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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3 thoughts on “Russia and Georgia: Where to Go Next?

  1. Pingback: RUSSIA & UKRAINE: JRL 2014-#145 contents with links :: Wednesday 2 July 2014 | Johnson's Russia List

  2. Thanks for the post. Thanks for the blog in general! We understand Georgian elites have competing views on Russia, but you make it clear that the present Dream team value a pragmatic approach. Reading your article, I wonder if Russian elites are divided on the Georgian issue or if they rally around the pragmatic line too. I cannot see any sign of division (but I am not such a careful observer as you are) and it puzzles me: ok the Russian political elite is quite homogenous, but really – can’t we find competing views? Is there a difference for example between business and political elites? Thank you!

    • Laetita, a very good question! There are indeed divisions among the Russian elites and Russia does indeed have an internal politics. They are comprised of “liberals” like Dmitry Medvedev and “hardliners” like Dmitry Rogozin, a division that itself can be traced back to the cultural debate in Russia between the “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles.” In fact, one of the main reasons why Putin has been able to maintain his position in Russian politics has been his ability to balance his relations between these two sides. On Georgia, my impression has been that the liberals tend to be more open toward finding a compromise with Tbilisi than the hardliners. They tend to think in terms of economic and political cooperation with the post-Soviet republics and how a pragmatic approach will benefit not only Russia but everyone else. The hardliners tend to be more nationalist and less compromising.

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