In October 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept into power, dealing a severe blow to the ruling party of Mikheil Saakashvili. First and foremost, the Georgian billionaire promised to adopt a more pragmatic approach toward relations with Russia and to entice its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia by peaceful, diplomatic means.
Two years later, Russo-Georgian relations are at a standstill. Communications appeared to be heading toward a thaw in February when, during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to meet the newly-elected Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such a meeting would have been the first between the Russian and Georgian leaderships since the 2008 South Ossetian war. However, this proposed summit was postponed indefinitely, overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.
Russo-Georgian relations remained in a state of “freeze” since that time. Meanwhile, in the absence of official diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, the region is becoming increasingly more militarized. Encouraged by Washington, Tbilisi continues to pursue NATO and was recently granted a NATO security package at the recent NATO Summit in Wales. Among other things, the package allows for the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian territory and for NATO to “occasionally” hold military exercises in Georgia.
Moscow has reacted to this with alarm. Indeed, their fears seemed confirmed when, on October 13, it was announced that the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship for the US 6th Fleet in Europe, would land at Batumi. According to Washington, the visit was intended to “strengthen ties with NATO allies and partners like Georgia, while working toward mutual goals of promoting peace and stability in the Black Sea region.”
That same day, Moscow proposed a treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia as a means of strengthening ties with the rebel region. Among other things, the proposed draft called for a total standardization of the Abkhaz and Russian militaries and for additional Russian troops to be stationed along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border. It also called for looser border restrictions, a standardization of Abkhazia’s customs legislation with that of the Eurasian Union, a gradual “harmonization” of Sukhumi’s budgetary and tax policies with Moscow’s, and for Russian diplomatic aid in expanding Abkhazia’s international recognition.
Moscow’s move was likely a gambit to call Tbilisi’s bluff on its NATO aspirations. It also indirectly signals to Georgia that it regards NATO as a very serious threat to its security. It further communicates that while Tbilisi still has a realistic chance at reconciliation with Sukhumi now, it may lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO membership.
As expected, the draft agreement was received negatively by official Tbilisi, which warned that it “will seriously endanger the process of normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations” and may represent a de facto “annexation of Abkhazia.” The Abkhaz have reacted negatively as well. Though most Abkhaz support the idea of one day joining the Eurasian Union and of having Moscow’s backing on security, they see the proposed treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the new Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba, who is usually known to be close to the Kremlin, spoke out against it.
Talks in Prague between Tbilisi’s special envoy to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, and his counterpart Grigory Karasin, have failed to yield results. Meanwhile, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and at least one politician from within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have called for a total cessation of any dialogue with Moscow. Indeed, UNM members have argued that the Abkhaz treaty is clear proof of Moscow’s sinister intentions toward Georgia. Consequently, in their view, there is no purpose for future talks and they should be cancelled completely. Of course, such a reckless move would have negative implications for both Georgia and Russia. Abashidze, a veteran diplomat from Shevardnadze-era Georgia and from the USSR, knows this better than anyone and has been quick to defend continued talks.
Do these most recent developments indicate an end to the efforts by the Georgian government toward a Russo-Georgian rapprochement? Are the options for a peaceful and diplomatic solution between both sides exhausted?
Both Moscow and Tbilisi are still searching for the right moment to reset relations beyond practical economic and trade issues. In fact, as it became increasingly apparent that the ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas appeared to be holding, Georgian President Margvelashvili expressed renewed interest in finally realizing his proposed meeting with Putin.
In media interviews in September and October, Georgia’s philosopher-president stressed that relations between Tbilisi and Moscow must first be eased before serious talks can begin on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He likewise warned Moscow of the potential danger of the status quo, and expressed interest in greater dialogue.
In one such interview with the Georgian edition of Forbes magazine on 8 October, Margvelashvili stated that “it is difficult to talk about Putin in such an open discussion. Putin is interesting to me as the real decision-maker in the most difficult issues for Georgia. I do not personally know him, but I hope he is rational and supports a rational policy. I hope at some point it will be possible to construct the Georgian-Russian relations in favor of our countries’ interests. I hope for this.”
A potential Putin-Margvelashvili meeting would do much to improve relations between both countries and may even lead to a future compromise resolution over Georgia’s breakaways. While it is difficult to imagine that Russia would simply “unrecognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is possible that Moscow could offer an equitable solution to the problem through a co-equal federal or confederal structure among Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali. A Moscow-backed peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways would also ameliorate Russia’s concerns of seeing an enlarged NATO on its southern flank.
In this regard, Georgia has sought to pursue a more balanced policy toward its estranged regions, emphasizing peaceful dialogue and coexistence as opposed to military confrontation. On 12 October, the Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili engaged in one peace initiative with his Ossetian counterparts by donning a football jersey. He and other members of the Georgian government, together with current and former Georgian football players, engaged representatives from South Ossetia in a football friendly in the city of Gori. The captain of the Georgian team, Garibashvili, decided to switch sides in the second half and joined the South Ossetians. The game ended 4:4 in yet another variation of Caucasian “football diplomacy.”
“We don’t want to be enemies of Ossetian and Abkhazian brothers, we want fraternity with them and today’s game was a clear demonstration of it,” stated the Prime Minister after the match. “I have an amazing feeling. It was a step towards confidence building. I am so glad that our Ossetian brothers have so sound generation. I am really in a good mood. I felt love and friendship coming from them.”
Garibashvili has been another voice of reason in Georgia, calling for the continuation of talks and dialogue. Reacting to the proposed Abkhaz treaty, he emphasized that Moscow confirmed that the treaty was still incomplete and remained only “under consideration.”
“I am very interested in the Russian government’s final position,” he said. “I do not want to believe that the Russian government intends to respond to our constructive and pragmatic policy by such a step. This should not be in anyone’s interest.”
He continued stated that “we started a direct dialogue, which was a direct recommendation from the international community. We successfully continued the pragmatic policy, launched by Bidzina Ivanishvili as early as two years ago, and as a result of this the trade and economic relations were normalized with Russia, resulting in increased export to Russia. We have not spared our efforts to demonstrate that we are a maximally pragmatic, constructive and stable government.”
At the same time, he also noted that such efforts still have “not significantly affected the political situation” outside of trade and economic ties. Indeed, immediate talks between Moscow and Tbilisi would be in the best interests of both countries. In this regard, a direct meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili would do much to restore confidence on both sides and would lead to a serious and constructive dialogue on important and difficult issues. Overall, it is clear that diplomacy is the best route toward normalization, compromise, and resolution.
UPDATE (20 October 2014): Vano Machavariani, the Former Foreign Affairs Advisor to the President of Georgia has stated today that Tbilisi had been preparing for a direct meeting between Margvelashvili and Putin but that it had been indefinitely postponed due to the “government’s reluctance.” While he notes that the situation is “more complicated now” and that “it is difficult to organize a high-level meeting,” he also emphasized that such a meeting is still possible
“If the partner countries will engage in [this meeting],” he stated, “some steps can be taken.” He also maintained that such a move is particularly important now, given the recent controversy over Moscow’s proposed treaty with Abkhazia.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Davit Zalkaliani and Tbilisi’s envoy to Moscow Zurab Abashidze have stated that they were unaware of such preparations. However, Zalkaliani does not exclude that Machavariani may have been pursuing extra diplomatic efforts. He also noted too that a potential visit is still possible.
“As you know, the organization of a visit is a very serious matter and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved in it,” he stated. “All organizational issues are agreed on through diplomatic channels. We do not have diplomatic relations with Russia. Hence, it should have been done through the Swiss Confederation, though we have not sent any note or letter.”
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