Today, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, will meet with his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin in Prague to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries and to lay the groundwork for a future meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since 2008. The Abashidze-Karasin summit was originally scheduled for March 4-5 but was postponed twice.
The stakes are relatively high for both Tbilisi and Moscow. From a geostrategic perspective, Moscow specifically needs Georgia as part of its planned Eurasian Customs Union. Not only would it geographically link Russia with prospective Eurasian Union member Armenia, but it would also discourage further Western efforts to expand its geopolitical and energy interests into former Soviet territory. Political circles in the West, and particularly Washington, view Georgia as a critical part of its efforts to gain access to natural gas and oil reserves in the Caspian basin and Central Asia.
Moscow views this expansion as a threat to its security. Consequently, Russia has been reaching out to Georgia in recent months. Its efforts include both Medvedev’s August invitation to Tbilisi to join the Eurasian Union and Putin’s friendly comments toward Georgians during his December press conference. In the meantime, the West has been also reaching out to Georgia, expanding the presence of the EU and NATO, and taking advantage of the fact that Georgia has not yet fully restored its relationship with Russia.
The post-Saakashvili Georgian Dream government kept the pursuit of the both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as leverage in its relations with Moscow. The major force behind the party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a patriot in his own right who can be best described as neither pro-Western nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. Whoever can offer Ivanishvili, and by extension Georgia, the best deal, Tbilisi will accept. So far, the West recently increased its efforts to bring Georgia fully into its camp. It has moved up the date of Georgia’s planned signing of the EU Association Agreement to June and has discussed the possibility of granting Georgia a NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) at the next NATO summit in Wales in September. Yet, unlike his predecessor Saakashvili, Ivanishvili and his party have not ruled out the Russian option completely. In September 2013, just six days after neighboring Armenia formally reversed its course on its EU Association Agreement in favor of Eurasian Union membership, Ivanishvili announced that Georgia too may consider joining the Moscow-backed union “if it will be advantageous for our country.”
In plain Georgian, this means that if Moscow wants to see Georgia join its Eurasian Customs Union, then Georgia needs to be enticed to join. Tbilisi will not accept any solution that would involve forgoing claims to its breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Significantly, Ivanishvili and others in his Georgian Dream party have placed more emphasis on Georgian unity than any other issue. For Georgians, the unity of their state, including all of its historic and ethnically distinct regions is a top priority, even more so than EU or NATO membership.
In a December interview with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter Sophie Shevardnadze on the Moscow-backed news service RT, Georgia’s new Prime Minister Irakli Gabribashvili, expressed his sadness at the present situation vis-a-vis Georgia’s breakaway regions. While acknowledging the mistakes of Georgia’s earlier post-Soviet governments, Gabribashvili stated “we are hurt because our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers no longer live with us.” He also stated that “if, as a hope – I am quite optimistic about this issue – the Russian government decides one day to reset relations with Georgia by means of peaceful conflict resolution, it will be the best case scenario.”
Consequently, only a peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways involving a federal solution would be the best possible outcome, satisfying all parties in the dispute. Such a solution would ensure Moscow’s security in the region, the unity of the Georgian state, and, most importantly, the ethnic rights of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes.
However, if Moscow tries to entice Georgia to join the Eurasian Union without any incentive for a peace deal on its breakaway regions, then the situation could become very dangerous. If Tbilisi were to make a U-turn on the EU and NATO without any significant concessions from Moscow, then Euromaidan-style civil unrest could break out in Georgia, led by Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM). Kiev-style violence and unrest is especially concerning for a country like Georgia, which experienced a very violent civil war in the 1990s. If the UNM were to launch a revolt in Tbilisi, succeed in overthrowing the potentially friendly Georgian Dream government, and replacing it with a staunchly pro-Western nationalist government, then it would be a geopolitical nightmare for Moscow.
Already the Georgian government is taking precautions in the case of such an eventuality. Prosecutions and questionings of UNM lawmakers and activists, including former President Saakashvili, on various unresolved controversies have increased in recent weeks. Also, Georgia’s Interior Ministry recently spoke of concerns with regard to UNM launching a Maidan-style revolution. Prime Minister Garibashvili has responded by declaring that “no one will dare to stir destabilization in this country while we are in the government” and that “if anyone has any such desire or attempt, they will be strictly punished.” Indeed, in light of the recent Ukraine crisis, the UNM has become increasingly aggressive, nationalistic, and Russophobic, calling for sanctions against Russia by Georgia, an end to any diplomatic communication with Moscow, and for denial of “Russian aggression against Georgia” to be criminalized. From his base in Ukraine as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government, Saakashvili has been particularly provocative, not only against his traditional enemy Russian President Putin, but also his domestic arch-rival Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream government, which Saakashvili dismisses as “completely worthless.”
Certainly, the UNM could try to launch a Maidan-style revoltion even if Moscow does grant Tbilisi concessions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, its effectiveness would be greatly diluted given its already declining popularity and the fact that a peace resolution on the two breakaways would seriously undermine their credibility even further among the Georgian public. Conversely, if Moscow attempted to entice Georgia into the Eurasian Union with no concessions on the breakaways, it would create an angry backlash in Georgian society on which the UNM could easily capitalize to launch a “Georgian Maidan” in Tbilisi. Saakashvili might even take advantage of this to restore his political career and return to the Georgian presidency in a coup d’état.
Given this, Russia has to very cautious and very prudent. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008 has served its purpose by discrediting and neutralizing Saakashvili and by illustrating to the West the potential dangers of the Kosovo precedent. Now Moscow has to consider its strategic priorities. Specifically, Russia must ensure its security in the region as well as the overall stability of the Caucasus.
If Moscow can entice Tbilisi into its Eurasian Union, then this would be a major diplomatic success. If not, Russia will continue to be vulnerable to Western expansionism, not just in the Caucasus but in Central Asia as well. Much of this depends on the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting as well as any future meeting between the Georgian and Russian leaderships. Already there are some concerns because a Georgian TV crew was detained yesterday for accidentally crossing the border into breakaway South Ossetia. Given Moscow’s concerns regarding Georgia, releasing these journalists should be a top priority, which in turn would build trust and confidence between both sides.