What the Alasania Scandal Means for Russo-Georgian Relations

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Georgia’s recent scandal involving former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is now winding down.

The government managed to avert a crisis. Not only did they succeed in retaining their majority in parliament but also expanded it. The addition of independent MPs and defectors from Alasania’s camp have increased the Georgian Dream’s share of seats to 87, even higher than the original 83 prior to the Alasania scandal. This not only averted a potential new parliamentary election, but also now gives the Georgian Dream a comfortable and secure majority.

In addition, the vacant ministerial posts have been filled. Prime Minister Garibashvili has also selected Tamar Beruchashvili as the new Foreign Minister. He also appointed Georgia’s former ambassador to Greece, Davit Bakradze (not to be confused with the Saakashvili political ally and former presidential candidate) as the country’s new Euro Integration Minister.

Yet, a significant question continues to linger: does the scandal indicate a Georgian U-turn toward Moscow? The simple answer is “not anytime soon.”

A potential Georgian U-turn seemed more likely in late 2013 and early 2014, as Saakashvili left office. At that time, Georgia had not yet signed the EU Association Agreement and was scheduled to do so in far-off August. There were also emerging signs of a growing thaw between Moscow and Tbilisi, culminating in Vladimir Putin’s invitation to President Giorgi Margvelashvili during the Sochi Winter Olympics for a one-on-one meeting.

However, the rapprochement was disrupted by the Ukraine crisis. The West redoubled its efforts to bring Georgia into its fold, by moving up the signing of the Association Agreement in June, by granting Tbilisi more EU aid money, and by persuading the formerly pro-Putin Georgian Orthodox Patriarch to become pro-EU.  The fear of a possible Georgian Maidan and the tragic legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia also loom large in the thoughts of Georgia’s pragmatists.

Therefore, a potential Georgian U-turn toward Moscow appears unlikely, at least for the time being. Also, much is contingent on how developments progress in Ukraine and if the cash-strapped, pro-Western government in Kiev can last.

Still, the departure of Alasania’s Free Democrats and the government’s comfortable majority in parliament certainly does grant more maneuvering room for dealing with Moscow. Specifically, this gives the government a mandate for expanding relations with Russia beyond trade and economic spheres.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

For now, this will not mean that Georgia will abandon its pursuit of the EU and NATO, though without Alasania, such efforts will become less strident and aggressive. Likewise, it will not signal an immediate mutually acceptable solution to the longstanding Abkhaz and Ossetian conflicts.

However, the new situation does create the conditions for the dormant high-level meeting proposed by Putin in Sochi to be realized, and for diplomatic ties to be restored between both countries. It will also allow for a greater dialogue between Tbilisi and its breakaways and for the realization of important confidence-building measures vital to future peace. For South Ossetia, this includes a possible reopening of the Ergneti market and, for Abkhazia, a possible reopening of the Abkhaz railway. The Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba has already offered his support for the latter.

Some may contest the idea that Tbilisi would ever consider a serious rapprochement with Moscow. The Georgians, they argue, are simply too proud and nationalistic to let this happen. The Russians too, they would contend, would be unwilling to accept anything less than the total capitulation of Tbilisi, including its full recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

However, such arguments are purely impressionistic, based on long-standing ethnic stereotypes played up by the media. In reality, there is nothing in the “Georgian national character” that makes all Georgians, by fate of their ethnic origins, inherently “nationalistic,” “Russophobic,” or “reckless.” Likewise the Russians are not “uncompromising, stubborn imperialists.” In fact, Russia has a history of flexibility, compromise, and openness – provided that its interests and international law and procedure are respected.

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

In fact, the facts reveal a different story from the mainstream narrative. The vast majority of Georgians want to restore relations with Russia. According to a poll by Georgia’s Kviris Palitra newspaper, 59.4% of Georgians favor continuing the Abashidze-Karasin format. Only 19.7% opposed it, while 20.9% were unsure. The poll was conducted very recently, in October 2014 during the controversy over Russia’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. At that time, Georgia’s more hawkish politicians wanted to scrap the Abashidze-Karasin format entirely.

