Until Tbilisi shows flexibility on its core strategic objectives, don’t expect a rapprochement between Russia and Georgia anytime soon.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Photo: Reuters
It has been five years since the end of the "Five-Day War" in 2008 -- the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia. In the aftermath of the events of August 7-12, diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia were terminated, and relations between the two countries teetered between confrontation and the search for new political dialog.
Most obstinate of all was the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After 2008, Moscow recognized the two republics as independent states; Tbilisi, however, continued to insist on their status as "occupied territories," in which the role of aggressor, in the eyes of Georgian politicians, was played by Russia.
The Abkhazia-South Ossetia problem became acutely politicized in Georgia, not only at the level of the Foreign Ministry, but also in the public consciousness at large. The declaration of independence of these national autonomies, the problem of Abkhazian refugees, and the national humiliation of being branded a "failed state" by many after the defeat of the country's central government in the civil war of the 1990s were (and are) deeply embedded in the socio-psychological makeup of many Georgian citizens.
As a result, any Georgian leader who tried to renounce the territorial claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be committing political suicide.
In the Russian public consciousness, however, the South Caucasus and its problems are viewed less through the lens of ideology and more as a pragmatic reality. Nevertheless, the Russian side needs guarantees that an attack similar to the Georgian aggression of 2008 will never be repeated.
Failure to secure such a commitment could be perceived internationally as a sign of weakness, and a potential threat to Russia's security. The U.S. would have found itself in a similar position had it declined to retaliate after 9/11.
However, any declaration on the crisis of 2008, namely the recognition of its own aggression, is unpalatable to Georgia, since it would raise the question of the political status of South Ossetia. As a result, bilateral relations remain deadlocked due to the political differences. Georgia's attempts to enter NATO are only aggravating the situation further.
Russia and Georgia face the same choice: either "ram home" their respective position, or seek a path of dialog that circumvents the most sensitive issues. The latter is of particular interest to Georgia, which is in urgent need of Russian investment and access for its products to the Russian market to escape an economic slump.
But therein lies a paradox: despite public support for Tbilisi's policy on the non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and integration into NATO and the EU, there is equal demand for improved ties with Russia. Not only because of the traditional and cultural links between the two countries, but also because of the large number of Georgian migrant laborers in Russia. Either way, the Georgian authorities need to keep these factors in mind.
Stepwise rapprochement with Russia
The first steps toward mending relations with Russia were, in fact, taken under Mikheil Saakashvili when Georgia agreed to Russia's accession to the WTO, thereby creating opportunities for economic cooperation within an international framework.
But because Russia held Saakashvili and his entourage responsible for war crimes committed in 2008, bilateral dialog and negotiations were off the table.
Great strides were then made by the government of Bidzin Ivanishvili, who came to power as a result of the victory of the opposition (the "Georgian Dream" coalition) in the parliamentary elections of 2012.
Saakashvili still retains the presidency, but in reality his power is minimal: The country is run by the Cabinet of Ministers, and the president's "National Movement" resides in opposition.
The course chartered by the new government seeks to improve relations with Russia and Armenia and generally focuses on moving beyond the ideological "bloc politics" of its predecessors. This previous policy was oriented toward rapprochement with the U.S. (based on the stand-off with Russia) and Azerbaijan (through encouraging anti-Armenian sentiment).
Georgia's transition to a more balanced foreign policy reduces the threat of the South Caucasus breaking up into mutually antagonistic blocs, which stems from the acute territorial conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It is this post-election period that saw Russia and Georgia reach agreements on the re-entry of Georgian wine and mineral water to the Russian market, and activated the process of attracting investors — in particular, the organization of business tours for Russian businessmen in Georgia.
Furthermore, the country underwent a certain ideological revolution. The victory of the opposition in the parliamentary elections led to the collapse of many political illusions. For a long time, Tbilisi had used the neo-liberal ideology of Saakashvili's team as an informational weapon in the post-Soviet space. The "liberal reforms" were actively exported to the countries of Central Asia, dressed up as a kind of alternative to Russia's social and economic model.
But after Georgian Dream's victory, an uglier facade of Georgia's "liberal" politics revealed itself: prison torture, terrorist links in the intelligence agencies, and corruption scandals all the way from the Tbilisi Mayor's Office to government ministries — despite Saakashvili's loud proclamations that bribery and kickbacks were a thing of the past.
At the same time, the serious economic problems facing the country began to be more openly discussed: the mounting foreign debt, the permanent foreign trade deficit, the dependence on food imports, and the high rate of unemployment pushing many abroad.
The polemics of the internal political struggle overstepped the traditional boundaries and began to exert a significant influence on foreign policy. For example, it forced Tbilisi to abandon the aggressive propaganda war against Russia. The anti-Russian TV channel PIK, intended for audiences in the North Caucasus, was wound up, and the plug was pulled on official support for radical organizations, including groups of "Circassian nationalists," supposedly planning to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Many perceived these steps as concessions to Moscow, but the change of policy was, in many respects, unavoidable. The old approach had been thoroughly discredited, both in practice and in the public eye.
But the changes did not affect the internal political rhetoric. Even now, Georgian media continue to speak negatively of Russia and its role in the political life of the South Caucasus. Russia is still portrayed as the villain in the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the beneficiary of the process. The Georgian media characteristically presents Russia in a negative light in an attempt to lower the country's appeal in the eyes of the Georgian population.
A new deadlock or hope for closer ties?
Many people think that the Russian-Georgian relationship has once again turned down a blind alley. Despite the greater flexibility of the Ivanishvili administration's foreign policy, Tbilisi refuses to abandon its core objectives: membership in the EU and NATO, the non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the rejection of political cooperation with the CIS.
The statements of the new Georgian leadership clearly indicate as much, and leave little scope for compromise on any of the issues.
In particular, this spring’s resolution of the Georgian parliament on the country's focal points in foreign policy, backed by both Georgian Dream and the president's opposition, underscores that, "Georgia cannot have diplomatic relations with countries that recognize the independence of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia." This effectively eliminates the possibility of resuming dialog through official diplomatic channels, rendering Russian-Georgian contacts informal at best — and at times almost clandestine.
Moreover, Prime Minister Ivanishvili has voiced his intention to retire by 2014, which portends new uncertainty in Georgian foreign policy. If he does indeed tender his resignation, who will be the new head of government and how will he (or she) behave?
One explanation is that Georgia's Western donors, on which the country is heavily dependent, view Ivanishvili as a temporary figure and want to replace him with someone from the Republican Party, the opposition party closest to Saakashvili's National Movement.
Such realignments will see Georgian politics return to a less flexible position than during Ivanishvili's tenure and make the country more dependent on the U.S. and the EU, its main creditors.
If the republic, which practically subsists on loans and grants from the West, cannot be made more economically independent through mutually beneficial cooperation, then the victim of such circumstances could be the Russian-Georgian relationship.
Increasing Georgia's economic independence may also help develop the region's joint international economic projects with the involvement of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
In any event, Georgia must strike a delicate balance between the influence of the West, the aspirations of its own ruling class, and the conflicting demands of society and the economy. The Georgian government should seek to improve relations with the West and with Russia, while slaking the electorate's thirst for tough (and somewhat nationalist) rhetoric.
Against this political backdrop, there can be no significant steps toward strengthening Georgia's rapprochement with Russia. One can hope, though, that the two countries will be able to preserve the achievements made in the field of economic cooperation and avert any flare-ups of political confrontation.