Last week, on 24 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Sukhumi, the capital of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. There he met with Abkhazia’s de facto President Raul Khamjiba and together they signed a treaty of “alliance and strategic partnership.” Putin also pledged to grant Sukhumi over $200 million in aid from Moscow.
The signed treaty prompted protests from the Georgian government calling it a “step toward a de facto annexation” of Abkhazia. Tbilisi has also called for international support. Evidently heeding that call, the US, the EU, and NATO all issued statements claiming that “it did not recognize” the treaty. The Western-backed government of Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine followed suit. Yet, statements like these are not likely to phase Moscow, which has recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state since the 2008 South Ossetia war. It is concluding the treaty in response to a potential NATO presence in Georgia.
The Russo-Abkhaz agreement was essentially a watered down version of an earlier draft treaty of “alliance and integration” proposed by Moscow. The text of that treaty envisioned a much more intensive relationship and would have represented a total integration of Abkhazia into Russia. The Abkhaz rejected this earlier draft, protesting that it “infringed on their sovereignty.” Instead, they proposed their own version.
The new treaty signed on 24 November brings together elements of both the Russian original and the proposal by the Abkhaz. On the whole, the final version is less focused on intensive integration and more focused on a military alliance and cooperation between Russia and Abkhazia. Still, this has not prevented continued opposition to the treaty within Abkhazia, largely from the Amtsakhara party. Those opposed are motivated in part against the treaty, and in even larger part against President Khajimba who played a key role in the Abkhaz Revolution that overthrew President Aleksandr Ankvab in May.
Responding to charges that the treaty represented an “annexation” of Abkhazia by Russia, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin stated that the treaty “is not about any annexation whatsoever. This is a completely transparent document, which is about broadening of interaction in actually all the areas in order to reinforce the common security space. This far-fetched thesis about having some kind of plans about annexation, absorption and expansion – that has to be referred to those people, who are behind the [EU] Eastern Partnership program.”
The Russo-Abkhaz treaty is an effective response by Moscow to the recent NATO aid package that was recently granted to Georgia. That package was granted to Tbilisi in place of a proposed NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for which Georgia’s pro-Western former Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, had been lobbying. The MAP was vetoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It would have signaled Georgia’s first step toward NATO membership.
The new package that Georgia did receive contained promises to hold “occasional NATO exercises” in Georgia and to have a NATO training facility on Georgian soil. In this context, the Russo-Abkhaz pact was hardly a surprise. Russia made it very clear that it will not tolerate the expansion of NATO into the non-Baltic former Soviet space.
Further, the Abkhaz and the Ossetes regard a potential Georgian NATO membership as a threat to their security. In this respect, the total pursuit of NATO by Tbilisi’s then-Defense Minister Alasania was viewed in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as another attempt by Georgia to retake their regions by force. Despite reassurances by pragmatists in Georgia’s government that NATO was “not directed against anyone,” the Abkhaz and the Ossetes saw it as “proof” that “nothing had changed” in Tbilisi. High-level visits to Georgia by top Western defense officials, like NATO commander Breedlove and now-former US Defense Secretary Hagel, which were hosted by Alasania, did not help.
To make matters worse, Moscow’s concern about a potential NATO presence in Georgia was openly rebuffed by Alasania. Not only did Alasania dismiss Moscow’s concerns outright, but also proceeded to say that Russia was the “only big threat to the region,” given its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its “aggression against Ukraine.” Further, he said that Tbilisi would never “bow” to a “diktat” from Moscow when it came to establishing NATO bases on Georgian soil. The comments sparked indignation in Moscow and embarrassment in Tbilisi.
The controversial draft treaty of “alliance and integration” was proposed by Moscow only a few days later. It received a strongly negative reaction and outcry from Tbilisi. Some called the proposal a “de facto annexation of Abkhazia.” Sukhumi also reacted negatively to it. Though Moscow expressed official “surprise” at the latter, in fact it was probably expecting that reaction. The intensive integration as envisioned in the initial draft was likely intended to wake up Tbilisi to the significance of Russia’s concerns regarding NATO.
At his meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Georgia’s Moscow envoy, Zurab Abashidze, expressed Tbilisi’s concerns with regard to the proposed treaty. Karasin responded that the proposed treaty only concerned Abkhazia and Russia. Further, he added, if Tbilisi was interested in peace in the region, it would tone down the rhetoric.