In addition, a good portion of Georgians also favor membership in the Eurasian Union. In 2013, the pro-Western Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) asked Georgians whether or not they supported membership of their country in the Eurasian Union. The results showed that 32% said “yes,” 24% said “no,” 27% said that they “don’t know” while a further 17% support some aspects of it but not others. If one adds the latter figure with the 32% in support, the total actually emerges as 49%.

Another poll from the Kazakh-based Eurasian Development Bank from this year (2014) found support for the Eurasian Union among 53% of Georgia’s population. For comparison, support for the Eurasian Union in Armenia was 64%, while in Azerbaijan, it was 22%. A much earlier poll by Gallup conducted in 2008 found strong support in Georgia for deeper cooperation among the CIS countries. Overall, 11% favored a “single state,” while another 11% favored a “federal state,” and 32% favored an “economic union” for a total of 54% of the population. Meanwhile, 30% favored cooperation as independent states and 16% were “unsure.” In percentages comparable to the 2014 Kazakhstan poll, the total percentages of those who supported integration either as a single state, a federation, or an economic union, was 63% in Armenia and 28% in Azerbaijan.

Taking into account these significant findings, if one were to attach the incentive of a potential Russian-backed peace deal for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would be difficult to imagine support for Moscow’s Eurasian Union not growing. In fact, it would likely increase substantially.

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by a supporter after his election as Georgia's president. (AP)

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by one of his supporters after his election as Georgia’s president. (AP)

In the case of the first two polls from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, a consistent trend can be discerned. The majority of Georgians favor restored ties with Moscow, a significant number are still “unsure,” while a minority favors a total rejection of all things Russian. If one observes Georgia’s latest election (i.e., the presidential election of 2013), one finds a similar breakdown. Margvelashvili, the pro-Georgian Dream candidate, acquired 62.12% of the votes while the overtly pro-Moscow Nino Burjanadze received 10.19% of the votes. Together, this makes approximately 72.31% of the vote. Davit Bakradze, the UNM candidate, only acquired 21.72% of the vote. Therefore, one can conclude from the election results, combined with the polling data from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, that the section of the Georgian electorate that is Russophobic, nationalistic, and overtly pro-Western, represents only 20-25% of the total Georgian electorate.

However, within Georgia’s political and intellectual elite, the influence of this group grows significantly. This is enhanced by the fact that, in the 2012 parliamentary election, which was conducted while Saakashvili was still in office, the UNM still gained 40% of the vote, allowing them to maintain significant influence in the Georgian parliament. In addition, the two major pro-Western opposition blocs, the UNM and the Free Democrats, both have backers and supporters in the West, especially among the American political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Further, they are also supported by American-backed NGOs working in Georgia.

There have also been earlier polls, conducted by Gallup, that showed tendencies in the general Georgian society indicating continued admiration, respect, and positive attitudes toward Russia. On the eve of the 2008 war in Georgia, Gallup found that 41% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA.” Another 41% volunteered the response that “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and USA.” Only 11% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia.”

To the question “which country in the former Soviet space do you admire and look up to most of all?,” 40% responded “Russia,” 29% “Ukraine,” and the remainder other countries. In addition, 64% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.”

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

These very friendly attitudes soured after the 2008 war. In the subsequent poll conducted in 2009 by Gallup, only 47% agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.” 37% agreed that “Georgia has to have a principal position regarding Russia.” Significantly, only 5% agreed with “terminating all relations with Russia,” which is effectively the policy that Mikheil Saakashvili pursued after the war and which the UNM continues to support today.

The number of those who agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA” dropped to 28%. Meanwhile those who agreed that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia” increased to 24%.

Inquiring about the EU, Gallup determined that in 2008, only 14% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the EU even if this can harm relations with Russia.” This increased in 2009 to 27%. Meanwhile, 33% said “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the EU.” This decreased to 22% in 2009. Finally, 44% of Georgians volunteered “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and EU.” This decreased to 34% in 2009.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

It is indisputable that the development of these new attitudes was affected by the war and by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, it is also worth noting that people in Georgia became increasingly more afraid to express their opinions openly as Saakashvili’s regime became increasingly more authoritarian. According to Gallup, in 2012, only 17% of the population agreed with the statement that “no one is afraid to express their opinion.” This shot up to 40% in 2013, after the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party.

