Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Sergey Markedonov

After a lengthy hiatus, the Reconsidering Russia podcast is back! The fifth and latest installment of the podcast series features Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov. Dr. Markedonov holds a PhD in history from the Rostov-on-Don State University and he is an Associate Professor at the Russian State University in Moscow. He is also a frequent contributor to the online news service Russia Direct.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and covered topics as diverse as the Don Cossacks, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Syria, NATO, Mikheil Saakashvili, Russo-Georgian relations, US-Russian relations, and Dr. Markedonov’s personal experience with the Caucasus region. Enjoy!

Be sure to subscribe to Reconsidering Russia podcasts on iTunes here.

Upcoming Elections in the Former USSR, 2015-2018

Considering the ongoing Ukraine crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the former Soviet space is definitely a region to observe in 2015.

Elections in the former Soviet republics are especially important to watch. In some cases, like the authoritarian states of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, the results are foregone conclusions. However in other more open states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, they are not. In Russia’s case, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2018, and whether or not Putin will stay on for an additional term.

Below is a schedule of upcoming elections in the former Soviet space over the course of the next four years, from 2015 to 2018.

Correction: Transnistria’s parliamentary election will be taking place in November 2015, not February 2015.

2015

  • February
    Voting in Transnistria (TASS).  In 2015, the locals of this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    Voting in Transnistria. (TASS) In 2015, the locals in this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    • Tajikistan: parliamentary election
  • March
    • Uzbekistan: presidential election
  • May
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): parliamentary election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: parliamentary election
  • November
    • Belarus: presidential election
    • Azerbaijan: parliamentary election
    • Transnistria (Md.): parliamentary election

2016

  • March
    Longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win re-election in 2016. (Photo: AP)

    Kazakhstan’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win a landslide re-election in 2016.  He is seen here casting his ballot in the 2011 presidential election with his wife, Sara. (Photo: AP)

    • Abkhazia (Ge.): parliamentary election
  • September
    • Belarus: parliamentary election
  • October
    • Georgia: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Kazakhstan: presidential election
    • Transnistria (Md.): presidential election
    • Russia: parliamentary election

2017

  • January
    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh (Photolur). In 2017, locals in this disputed majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president.  It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent Bako Sahakyan.

    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh. (Photolur) In 2017, locals in this disputed, majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president. It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent president, Bako Sahakyan.

    • Kazakhstan: parliamentary election
  • February
    • Turkmenistan: presidential election
  • March
    • South Ossetia (Ge.): presidential election
  • May
    • Armenia: parliamentary election
  • July
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): presidential election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: presidential election

2018

  • February
    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters)  2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia.  Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president.  It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term.  In 2015, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote for a new mayor.

    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters) 2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia. Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president. It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term. In 2018, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote in the Moscow mayoral election.

    • Armenia: presidential election
  • March
    • Russia: presidential election
  • September
    • Moscow: mayoral election
  • October
    • Azerbaijan: presidential election
    • Georgia: presidential election
  • November
    • Moldova: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Turkmenistan: parliamentary election

Keeping Georgia Balanced

Georgian Defense Ministry Building (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Georgian Defense Ministry Building (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Sparks flew in Georgian politics recently when the Georgian Defense Ministry issued a statement in connection with the death of Aleksandr Grigolashvili, also known by his nom de guerre “Chuzhoy.”  A Georgian citizen and former soldier, Grigolashvili, joined a formation known as the “Georgian National Legion” to fight in the Donbas. He died near Luhansk on 19 December. Notably, Georgians, like Chechens and Armenians, can be found on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict. The “Georgian National Legion” that Grigolashvili joined is ideologically pro-Saakashvili and pro-Kiev.  Through the legion, Grigolashvili fought with the controversial Aidar Battalion which has been accused by Amnesty International of war crimes, including “abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.”

The statement from the Defense Ministry placed “full responsibility” for the death on “representatives of previous authorities, who are calling on Georgian citizens to take part in military operations outside of our country.” It further emphasized that the Defense Ministry “has noted for more than once that such calls are irresponsible and aim at misleading active and former servicemen of the Georgian armed forces.” It called on Georgian citizens “not to yield to provocation and not to endanger their own lives in exchange of various offers.”

