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Personal Politics between Russia and Georgia

This New York Times piece has been making the rounds this weekend, pointing out, for those who didn’t already know, that Mikheil Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin don’t get along all that well.  But the highly emotional angle between these two heads of state is also indicative of something more … How it may still be difficult for many Russians to come to terms with the inconvenient fact of Georgian sovereignty when there are still so many childhood memories of family vacations spent there, adoration for its food and traditions, and an unescapable sense of ownership.

With the two men now so at odds that they are not speaking, their mutual dislike has in some ways come to define the current state of ties between Russia and Georgia. Mr. Putin, the former president who is now prime minister, has unabashedly told the Russian people that he would like Mr. Saakashvili hung by his private parts. Mr. Saakashvili is said to have mocked Mr. Putin as “Lilli-Putin,” a reference to his height.

“They hate each other,” said Zurab Abashidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Moscow. “I heard, many times, very emotional statements from Saakashvili and from people around him about Putin. And unfortunately, this personal element in the political life of Russia as well as Georgia is still very important.”

In Tbilisi, the Putinfixation is so entrenched that it is an undercurrent in the protestsbeing held this month that are demanding Mr. Saakashvili’s resignation.Mr. Saakashvili’s aides have spoken darkly of plots that they insistedwere being hatched by Mr. Putin’s henchmen to provide arms and money tothe Georgian opposition.

The Putin-Saakashvili relationship alsocannot be divorced from their nations’ shared history, which overhundreds of years has given rise to all sorts of affinities andcomplexes. (Perhaps the foremost Soviet leader was an ethnic Georgiannamed Iosif Dzhugashvili, who ruled in Moscow under the name JosefStalin.)

Russians retain deep affection for Georgian culture,society and food, but at the same time the old guard in Moscowsometimes views Georgia as a wayward province. Mr. Saakashvili soughtto rupture the traditional bonds by flamboyantly allying Georgia withWashington, even naming a main road after George W. Bush.

“Wealways have in Russia the image of the big brother towards Georgia,Ukraine, Uzbekistan — it’s the big brother complex,” said Aleksandr G.Asmolov, a psychology professor at Moscow State University. “As soon asthe older brother sees the little brother begin to misbehave, to getinto mischief, truly sharp discord occurs.”