For his part, Saakashvili’s approval rating in Georgia stood at a mere 22% in 2012 according to Gallup. The approval rating was exactly the same in August 2014, according to a later poll conducted by the CRRC for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The figure again corresponds to the fact that about 20-25% of the Georgian electorate supports a tougher line toward Russia. Significantly, the latter poll also found that 73% of Georgians are presently dissatisfied with the current state of relations with Russia and that 65% supported the reopening of the Abkhaz railway. In another more recent CRRC poll, 91% of the Georgian population indicated that they still speak Russian as a second language, despite Saakashvili’s efforts to supplement this with English. For comparison in Armenia, 97% speak Russian as a second language while in Azerbaijan, 73% speak Russian.

Still, as of August 2014, support for the EU and NATO remains high in Georgia at 78% and 72% respectively according to the CRRC’s NDI poll. This is despite the fact that, in a typical post-Soviet manner, many Georgians also support membership in the Eurasian Union. Indeed, many would claim to support “both,” especially in the regions. In the case of the EU, the majority (58%) believe that eventual membership will improve the Georgian economy. However, it must be emphasized again that the “vision” of Europe and the reality of Europe are very much different. Brussels is still recovering from the Eurozone crisis and it is unlikely that, if Georgia were to eventually join the EU, it would see any immediate economic benefit, as was the case with the bloc’s newest Eastern European members – Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia.

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine (Eurasia Travel)

Yet, as far as the EU and NATO are concerned, membership in these organizations is not a priority for most Georgians. In fact, in their view, Georgia’s main priorities are unemployment, poverty, pensions, and healthcare reform, as well as fixing relations with Russia and resolving the Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues. According to the CRRC’s NDI poll, only 10% regard NATO as a priority while 2% regard the EU as a priority. Additionally, according to the same poll, about 40% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Georgia is not going anywhere” and about 70% consider their job status to be “unemployed.”  Under the present government, more action has been taken to meet these needs.  In Kakheti province, the center of the Georgian wine-making and grape cultivation, Garibashvili was well-received as he told local farmers, “in the last two years, our government planted four hectares of vineyards as an incentive for the peasants, while Saakashvili forced the peasants to cut down with their own hands the vineyards, which even Shah Abbas or other very cruel conquerors did not do.”

In general, all of this information illustrates that a significant pro-Russian sentiment does exist among the Georgian populace, regardless of claims to the contrary. Such support is most likely concentrated in the regions where poverty and unemployment remain widespread and where nostalgia for Soviet times persists. Consequently, if Georgia were to move toward Russia, concurrently with a Moscow-backed peace deal on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is conceivable that the “silent majority” of Georgians would support the government. Therefore, the major concern for the government would not be the majority of the people, but rather the pro-Western hardliners in the political elite and their supporters.

In this regard, Tbilisi’s pragmatists face major challenges. Constant threats from Saakashvili and the UNM to launch a Georgian Maidan are being taken very seriously by the government. To a Georgian, such threats are especially troubling, given the legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia. If something like this were to happen, it would be a disaster for Georgia domestically and would seriously jeopardize very critical efforts at reconciliation with the Abkhaz and Ossetes. The stakes are high.

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

In this context, the government was especially cautious and restrained during the UNM’s recent rally against the proposed Russo-Abkhaz “Alliance and Integration” treaty that took place in Tbilisi on 15 November. Thousands of protestors attended the rally, some carrying anti-Putin placards and signs that read “Abkhazia and Samachablo [a Georgian nationalist term for South Ossetia] are Georgia.”  Addressing the rally via live video from Kiev, Mikheil Saakashvili told the crowds that there were two Georgias: “our Georgia” and “Ivanishvili’s Georgia.” Insulting Ivanishvili’s Imeretian peasant roots, Tbilisi-born Saakashvili bombastically declared that Ivanishvili’s “dream Georgia” is a “small, insignificant village that should not have regional ambitions” and that is “run by a provincial dictator.” He further provocatively drew parallels between the Georgian government and the government of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

All of this has underscored the need for extreme caution and prudence by the Georgian government.  Prime Minister Garibashvili perhaps said it best in a statement on 14 November, a day before the UNM rally:

I do not think that anyone can overlook the tightrope Georgia is walking today. Radicalism is absolutely unacceptable and inadmissible in our country today. Any step other than a peaceful, prudent, and pragmatic policy may lead us to grave consequences. Imprudent actions and radicalism led Georgia to the 2008 war. This must serve as an example to everyone; we cannot build our decision making upon emotions.

