Russia and Georgia: Where to Go Next?

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU's José Barroso (right)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU’s José Barroso (right) (Georgian Government)

On Friday, Georgia signed its Association Agreement with the EU. The event was favorably celebrated in Tbilisi and touted in the West as a “first step toward the EU.”

However, the agreement does not guarantee automatic membership in the EU. In this regard, Georgia still has a long way to go. Russia has voiced its concerns regarding the EU agreement. Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway republics on the Black Sea, has echoed this sentiment. On July 1, its Foreign Ministry declared the following:

It is quite obvious that signing of the Association Agreement with the EU does not provide to Georgia an immediate perspective for membership in this union, but at the same time, it distances Georgia from cooperation with neighboring states, first of all, with the Russian Federation and Republic of Abkhazia.

There has also been concern in the West, and to a lesser degree in Georgia, regarding an even greater Russian reaction. Some fear a reversal of the progress made on economic ties while still others fear an invasion of Georgia proper.

Yet Moscow will likely not resort to hard retaliatory measures as has been widely speculated in the West. In its effort to bring all the ex-Soviet states into its Eurasian Union, instead Moscow has sought to pursue its aims by proposing offers and deals that may make the ex-Soviet republics more amiable to it.

Georgia is an important country to include in a proposed supranational union of ex-Soviet states, not just for Putin, but for any future Russian leader for several reasons.  Georgia has historically been viewed in Moscow as the “center” of the Caucasus region and the gateway to Eurasia. Outside of Abkhazia, it possesses a prosperous Black Sea coast that includes port cities and resorts like Poti and Batumi. Russia views the Black Sea as a vital geostrategic region and as part of its traditional zone of influence. Georgia naturally plays a role in this. The United States, Russia’s rival in the region, has also realized the geopolitical significance of Georgia and thus has focused much of its efforts on trying to bring Georgia into Euro-Atlantic structures. Whether or not such ambitions will help US-Russian relations, global security, or Georgia’s own efforts toward reform, remains an open question.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Further, there are also cultural and interpersonal affinities between Russia and Georgia. A Georgian nationalist might state that “as people, Russians and Georgians were never brothers and sisters” and that this is “Soviet mythology.” However, the truth and reality are far different from such ethnonationalist pronouncements. Despite the rupture in relations from the 2008 war, most Russians admire the Georgians, if only because of their reputation as easy-going party people. Conversely, many Georgians deeply admire Russian culture, literature, and language. At least 92% of Georgians still speak Russian as a second language. There are also the shared ties of Orthodox Christianity. Additionally, as many as one million ethnic Georgians live and work in Russia, and that number is estimated by some to be even higher. Georgians are generally well-integrated in Russian life and freely intermarry with Slavic Russians. The most famous Georgian in Russian history is probably Prince Bagration, the hero of the Napoleonic War. The most infamous is probably Joseph Stalin.

These are the reasons why Russia values Georgia and why its long-term plan is to lure Tbilisi back through some goodwill gesture. The obvious place for this to occur would be in Georgia’s two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both were recognized by Russia as independent states after the 2008 war, thus further complicating Georgian-Russian relations. However, Moscow’s aim at the time was to “respond” to the West’s recognition of Kosovo and to domestically discredit Georgia’s controversial President, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia's Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

Georgia’s Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

With these goals attained and with a new government in Georgia willing to talk to Moscow, Russia may be more flexible on the issue. Already Bidzina Ivanishvili has stated that the goal of reunification with the two breakaways is Georgia’s top priority and the Georgian attaché to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, has confirmed this position, even tying it to the re-establishment of relations between Georgia and Russia. At the same time, Russia will not betray the interests or rights of the Abkhaz or Ossetes. Instead, the logical solution lies in working to find a compromise between them and Tbilisi to forge some sort of federal or confederal solution. This can be accomplished informally without direct diplomatic relations, even outside of the Geneva framework which, like its OSCE counterpart on Nagorny Karabakh, has failed to produce any serious results or resolutions.

It is likewise unclear how the recent revolution in Abkhazia will affect such talks. Regardless of speculation on whether or not Russia played a role in the revolution, or whether it was an entirely domestic Abkhaz affair, it is clear that whomever the Abkhaz select as their next president, he or she will play a decisive role in working to normalize relations between Abkhazia and Georgia. Certainly, even this depends on the development of Georgian-Russian relations.

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Meanwhile, the situation in South Ossetia is less clear. United Ossetia, the victors of the recent parliament vote in the breakaway region, advocate joining North Ossetia in a political union with Russia. It is unclear if they will follow through with such a program or, if under pressure from Moscow, they will take a more compromising stand on relations with Georgia. Moscow has already distanced itself from Ossetian demands and will likely react with caution if South Ossetians do indeed vote for a political union with Russia (as Moscow did with the Donbas rebels in Ukraine). In general though, the outcome of all of this remains to be seen.