Shortly thereafter, the hawkish Alasania was embroiled in a major political scandal in Georgia. This culminated in his dismissal by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and the split of Alasania’s hardline Free Democrats from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Though there were concerns with regard to a potential political crisis, the government managed to avert this. Ministers who threatened to resign were persuaded by Garibashvili to stay, while the Georgian Dream not only retained its majority in parliament, but also expanded it. The scandal concluded when former Prime Minister, Georgian Dream patron and billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, gave a public interview in light of the scandal, emphasizing that a crisis had been averted.
Still, the Alasania scandal and the split of the hawkish pro-Western Free Democrats left an impact on Georgian politics that is still reverberating. In addition to this, the ruling coalition also faces ongoing tensions with Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). The UNM has made no secret of its contempt for the democratically-elected Georgian Dream and its desire to unlawfully overthrow it in a Maidan-style revolution. Such a scenario would be disastrous for Georgia, and many in the Georgian government realize this, especially with memories of the tragic 1990s Georgian civil war still fresh on the minds of many people.
Yet this has not deterred Saakashvili. From Kiev, he addressed supporters via live video at a recent anti-Russian rally in Tbilisi against the “annexation” of Abkhazia. The Tbilisi-born, urban-educated Saakashvili then insulted Ivanishvili’s peasant roots and provocatively alluded to a possible Maidan scenario for Georgia. In a separate speech in Kiev, Saakashvili bombastically declared, in a racially charged statement, that Moscow was the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.” The controversial ex-President is currently wanted by Georgia and has been recently indicted for obstructing justice in the high-profile Sandro Girgvliani murder case. However, this evidently has not prevented Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko from considering Saakashvili for the post of Ukraine’s new Deputy Prime Minister.
The ruling Georgian Dream also faces internal tensions with the Republican faction of its coalition. Headed by Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, the Republicans represent the last major bastion of pro-Western hardliners within the Georgian Dream. They opposed the pragmatist position on the question of the Interior Ministry’s access to surveillance. The pragmatist-backed bill presented in parliament, favored by Prime Minister Garibashvili, proposed allowing the Interior Ministry to have direct access to networks of telecommunications service providers with the purpose of conducting court-approved communications monitoring.
Instead, Republican MP Vakhtang Khmaladze proposed a competing bill which would deprive the Interior Ministry of all direct access to telecom networks. In addition, the Republican bill sought to transfer network access to the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC). However, the GNCC appeared unwilling to get involved and to assume this responsibility.
The debate was significant because the right of surveillance and direct access to telecom networks would allow the Interior Ministry to effectively prevent illegal wiretapping and to combat any potential threats against Georgia’s state institutions. Garibashvili commented on the importance of a strong Interior Ministry, maintaining that “personally for me, stronger Interior Ministry means strong state and my slogan is the strong Interior Ministry, the strong state, the strong Georgian special services [security and intelligence agencies] – this is the prerequisite of our country’s success, progress, development and strength.”
Notably, the pro-Western Republicans were not the only group who opposed the bill. Western-backed NGOs and the opposition Free Democrats and UNM also shared the position of the Republicans. At the same time, Alasania remains a bitter rival of Saakashvili, while Usupashvili is unlikely to leave the ruling coalition any time soon, despite signs of a growing rift.
The bill backed by Garibashvili and the pragmatists passed with 75 votes in favor, much to Garibashvili’s relief. However, the pragmatist bill was also subject to a veto by President Margvelashvili who suggested amendments to it. Margvelashvili’s veto was less about his concerns regarding the debate than it was about him demonstrating his presidential power. His moved caused frustration in parliament with both the pragmatists and the pro-Western hardliners. In the end, the veto was overridden by parliament. Though the UNM declared that they would not participate in the vote to override the veto, two UNM members, Samvel Petrosyan and Koba Subeliani, voted in favor of overriding it.
Working to enhance his position amid these recent developments, Garibashvili has also recently “moved to the right,” becoming more vocal in his support for European integration, alarming overtly pro-Moscow politicians like Nino Burjanadze. In Brussels recently, Garibashvili visited EU and NATO officials pledging Tbilisi’s total commitment to its “European choice.” NATO has sought to have Georgia implement its aid package by February. Such an implementation is likely to complicate dialogue with Russia and place Tbilisi in an even more difficult and precarious position.