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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.

What Will Be the Legacy of Ukraine’s Maidan?

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Though Western commentators have rushed to hail Ukraine’s Euromaidan as a “democratic” revolution, in truth its results still remain very far from certain.

It can be said that Euromaidan was a truly post-Soviet movement. In other words, it was a revolt in which many fervently believed that simply joining an organization (in this case the EU) could instantly solve all their problems. This recalls other instances in Ukraine and other former Soviet states in which people voted for a given politician believing that he or she will be the “savior” of their respective country.

Of course, the reality is that joining the EU holds no promise of immediate reform for Ukraine. In fact, it will likely mean that Ukraine (a near-bankrupt country) will have to fall in line with harsh EU austerity programs, thus only creating more problems. It is also true that EU institutions can indeed help Ukraine reform itself and reduce corruption. However, they cannot simply “cure” Ukraine of the corruption issue. What Ukrainians who supported the Maidan do not seem to realize is that Ukraine must work toward fundamental reform on its own.  Unfortunately, with Ukraine’s present corrupt political elite, this does not seem to be an immediate prospect. In this regard, if Ukraine were to actually join the EU, it would become like Bulgaria or Romania, i.e., a large country which despite joining the EU, continues to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and other issues. However, given Ukraine’s large size and the sheer level of corruption and poverty, the task of integrating this country into the EU would be even more problematic, especially because the EU is still in the process of recovering from its own very serious Eurozone crisis.

Poland is often evoked by advocates of Ukrainian EU membership as an example for Ukraine to follow. However, this too is misleading. Poland’s perceived success was not due to simply joining the EU. It was the result of hard work and serious reform efforts conducted by the Polish government both before and after joining the EU.  Again, this illustrates that joining the EU alone will not be a solution to a country’s problems.  The reform can only come from that country alone.

Yet another problem with Maidan is that it seems to have been encouraged and driven by internal and external forces who are not acting in the interests of the Ukrainian people or its demands. The internal forces are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite who see an opportunity, not so much for Ukraine, but for themselves. The external forces are those Western countries with geopolitical interests in Ukraine, especially the United States. It is acknowledged that the emotions of those fighting against the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych and for democratic reform were truly genuine. However, these same emotions were also manipulated by the above mentioned internal and external forces, which sought to achieve their own aims in Ukraine and which are not seriously interested in the genuine, fundamental reform of the country.

Outside the EU, there is the Moscow-backed option of the Eurasian Union. Casting common stereotypes about corruption in Russia aside, the Eurasian Union and Russia actually do offer impressive results to Ukraine. Regardless of Putin’s questionable democratic credentials, it is apparent that he has managed to stabilize the situation in Russia, especially from where it was in the 1990s. The economy is stable and growing. The middle class is growing. The birthrate is growing and not just in “national” republics like Chechnya but in the Slavic Russian heartland as well. Corruption is decreasing (slowly, but still decreasing — Russia ranked 143 on Transparency International’s CPI in 2007 and last year ranked 127, still very corrupt but a significant improvement nonetheless). Alcoholism too is decreasing (albeit again, slowly).

At the same time, Russia still has many problems. Poverty remains a serious issue and Putin, though reigning in several oligarchs, has not reigned in all of them. Though the print media is free in Russia, television, from which many Russians get their news, entertainment, and information is still controlled by the government.  In addition to all of this, the most daunting task facing the Eurasian Union idea is its lack of a coherent vision. The EU presents itself as supportive of human rights, democracy, reform, etc. By contrast, the Eurasian Union, which is a direct descendant of earlier integration efforts in the post-Soviet space, does not really have a set of ideals, aside from the natural historical, cultural, and economic links that bind the ex-Soviet countries. What the Eurasian Union needs is a common vision and, in this regard, the best would most likely be a common social democratic vision. Such a vision would be a natural fit for populations in the ex-Soviet space suffering from widespread poverty and joblessness and who are somewhat used to leftist economic models, given the Soviet experience.

