When talking about our history, we often remind ourselves to always remember the past in order not to repeat mistakes in future. Unfortunately, we have all but forgotten the story of betrayal of Georgia. Consequently, we have not ever since managed to avoid mistakes in Ukraine and in the wider context of relations with Russia.
I am convinced that we will all continue suffering as long as we have not atoned for the sin of the West against Georgia. We will continue suffering because, for the first time in the 21st century, the aggressor tasted international blood and went unpunished. It gave the Kremlin a spur to continuing its aggression further, this time in Ukraine. It is true that Putin‘s success in Chechnya, resulting in brutal deaths of children and women, served him as the source of inspiration for the occupation of Georgia. This is yet another sin of the West, which Georgia had to atone for with its blood and land. If we fail to learn our lesson, it is likely that ever new nations will have to pay for our mistakes.
Let’s remind the Western leaders, to be welcomed in Tbilisi on the occasion of the conflict’s 10th anniversary, that we have all betrayed Georgia. Let’s remind them that this mistake must be corrected, because, otherwise, the history may have a repetition of events in store for us.
We will definitely cover these matters at the conference dedicated to President Valdas Adamkus on 22 August 2018, but let us first remember the major facts pertaining to the ten-year old betrayal.
The period before 7 August 2008 is most disliked by the Russian propaganda that points to only the date of 8 August 2008 as the start of the war, when the Georgian President responded to Russia’s aggression. Regular forces of the Russian army entered Georgia’s territory through the Roki Tunnel on 7 August. Meanwhile, inspired by this and as a response to the ceasefire announced by President Mikheil Saakashvili on 7 August, terrorists of South Ossetia opened fierce fire on Georgian villages. On 8 August 2012, Putin publicly came to acknowledge that the plan of invasion into Georgia had been developed even since 2006.
Worst of all, up to the very start of the war, the major Western capitals completely ignored those obvious and early signs of Russia’s preparation for the war with Georgia. Lithuanian diplomats used to continuously inform their EU and NATO partners that Russia was preparing for war, i.e. it was building roads and railways necessary for war, deploying military equipment, and setting up a new Russian military base in South Ossetia. At that time, the Western capitals did not really believe Lithuanian diplomats, calling them paranoid and Russo-phobic. The history has unfortunately shown that we were right all along. Everybody believes us now, albeit belatedly.
The largest political betrayal of Georgia, however, happened at the NATO Summit in Bucharest on 2–4 April 2008. US President George Bush, along with the Lithuanian and Polish leaders, tried to persuade other NATO countries to launch a membership action plan for Georgia and open NATO’s door for this country, thereby deterring Russia. Unfortunately, the proposal was blocked by the French and German leaders. In fact, it was back then that Russia was politically given the green light for the occupation of Georgia, or at least that was how the Kremlin interpreted the weakness shown by the Western capitals. This mistake has not been corrected yet. During her forthcoming visit to Tbilisi, Chancellor Angela Merkel could pronounce herself as an advocate of Georgia –– in the same way as Germany did in respect of the Baltic States in 1997 –– and support further enlargement of NATO not only in the Balkans, but also in Georgia, thus rectifying the historical mistakes made a decade ago. The arguments for that are the same as those already voiced by Heiko Maas, new German Minister for Foreign Affairs, when he spoke about NATO’s enlargement in the Balkans, i.e. to prevent the dominance of Russia and China, which are now actively engaged in dividing Europe.
No lesser responsibility falls on the shoulders of the young and ambitious French President Emmanuel Macron because it was namely France that was most humiliated by Russia in Tbilisi. When coming to Tbilisi ten years ago, Nicolas Sarkozy was seen as a messiah of peace. The Sarkozy plan bringing an end to the war was signed. What is not to like? However, the very same plan is currently being ignored. Russia continues to flout the demand to withdraw its army to the pre-war lines not only by constructing new military bases, but also by moving barbed-wire fences ever deeper into Georgia’s territory and, ultimately, by declaring the occupied areas to be part of Russia. Though provided in the Sarkozy plan, international observers have never been allowed into the occupied areas of Georgia. These areas are still subject to ongoing ethnic cleansing and continuous violations of fundamental principles of international law and human rights. Georgians are often simply killed for no reason there.
