Until there is full reconciliation with Russia, Georgia’s efforts to stanch the spread of Islamic extremism in the Caucasus will be limited.

Islamic terrorism is a challenge for both Russia and Georgia. Photo: AP

Domestically, Georgia has little to fear from Islamic extremism, since over ninety eight percent of the population is Christian. The only Islamic country bordering Georgia is Turkey, with whom Tbilisi has good relations. So any action by Georgia, including any attempts to stop the spread of Islamist movements in the Caucasus region of Russia, will be based upon the direction Georgia’s international policy follows.

Georgia’s troop commitment in Afghanistan is a good example. Saakashvili contributed Georgian soldiers in order to portray his government as pro-Western and pro-American, not from fear of Islamic extremism reaching Georgia. Likewise, depending on how seriously Ivanishvili wants to effect reconciliation with Russia, he may lend more or less support to Russian efforts to thwart Islamic radicals in the north Caucasus.

Russia has accused Georgia of aiding Chechen separatists and has characterized the Georgian Parliament’s recognition of the Circassian Genocide in 2011 as part of an overall effort to exacerbate religious conflicts in Russia. Ivanishvili has shown a desire to distance his party from these accusations, but again, not wholeheartedly. Most recently he suggested that Georgia cooperate with Russia on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games, but only to preclude Russian accusations of Georgian involvement in any terrorist attacks that might disrupt the Games.

Even if Ivanishvili is sincere in his desire to bring Russia and Georgia closer, it’s unlikely that Georgia will cooperate fully on the problem of Islamic extremism in Russia. As long as free and fair elections continue, his party will have to keep in mind the widespread resentment of Russia among the Georgian electorate.

This tension between Georgia and Russia is rooted in the history of the Caucasus region. Russia and Georgia were originally drawn together in opposition to Muslim expansion from the south, but their relationship has been fraught with difficulties that are still reflected today. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 Irakli II, king of the eastern Georgian provinces of Kartli and Kakheti, requested Russian help both to defend his kingdom from attacks by Iran and to drive the Ottomans out of the eastern south Caucasus.

After Irakli’s death in 1798 the Georgian states fell into chaos and were seriously threatened by both Muslim empires. Irakli’s son, Georgi XII, saw no solution except to request further assistance from Russia in 1799. Although the agreement specified that Kartli-Kakheti would keep its independence, in 1801 Russian Emperor Alexander I forcibly ousted the royal family and the kingdom of Kartlo-Kakheti became part of the Russian Empire.

Tbilisi became headquarters of the Caucasus High Command, and as a result the Russians did provide several advantages to the Georgians. Threats from Iran and smaller Muslim Khanates were neutralized and Tbilisi was transformed into a modern European city. Georgians entered the ranks of the Russian Army and ultimately the Georgian provinces were united.

However, most Georgians opposed Russian suzerainty. There were several attempted independence movements during the nineteenth century, and after the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Georgians established an independent state with the help of Britain. The Bolsheviks subsequently re-conquered Georgia and brutally suppressed all independence movements.

Two “provinces” included in what would become the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, and after 1991 the independent nation of Georgia, were the historic homelands of completely unrelated peoples: the Ossetians, who lived on both sides of the Caucasus range, and the Abkhazians, who lived along the Black Sea coast. The Abkhazians’ fate was particularly tragic: in 1867 and 1877 tens of thousands of Abkhazians were driven from their homeland to the Ottoman Empire, where their close relatives the Circassians had been driven from the north Caucasus in 1864.

Over the next century Georgians were moved into the empty territory, and as a result the remaining Abkhazians found themselves a minority in their ancestral homeland. For a very short time Abkhazia was recognized by the Soviets as a union republic, but it was quickly demoted to an autonomous territory within Georgia. South Ossetia was accorded the same status.

When the Soviet Union began to collapse, old grievances violently erupted in Georgia. The nationalist government of former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia resurrected anti-Russian policies in Georgia and asserted Georgia’s full suzerainty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Gamsakhurdia was deposed in 1992, but the simmering struggle over Abkhazia escalated into full-scale war when Georgian troops moved into Abkhazia in August of that year.

The Georgian army gained the upper hand and carried out a campaign of looting, destruction and forced migration. Russia intervened to broker a peace, but by September 1993 the Abkhazians had driven the Georgian army out. Subsequently, 200,000 Georgian civilians living in Abkhazia were forced to flee their homes. Tens of thousands returned but were driven out again when fighting returned in 1998.

Currently, Abkhazia is a de facto independent state protected by Russian arms, although Tbilisi views it as Georgian territory occupied by Russia. Only four nations have recognized Abkhazia’s independence, but it’s extremely unlikely that it will ever rejoin Georgia.

Abkhazia will remain in the unenviable position of possessing de facto independence without enjoying widespread international recognition for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, Georgia is determined to effect a reunification. Since Russia supports Abkhazia, this will remain a sore point in Russo-Georgian relations.          

After President Eduard Shevardnaze’s presidency ended in disgrace in 2003, the Rose Revolution brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia. He embarked on a strongly pro-Western course while challenging Russia’s actions in Abkhazia. Russo-Georgian relations were crippled even further as a result of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

After quickly occupying South Ossetia, the Russians moved into Georgia proper, destroyed the only bridge connecting Tbilisi with western Georgia, drove out the Georgian residents of South Ossetia and burned their homes.

Russia remains in South Ossetia and has recently extended its control several hundred yards into Georgia proper. The South Ossetian government has recently expressed its wish to be incorporated into Russia, although this is unlikely to happen. The events of 2008 are very fresh in Georgians’ minds and the source of a great deal of animosity toward Russia.

With this background, it’s perhaps a clear sign of the unpredictability of Georgian politics that the strongly anti-Russian United National Movement Party was ousted by the Georgian Dream Party in the parliamentary elections of 2012, which international observers declared to be free and fair. The new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s attitude toward Russia has been inconsistent, but he is certainly far more amenable to Russo-Georgian reconciliation than was Saakashvili.

At the same time, he has repeatedly stated that Georgia’s future lies with Europe, and so it’s difficult at present to understand what Georgia’s next moves on the international stage will be or how it will react to the spread of Islamism in the Caucasus.