The Eurasian Union also needs to promote itself as a “union of equals,” meaning that all of its members should have a stake in it.  In this respect, all the national languages (not just Russian but Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, etc.) should have equal status in the union as well.  Like in the European Union, all documents regarding the Eurasian Union should be translated into all of the state languages of each member state.  Such a policy would make the Eurasian Union far more attractive to the former Soviet states and would demonstrate a sensitivity and understanding toward national cultures.  By contrast, campaigns to have ex-Soviet states adopt Russian as a co-official language will fail because the republics will only perceive this as an “imperial” endeavor.  In other words, Russian is already widely spoken in these countries.  Why push the issue and create a problem where there is none?  As Mikhail Gorbachev (one of the leading advocates of post-Soviet integration) has stated, if the Eurasian Union is to work and succeed, it must be a real union of equals, not an empire.

Overall, whatever the choice Ukrainians make, they must realize that they cannot simply “sign up” to join this union or that union and expect instant reform.  True reform can only come ultimately from the Ukrainians themselves.

Odessa: A Ukrainian Tragedy

Odessa's celebrated Potemkin Steps, once the scene of Sergei Eisenstein's famed 1925 Soviet classic, The Battleship Potemkin. (Palmyra.od.ua)

Odessa’s celebrated Potemkin Steps, once the scene of Sergei Eisenstein’s famed 1925 Soviet classic, The Battleship Potemkin. (Palmyra.od.ua)

Odessa is a beautiful, theatrical city, renown for its humor, wit, culture, and charm. Yet, at the same time, it is also a city that has experienced much pain and tragedy in its history. Since the horrors of World War II, who would have guessed that nearly 70 years later, the people of this celebrated “St. Petersburg of the south” would again have cause to mourn?

It is beyond doubt that the 2 May massacre in Odessa was a turning point for the crisis in Ukraine. Last Friday was a painful day of mourning for a country that is already on the brink of catastrophe. One might expect that such grief would lead toward greater unity within the country and perhaps pave the way for a rational, constructive dialogue toward peace.

Instead, the massacre has only hardened opinions in Ukraine. Throughout the southeast, including Odessa, popular anger and opposition to the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government is currently on the rise. In Central Ukraine and Kiev, public opinion over the tragedy is divided. In Western Ukraine, while many have expressed sorrow for the deaths, the popular stance largely does not want to fully explore what happened in Odessa.  The involvement of the pro-Kiev activists is downplayed and “pro-Russian provocateurs” are blamed instead.  According to one observer in Western Ukraine, the reaction from some in the West on social media has been “less than compassionate” and “even hubristic.”  Further west, in the remote Rusyn-speaking oblast of Zakarpattia, popular reaction to the tragedy in Odessa is unclear.  Meanwhile, as tensions rise, Odessa’s historic Jewish community, which had been experiencing a cultural and religious revival in recent years (including a Yiddish language revival), is planning to evacuate the city en masse.

In the United States, mainstream media networks like ABC, CNN, and Fox have practically ignored the massacre. In the rare case that it is mentioned, the question of responsibility is always vague. Official Washington offered its condolences on Saturday in the same manner, without naming any perpetrators. Later, though the US Ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt admitted in an interview with CNN that there was no evidence of a Russian role in the massacre.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Frank-walter-steinmeier.de)

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for fresh talks to de-escalate the crisis.  (Frank-walter-steinmeier.de)

In Germany, opposition to the events in Ukraine as well as a desire for a resolution to the crisis are growing. One member of the ruling Christian Democrats stated that Germany “should stop being a servant of the Americans” and that confrontation with Russia over Ukraine was “blind to history and deaf to the other side.” Meanwhile, Germany’s Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for a new round of Geneva talks.  A veteran diplomat, Steinmeier has stated that the new talks will “send a ‘strong political signal’ that previous agreements will be implemented.” The plan now has the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Russia’s response to Odessa has been remarkably reserved. Moscow condemned the massacre in very strong terms and the State Duma has demanded a probe into the tragedy. However, Russia has refrained from intervening directly in Ukraine, despite anger in Moscow and pressure by hardliners in the Kremlin to invade.

