticed any response from the European Union as a body. The European Parliament hasn’t made any decisions yet, the Commission, in their first meeting, tried to postpone a decision until September. I can tell you the position of individual countries but the position of the European Union is unknown at this time. We’re having better luck with NATO.” Gabrichidze is also dismissive of a peacekeeping role for the EU. “They have no experience. They tried and failed completely in Yugoslavia.”
NATO is seen as a better bet because of their experience and ability to respond to rapidly changing events, while the EU could play a role in reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
Responding to the Georgia crisis is complex because the Russians are notoriously secretive and since the infrastructure has been heavily damaged, finding out the current situation on the ground is difficult. “I don’t know what’s going to happen this evening. Will the Russians withdraw? Will they attack? Nobody knows”.
With the tanks only 20 miles from Tbilisi, no sign of Russian retreat, how would SOS Georgia react if there is no change in the situation or the crisis deepens? “SOS Georgia was mainly set up for humanitarian aid, but if things get worse some people may decide to go and fight on the ground. This would be their own decision and nothing to do with the organisation.”
Gabrichidze admits that there are problems and differences between Georgia and the South Ossetians and Abkhazians, but says there is no hatred between the peoples. He recently attended a meeting with South Ossetians and found they had a lot of common ground. Significantly, he claims some Russians there tried to throw him out. He says that this conflict is not with his fellow countrymen but with Russia. “It was Russian soldiers, who invaded, Russian aircraft that did the bombing.”
When asked about a solution to the crisis Gabrichidze explained that he thought the agreement brokered by France is not a solution but the first step in resolving the conflict. The withdrawal of forces is more difficult for Georgia because of damage to roads and it would be hard to get supplies to refugee camps and there is still looting going on. For the agreement to work, “It’s entirely in Russian hands.”
“If the Russians don’t co-operate with the rest of the world, behaving as they did after the Cold War, then we’re entering another era, one in which Russia does whatever it wants.”
For Gabrichidze the immediate concern is for Russia to honour the agreement it signed. “Russia must withdraw. Not completely, but to show goodwill, they must return to where they were before the conflict.”
What does Gabrichidze think of the current cocktail of Russia threatening Ukraine and Poland and the USA and NATO stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq? Gabrichidze claims they are taking advantage and compares their actions to those of Germany in the 1930s when they annexed or neutralised one state at a time with no serious military opposition. He also predicts that Russia will soon start a propaganda campaign, depicting pro-Georgians as fascists, Islamic terrorists and so on.
The hardliners may be directing the military, but there are tensions within the Russian government as some wish to build on commercial and business relations with the world and see military actions as harmful to Russia’s long term interests.
The coming days will show the world the nature of the Russian bear. Will it be aggressive or can it be tamed? The Georgians will be the first to find out, but what happens in this small republic will affect all of us.