A welcome fact is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia has compiled the Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili sanctions list (named after the killed Georgians), which includes the names of 33 Russian nationals. All Western capitals are requested to deny entry into their respective countries to these murderers and their accomplices, torturers, and human rights offenders. Lithuania was the first among the Western countries to approve the list, which is a good thing. However, why have we all at the same time forgotten that, ten years ago, Russia committed itself to withdraw its troops to the pre-conflict line and allow international observers into the occupied areas? Why is this question no longer raised by the French President, whose predecessor’s signature is not respected? Why is this question no longer raised by the European Union leaders and Brussels, though the monitoring mission of the latter has never been allowed into the occupied Georgian lands? Have we heard a single statement on the issue by Jean-Claude Juncker or Federica Mogherini, let alone or ?
Perhaps, several figures might serve as a wake-up call for our conscience. Currently, there are over 10,000 Russian troops and security officers in the occupied territories without any right to be there. The presence of these soldiers is in direct contradiction to the 5th point of the Sarkozy plan and the fundamental principles of international law. After the war, as many as 35,000 Georgian homes were burned down or destroyed in South Ossetia, and, in essence, the occupied regions were exposed to ethnic cleansing. Both regions are managed by Russian citizens, and both regions have been illegally incorporated into Russia. In the occupied South Ossetia, the Kremlin deployed not only new military bases, but also the Tochka-U high-precision tactical ballistic missile system, which may carry both conventional and nuclear warheads and reach the target 120 km away. Moreover, in 2015, the Tskhinvali military base was reinforced by the Iskander ballistic missiles.
One might wonder, however, what Lithuania’s diplomacy has done with regard to this matter over a period of ten years. At the time of President Adamkus, Lithuania was the only EU Member State to have refused to restore the relations with Russia following its actions in Georgia. As a consequence, President Adamkus and I felt the chill of isolation both in Brussels and Lithuania then. Everyone tried to “wise us up” and talk us into treating Russia “more pragmatically” (notwithstanding its more aggressive stance), and indulge Russia. Following the reset of relations with Russia and Belarus announced by the newly appointed Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the entire Lithuania forgot the occupation of Georgia. However, the question then arises as to whether or not anything has been done by the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been in charge of Lithuania’s diplomacy for two consecutive terms and who, along with four foreign ministers, is now symbolically replicating the historical visit of Lithuanian, Polish, Latvian, and Estonian Presidents of ten years ago. We can learn from history either by learning the lessons of the past or by rectifying the mistakes that have been made. I therefore very much hope that Lithuania will practice not only public but also real diplomacy and prove to the whole civilised world that the Sarkozy plan needs to be carried out.
Ultimately, great responsibility lies with US President Donald Trump. I agree with him that former US President Barack Obama, who had announced a reset of relations with Russia, abandoned all the red lines that crossed wherever he wanted, not only in Georgia or Ukraine, but also in London, Berlin, Washington, and Vilnius. I very much hope that President Trump will be the US leader to correct Obama’s mistake and restore the red lines of the West as well as the lines between Georgia and Russia. Let’s hope that President Trump will also succeed in accomplishing what George Bush has begun – Georgia’s march towards membership of – and convincing Paris and Berlin to no longer repeat the mistakes they made in Bucharest.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of Georgia’s occupation, we are all indebted to this country, because Georgians had to pay a heavy price, while in fact protecting our own freedom, for the mistakes, which had been made by all Western capitals. I therefore hope that when we mark the 10th anniversary of Russia’s aggression against Georgia next week, we will not only blame Russia or ourselves for a chronic and ever-recurring appeasement of the Kremlin, into which we sink ever more deeply, but also we will make every effort, not only in words but also in deeds, to set up a coalition together with the major Western capitals for the implementation of the Sarkozy plan, thus preserving our own dignity, that of Paris and the whole of Europe. For my part, I hope that we will be able to convince President Trump to renew the US march for Georgia and thus to secure the country of heroes and freedom fighters into our common NATO family.