Garibashvili has also been vocal in the signing of the final Russo-Abkhaz treaty, calling it a “step toward annexation.” Yet it should be emphasized that Garibashvili and other pragmatists in Tbilisi are committed to continued dialogue with Moscow. In fact, Garibashvili recently reaffirmed this commitment publicly and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reciprocated it. It is also likely that Garibashvili still firmly believes that Russia is not genuinely interested in annexing the breakaways, as he stated in an interview with the BBC in June. Tellingly, Moscow did not protest his statements on Georgia’s Euro integration, indicating that it understands to some degree Tbilisi’s difficult situation.
Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma Committee for International Affairs, noted that he understands “when the opposition, which represents the interests of Mikhail Saakashvili who wanted to come back to Georgia, use [the issue of Abkhazia] to put pressure on the government.” At the same time, he emphasized that the Georgian government should not allow the issue of Abkhazia to dominate the agenda of Russo-Georgian relations. Such a move, he maintained, “could lead to the elimination of the positive impulses which have been reached previously and which meet the real interests of Georgian citizens, the Georgian economy. They simply make Georgia’s life easier, and we welcome them, as we want normalization of relations with Georgia. I think a struggle against the situation won’t lead anywhere but a new crisis of Georgian-Russian relations. Georgia won’t benefit from it, and we don’t want it either.”
Overall, it is clear that the only solution to the ongoing deadlock between Georgia, its breakaways, and Moscow is direct dialogue. “As far as relations between Russia and Georgia are concerned,” said Grigory Karasin, “we are now making practical steps in order to build interaction in those areas, where it is possible in the condition of absence of diplomatic relations. Such efforts are underway and it will continue.”
Karasin’s Georgian counterpart, Zurab Abashidze, has likewise commented that dialogue with Russia “must not cease to exist.” He further noted, “we do not have diplomatic relations with this state. All countries around the globe, including long-suffered Ukraine, are involved in some kind of relations with Russia. As a matter of fact, they have not even broken their diplomatic relations with this country.”
One way to move the dialogue forward would be to achieve the one-on-one meeting between Putin and the Georgian leadership, an idea that Putin himself proposed during the Sochi Olympics in February. This could set the stage for the restoration of diplomatic ties.
In addition, there are confidence-building measures that can be fulfilled toward finding a peaceful solution to the situation. Though under-reported in the Western press, Putin also gave his support for the reopening of the Abkhaz railway during his visit to Sukhumi. This is very significant because it means that, in addition to Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Sukhumi, Moscow now officially supports the reopening of the railway. Consequently, there is now a regional consensus on the issue and a potential blueprint for a way forward. Abkhazia’s Raul Khajimba even stated that “the Georgians should be interested in restoration of the Abkhazian railway themselves” and encouraged Tbilisi to give a greater official impetus to start the process.
Tbilisi is now indeed in a good position to do so. With Alasania gone and the surveillance bill passed, Georgia’s pragmatists are now in a relatively strong position. First and foremost motivated by love of country with Georgia’s best national interests at heart, they can proceed with continued dialogue with the breakaways and Moscow, regardless of any obstacles. Still, they must be cautious. If they can succeed, then a united Georgian republic can prosper once again.
UPDATE (2 December 2014): Saakashvili reportedly declined Poroshenko’s offer for the post of Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister. Specifically, the former Georgian President cited the fact that, if granted Ukrainian citizenship, this would cause him to lose his Georgian citizenship. He does not want this to happen due to his continued political ambitions in Georgia.
Significantly, several of Saakashvili’s former cabinet members have been tipped as possible Poroshenko appointees, including Georgia’s former Healthcare Minister Aleksandr Kvitashvili and former Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze. Both will reportedly be appointed as Ukraine’s new Healthcare and Deputy Interior Ministers respectively. Former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, who, like Saakashvili, faces criminal charges in Georgia, is yet another prospective government appointee.
Official Tbilisi reacted negatively to these potential appointments, part of a broader effort by Poroshenko to bring foreigners into the Ukrainian government and grant them citizenship through special decrees. The move reportedly sparked controversy and criticism in Ukraine.