It is undeniably apparent that Right Sector and far-right football fans known as the “Ultras” were singularly responsible for what happened in Odessa. On YouTube, footage has emerged showing the nationalists starting the fire and later shooting anti-Kiev activists who attempted to leave the burning building.

The Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government has sought to downplay the massacre, instead expressing very general “sorrow” for the victims and emphasizing the clashes that preceded it between supporters and opponents of the government. In every case, they are quick to blame the initial clashes on “pro-Russian provocateurs.” During his visit to Odessa, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk reiterated the same script, though also blaming the security services for not stopping the violence.

Yatsenyuk also pledged a de-centralization of powers to the oblasti and to this end, a bill for a nationwide plebiscite on the issue has been registered at the Ukrainian Rada. Yet people living in Ukraine’s southeast are skeptical. The government has announced vaguely-worded “de-centralizations” in the past, but these were ultimately never realized. In a much less calculated move, the government has also dispatched a special all-volunteer battalion of Kiev’s National Guard to Odessa. It is doubtful that such a move will help de-escalate tensions and build confidence in this part of Ukraine. Opposition to the government runs high in Odessa.  Some have even gone so far as to refer to the massacre as an act of “genocide.” Meanwhile, the “anti-terrorist operation” continues in Eastern Ukraine, which is now effectively in a state of war with Kiev.

Overall, anxiety and apprehension remain high throughout Ukraine in the aftermath of the Odessa massacre. If social media is any indication, it demonstrates that people throughout the country have fundamentally different views and interpretations of the event. Dialogue is extremely important to restoring order and peace, but it is increasingly being supplemented by a discourse of “my interpretation is better than yours” and even worse “us vs. them.” In the backdrop of all this is a fast deteriorating socioeconomic situation and the near-bankruptcy of the country. Ukrainians together need to emerge with white flag in hand to set aside their differences and engage in a serious, meaningful dialogue to find solutions to their problems. War, no matter what, should never be an option.

The Myth of the European Panacea

The EU flag was a prominent symbol of Ukraine's Euromaidan (img.pravda.com.ua)

The EU flag was a prominent symbol of Ukraine’s Euromaidan (img.pravda.com.ua)

Capitalism hit the former Soviet Union very hard in the 1990s. That was the Boris Yeltsin era of “shock therapy” wherein the economic ideas of Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, and others transformed the countries of the former USSR from state-dominated economies with capitalist elements to the capitalism of the wild, unregulated sort. The results of such a severe and rapid transition were disastrous for these countries, socially, politically, and economically. The ramifications of those years are still felt throughout much of the former Soviet space today, both directly and indirectly.

In Russia itself, the “shock therapy” brand of capitalism was implemented with aid from American advisors such as Sachs and by “democratic” Russian “reformers” like Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, and others.  Their subsequent “reforms” plunged approximately 75% of Russians into poverty and reversed many of the country’s hard-won 20th century achievements, becoming, in the words of Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen of NYU, “the first nation ever to undergo actual demodernization in peacetime.” It changed public perceptions with regard to the West. If there were many Russians in 1991-92 who were supportive of the basic idea of having democracy, the years of “shock therapy” created a desire for much-needed “stabilnost” and caused many to view the West as primarily responsible for such a terrible economic catastrophe.

Similar rapid transitions to market economies occurred throughout the former Soviet sphere, leaving legacies of entrenched oligarchies, monopolies, economic disparity, poverty, bad business environments, and most of all, corruption. For the citizens of former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia, the EU and its Eastern Partnership program appear to be effective remedies to finally “cure” their economies of these diseases once and for all. The reputation of the EU for its rules, regulations, and carrot-and-stick initiatives seemed to be a cure-all solution to many.