The Georgians are also looking for an opening with Moscow not just in terms of a resolution to its conflicts. Tbilisi also wants to ensure that if Moscow makes an attractive counteroffer to the EU, it must consider Georgian national sensitivities. Any effort toward integration among post-Soviet states cannot be imperial in nature, but rather a union of equal states. If the Eurasian Union, like the EU, were to ensure an official status for Georgian and other national languages, then such an idea would become much more attractive to Tbilisi and would make the Eurasian Union an easier sell to the Georgian public at large. Moscow must keep in mind its own long tradition of multiculturalism, universalism, and ethnic tolerance that has preceded the birth of post-war “EU values” by several centuries. In order to be a viable international player, Russia must do more to embrace this great tradition of multiculturalism and shun all forms of ethnic Russian nationalism that not only threaten the unity of Russia but also its geopolitical interests in the ex-Soviet space as well. In this regard, presenting the Eurasian Union as a “union of equals” to Georgia would certainly work to its advantage.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Efforts toward a reconciliation with Moscow by Tbilisi began almost immediately after the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. However, the progress of such a reconciliation had to be limited to basic issues, such as trade and visa questions. This was due not only to the complex situation that existed over Georgia’s breakaways, but also because of the fact that Saakashvili still remained the President into 2013 and thus still held significant political influence. Following the electoral victory of Margvelashvili in 2013 and Ivanishvili’s appointment of Garibashvili as the new Prime Minister, the chances for an enhanced reconciliation grew significantly. During the Sochi Olympics, Putin proposed meeting with the Georgian President. Abashidze, and his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin, agreed to meet and plan this high-level visit which was supposed to take place in March. However, as the Ukraine crisis worsened and the crisis in Crimea erupted, the proposed meeting was postponed indefinitely.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi likely have their reasons for this. Moscow is not only focused primarily on the outcome of Ukraine but it is also clear that, since Yanukovych’s ouster, it learned from recent history and sought to not place the potentially friendly government in Tbilisi in the same position as Yanukovych. Already Mikheil Saakashvili has threatened to launch his own “Georgian Maidan,” and a Georgian volte-face on the EU Association Agreement would have been the perfect excuse to launch such a revolt. Tbilisi likely shares this same concern and that probably played a part in its considerations on how to approach Moscow. Adding to this were other considerations on the Georgian side, such as its desire to balance its relations between East and West. The government also sought to maximize its support base in the recent local government elections.

The Georgian government also has a problem in that its party, the Georgian Dream coalition, is still a coalition. Garibashvili and Margvelashvili, though they have disagreed on petty issues such as who will sign the Association Agreement, are nevertheless allied on the question of Russia. They favor a pragmatic and balanced approach. This is contrasted by Davit Usupashvili who heads the Georgian parliament, a very vocal critic of Moscow and a stalwart supporter of NATO expansion. Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has been traditionally more moderate and once played a key role in bringing the Abkhaz and Georgians close to a peace. However, during his stint as Defense Minister, his advocacy for NATO membership and his proposal to place missile bases on Georgia soil near Abkhazia have raised eyebrows in Moscow, Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tshkinvali.

Tbilisi was likewise concerned over the Russian annexation of Crimea and of the potential implications of this for Georgia’s breakaways, though Russia quickly assured Tbilisi afterward that Crimea was a unique case and that Russia was not interested in annexing Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili reaffirmed this view on an interview with the BBC.

What the next step will be in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow remains to be seen. However, there are compromises and deals to be made. One aspect of Tbilisi’s protracted conflicts with Moscow, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali remains clear: that from a basic geographic perspective, cooperation between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, is not only desirable and logical, but necessary.

Some Georgians may want to break away totally from Russia and join Europe, but they seem to forget the simple fact of geography; that the Kura is not the Seine and that Georgia is not at the center of Europe but at its very fringe. Historically, it has had less-than-pleasant relations with its larger Islamic neighbors like Turkey and Iran. It shares a very long northern border with Russia, a country that has served for centuries as Tbilisi’s protector and as its lifeline to the rest of Europe. Georgian nationalists can try to wish Russia away all they want, but the fact is that Russia is there and Tbilisi has to deal with it and can even benefit from it.

For its part, Russia views Tbilisi as an important factor in its security policy, and in turn needs Georgia to secure its position in the Caucasus region, especially in the unstable North Caucasus. Thus, while ethnic Russian nationalists may believe that weakening or punishing Georgia for its “independent attitude” will help Russia, in fact they are far from correct. This will only exacerbate regional divisions and animosities that will most certainly not serve the interests of Russian security.

Finally, the Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalists too may try to wish Georgia away, but this is unrealistic as well. Geography and centuries of close cultural ties demand coexistence and compromise. Thus, it is to everybody’s benefit and advantage that there be a solution to the protracted conflicts plaguing the Georgians, Russians, Abkhaz, and Ossetes. Above all, it is the people of Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia who will benefit the most from a peaceful diplomatic solution. This is what the politicians of these countries and regions have to realize if any tangible progress is to be accomplished.