“Like hopeless alcoholics, we are trying to toss ourselves into a rehab, where caring Europeans will cure us from the addiction (in our case – corruption),” wrote the Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan. Indeed, corruption remains a very serious problem for all four of the Eastern Partnership states that sought deeper ties with the EU, with Georgia ranking 55, Armenia 94, Moldova 102, and Ukraine 144 on the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index of 177 countries (CPI) by Transparency International.  The issue of corruption is especially serious in Ukraine where the oligarchy and the political elite, from Tymoshenko to Yanukovych, have robbed the country and its people into bankruptcy.  Consequently, the EU is viewed as a panacea, a “symbol” for the hope of a better future.  In the words of Mark Adomanis and Luka Orešković with regard to Ukraine specifically:

Given Ukraine’s omnipresent corruption, the lack of legal security and, most importantly, the country’s economic implosion, it is not surprising that many citizens would latch onto a symbol (“Europe”) that is associated with all of the things that the country itself lacks. Throughout Ukraine, Europe is popularly identified with economic prosperity, transparency, democracy, and the rule of law, with the possibility of living a “normal life” of dignity and material security.

In contrast to the EU, the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union at face-value appears to offer little, especially with regard to combating corruption. With a CPI ranking of 127, corruption is widespread in Russia, though the Kremlin does realize the gravity of the issue and has been trying to fix it in recent years. Still, the continued presence of corruption combined with oligarchic monopolies, has likewise made opportunities for independent businesses and entrepreneurs very difficult. Together, these issues stifle real economic growth and potential and pose a serious challenge to competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Additionally, the fact that much of Russia’s economy is also based on non-renewable natural resources has also raised very serious concerns.

“The main reason why many Armenians are not crazy about joining the Russian Customs Union is not the Russian people, culture, literature, or cuisine,” wrote the Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan. “The problem is corruption.”

Despite this, Russia is remarkably holding its own. The Kremlin managed to pay off much of its foreign debt from the 1990s. Moscow’s economy is also currently growing much faster than that of the EU. Additionally, the birthrate of the once “dying Russia” has also bounced back and is on the rise, not only in national autonomous republics like Chechnya, but also deep into the Slavic Russian heartland as well.

Still, is the EU a viable alternative solution to these countries’ economic woes?  It is true that the Europeans would undoubtedly implement their rules, regulations, and carrot-and-stick reforms on these countries. However, by placing their hopes on the EU, which is still limping along from the devastating 2008 Eurozone crisis, these countries are staking their fate on a supranational union that cannot bring them any serious promises of lasting economic prosperity and stability. In November 2013, the noted American Economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that his…

…joke slogan for Obama has been, ‘It’s not as bad as the Great Depression!’ But Europe can’t even claim that. At this point it’s just as bad as the Great Depression — and where European economies were recovering strongly by this point in the 30s, they’re stalling now. Doing worse than the 30s; that’s a remarkable achievement.

Indeed, by investing so much hope in an entity as economically unstable as the EU, the people of the ex-Soviet states “run the risk of being sorely disappointed with their ‘civilizational choice’” in the manner that ordinary Russians were sorely disappointed with capitalism in the Yeltsin era of the 1990s.  There is also no guarantee that the corruption issue has been completely solved either.  In Bulgaria and Romania for instance, corruption remains particularly widespread. Even more interesting, according to the 2013 CPI report, non-EU member Georgia actually ranked higher on transparency than not only Bulgaria and Romania, but other EU members such as Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, and Greece. Meanwhile, Armenia and Moldova rank higher than prospective EU member Albania! Further, according to Adomanis and Orešković:

The three most recent entrants to the EU (Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia) have performed terribly since the onset of the financial crisis. Croatia, in particular, has seen no economic growth for the past seven years.  After many years of painstaking reform, per capita incomes in these countries are still less than 40% of West European averages. Even more alarmingly, these three countries have almost entirely stopped converging with the “old” EU members in the West.

In spite of all this, both politicians and citizens in the former Soviet Union seem completely sold on the vision of the “European paradise.” At Ukraine’s Maidan, some activists even believed that “in Europe there is no police brutality.” Apparently, they have never been to Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, or France.

Joining the EU at this point will likely not bring about the long-desired dream of economic prosperity. In fact, it could become potentially destabilizing, especially for a country as large and diverse as Ukraine with an economy that, if not near bankruptcy, is already bankrupt.  That said, as unrest continues in Ukraine, ordinary Ukrainians must consider the question, “should we rely on the EU to help us out of our situation, or is up to us, the Ukrainians alone, to create a better future for ourselves?”

How Moscow Views the Ukraine Crisis

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800.  The historical memory of the Western invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still affects Russian perceptions of the West today.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800. The historical memories of the West’s invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still loom large in the Russian consciousness.

Throughout the ongoing Ukraine crisis, few Western commentators and/or observers have considered Moscow’s view of the situation. In the Western media, the prevailing image is that Russia is an aggressor, intent on dominating its neighbors. Western influence is presented as “positive.” Russian influence as “negative.” Joining the EU is depicted as being a road to economic and social prosperity and NATO is offered as a defensive bulwark against the “terrible” Kremlin. Remarkably, at least in the United States, liberals and conservatives are singing the same song. Further, the discourse of “invasion,” “occupation,” “aggression,” and “World War III” is hardly diplomatic. How does anyone believe that negotiations can ensue when such language is thrown about?

By contrast, in Moscow, the view of the situation in Ukraine is entirely different. It perceives the West as encroaching on countries to which it has been very closely associated. Ukraine (the entire country, East, South, Central, and even West), along with Belarus, is viewed as a fraternal East Slavic nation to which Russia is intimately bound. The capital Kiev is regarded by all Russians as the “mother Russian city,” the common point of origin for all East Slavs. To view Kiev within the boundaries of the EU and NATO is more than just a violation of a sphere of influence.  To the Russians, it is almost sacrilege.

Meanwhile, it does not help that some of the most vocal advocates for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO come from countries that Russia perceives as historical invaders. They include Poland and Sweden, the co-founders of the Eastern Partnership program that sponsored the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Both countries have a history of animosity toward Russia, but it is Poland in particular that Moscow views as being one of the chief advocates for Western expansionism.

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

We in the West regard Poland primarily as the victim of Russian aggression, particularly communism. We reflect on Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland. Conversely, to a Russian with a sense of history, Poland is perceived as a historical invader, a country that during the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613) supported the Tsar-pretender “False Dmitriy,” attempted to bring Catholicism to Orthodox Russia, and eventually invaded and occupied Moscow in 1609. That invasion was repelled in 1612 by the duo of Kuzma Minin and Dmitriy Pozharsky, whose statue stands today in front of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Even in more recent times, Russians recall that it was Poland’s Marshal Piłsudski who, during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, not only tried to ensure the freedom of Poland, but also sought to annex to Poland large swathes of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of old. Piłsudski is still admired by some in Poland today, including members of the political elite such as the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Jarosław. He is also greatly admired by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russians likewise recall Polish participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the Polish legion that is depicted as being the most fanatically supportive of an expansion toward Russia, so much so that they drown in the River Viliya for Napoleon. Today, the Russians see very much the same thing, except that Napoleon is now replaced by NATO and that the Poles are now showing their loyalty, not by drowning in the Viliya, but by asking for NATO troops to be stationed in their country.

In another Tolstoyan parallel, Moscow also likely views the Ukrainians who protested on the Maidan as being the modern equivalents of the muzhiks of War and Peace. It was the muzhiks who rose up against their oppressive landlords for Napoleon, who they viewed as the embodiment of the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Today though, the modern landlords are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite and oligarchs, while the liberal ideals of Napoleon and revolutionary France are today the liberal ideals of Brussels and the European Union. Moscow regards the latter ideals in 2014 just as they regarded Naopleon’s ideals in 1812 – that is, as false promises motivated only by geopolitical ambitions rather than by any genuine sense of altruism.

Given this, it would be wise to recall history before permitting the rhetoric to get too out of control.

Abashidze-Karasin Meeting Today

Georgia's Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Georgia’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

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.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

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.

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

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.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

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.