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Moscow’s Kurdish Question

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu voiced his support for an independent Kurdish state. Israel is certainly in a good position to do this. It has bad relations with Syria, Turkey, and Iran, while Iraq appears to be disintegrating. It also has long had sympathy with the Kurdish cause and it would view an independent Kurdistan as a boon to its “periphery doctrine.”

The Kurds are the largest nation in the world (around 30 million people) who do not have their own country. They are a largely nomadic people who primarily live in the mountainous borderlands of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They speak an Indo-European language closely related to Farsi and that is subdivided into several dialects such as Kurmanji, Sorani, and Gorani. The Kurdish language has been written in three different alphabets: Latin (in Turkey), Perso-Arabic (in Iraq, Iran, and Syria), and Cyrillic (in the former USSR). The majority of Kurds practice Sunni Islam, though a significant minority also practice the Yazidi faith, a religion associated with Zoroastrianism. The Kurds who follow the latter usually identify themselves as a distinct ethno-religious group altogether (the Yazidis), even though they speak Kurdish and follow Kurdish traditions. For the most part, the Yazidis live in Iraq and Syria, though significant communities also exist in Armenia, Georgia, and Russia.

CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions from 1992, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

1992 CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

Denied their own state, the history of the Kurds in the 20th and 21st centuries has been one of near-endless uprisings and bloodshed. In particular, the Kurds in Turkey have been in almost constant revolt against Ankara since the beginning of the Turkish republic. Turkey sought to forcibly assimilate the Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and to actively suppress Kurdish culture and language. The Kurdish uprisings became especially heated under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the war between Turkey and the PKK, human rights abuses were committed by both sides, but especially by Turkey. Kurdish uprisings also occurred in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Iran. In Iraq, the plight of the Kurds gripped headlines in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein used poison gas to suppress a Kurdish uprising, killing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish citizens. His Al-Anfal Campaign is today referred to by many Kurds as “genocide.”

Netanyahu’s move to support Kurdish independence comes as the Kurds of Iraq and Syria remain almost entirely isolated from Damascus and Baghdad, cut off by territory seized by the radically militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL has menaced the southern border regions of Kurdish-controlled territory and has appalled and shocked the world with its flagrant abuses of human rights.

In an immediate response to ISIL, Russia has dispatched fighter jets and advisors to assist Baghdad in its fight against the self-proclaimed militant Islamic state. Russia has issues of its own with regard to militant radical Islam. In the North Caucasus, the war in Chechnya in the 1990s began as a more nationally-based conflict. However, as the conflict progressed, radical Islam began to overtake nationalism as the dominant ideology of the Chechen rebels. Soon, this ideology spread, facilitated by the work of Saudi missionaries, to other parts of the North Caucasus, notably Daghestan, thus widening the scope of the situation. Russia’s recent aid to Baghdad and its very strong support for Bashar Assad’s Syria need to be comprehended in this context.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

But what about the Kurds? Will the Kremlin too back Netanyahu’s call for an independent Kurdish state? This does not seem likely for the immediate future. Russia has good working relations with Turkey and Iran and, as mentioned above, it has both stood by Assad’s Syria and has aided official Baghdad.

At the same time, Russia also has a lengthy relationship with the Kurds, dating back to the Soviet era. In 1946, the USSR supported the creation of a Mahabad Kurdish Republic in Northern Iran.  After the fall of that state, Moscow gave refuge to one of its key figures, the famous Iraqi Kurdish rebel leader Mustafa Barzani, and his followers.  Barzani was the father of Masoud Barzani, the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan.  In February 2013, the younger Barzani paid an official visit to Moscow where he was greeted warmly and met with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and others.  His “independent” attitude reportedly shocked Baghdad.

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Beginning in the 1960s, Kurdish-language radio broadcasts were made from Yerevan in then-Soviet Armenia and could be received by Kurds from other countries like Turkey where broadcasting in Kurdish was officially prohibited. Some Turkish Kurds even believed that broadcasting in Kurdish was impossible until they heard the Soviet broadcasts.  There were also Kurdish-language Soviet newspapers like Riya Taze.  Earlier, there was also the brief experience of the so-called autonomous “Red Kurdistan” in the Caucasus.  Further, it has been alleged that when the PKK began its insurgency against Turkey in the mid-1980s, it received support from the Soviet Union.

There is also a significant and active Kurdish diaspora population (both Muslim and Yazidi) in Russia. In Soviet times, this population was even larger since it also included Kurdish populations in the now-independent republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Given this history and the situation on the ground, it is possible that if the situation between the ISIL and Syria and Iraq continues to worsen, Russia may well follow Israel’s lead and back Kurdish independence. Ultimately, though, it remains to be seen what will happen next and how Moscow’s Kurdish policy will evolve.