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP)

The statement is indeed grounded in reality. Earlier in December, Saakashvili accused the Defense Ministry of pro-Russian sympathies and that “many Georgian officers are left without any other option but to go and continue service in friendly Ukraine, which fights the war against Georgia’s enemy.” The Defense Ministry refuted this statement.

In addition, the pro-Saakashvili television network, Rustavi-2, which was instrumental in the success of the 2003 Rose Revolution, has been vocal in its support and encouragement of Georgians fighting in Ukraine. Members of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party have likewise been vocal in this regard.

The release of the Defense Ministry’s statement triggered considerable protest, led by Saakashvili but also supported by Irakli Alasania, Davit Usupashvili’s Republicans, and pro-Western NGOs. Politicians from the UNM alleged that the statement was in “Russia’s interests” and that the pragmatists in the ruling coalition were “Putin collaborationists.”

Seeking to calm the situation, Garibashvili called the statement a “mistake.” The Defense Ministry subsequently apologized for the statement, claiming that it was the responsibility of lower level officials.

Irakli Alasania (RFE/RL)

Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (RFE/RL)

However, Alasania and his ally, former Foreign Minister Panjikidze, say that this is not enough and they want those responsible for the statement to “stand trial.” Panjikidze also called the statement a “catastrophe” for the government. Official Tbilisi dismissed such assertions. Additionally, Usupashvili’s Republicans too are increasingly vocal in their criticism of Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, and Saakashvili’s UNM is calling for his outright dismissal. Janelidze has only been in the post for less than two months and is unlikely to resign.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has used his position to act as a mediator between the pragmatists and the pro-Western hawks, urged for calm. “I think we should give him [Janelidze] an opportunity to voice his position. We should have a bit calmer reaction on issues like this,” he said.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Speaking about the issue again on 24 December, Prime Minister Garibashvili remarked:

The stir around the MoD’s statement and calls for resignation of batoni Mindia [Janelidze] is completely incomprehensible for me; I think this is not a serious talk and I want to say to everyone that perhaps it would be more reasonable to put an end to such talk and this hysteria.  The fact that UNM’s call has caused such a stir is very irrelevant, as well as insulting and underrating for our Defense Ministry.

The controversy over the statement reveals the difficult position of Georgia’s pragmatists, led by Prime Minister Garibashvili. The vast majority of the Georgian population supports them (especially in the regions).  However, they are opposed by a very vocal minority of pro-Western political parties (the UNM, Free Democrats, and Republicans) and pro-Western NGOs.

These pro-Western hawks also have representation in parliament that is proportionally higher than their actual electorate. In addition, they have support from influential Western politicians, especially in Washington as recent support for former President Saakashvili illustrated.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Consequently, the line that the pragmatists have to tread is difficult. Recently former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who supports the pragmatists, stated that Georgia’s “geographical position as well as internal and regional problems put us in a rather difficult situation; however, all resources to achieve our common and long-cherished goal [of a prosperous state] are in our hands today.” He also added “the former authorities, who now represent the opposition, still endeavor to put pressure on our people; although all their attempts to do this have ended in failure thus far.”

Yet, despite the challenges, Prime Minister Garibashvili is fully committed to keeping Georgia balanced. Throughout this past year, the Prime Minister has proven himself to be very much to be his own man, contrary to opposition allegations of him being an “Ivanishvili puppet.”

In fact, Garibashvili continued balancing his government’s pursuit to normalize ties with Moscow while keeping the pro-Western hawks at bay. Further, in the aftermath of the Alasania scandal in November, it was Garibashvili who single-handedly managed to keep the coalition together and to avert a crisis.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and son (Press office photo)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and son (Press office photo)

Also under Garbashvili’s watch, the Georgian economy grew. Even in recent months, when the lari suffered a fall in connection with the depreciation of the ruble, the government managed to stabilize the situation.

With regard to the Abkhaz and the Ossetes, Garbashvili’s conciliatory statements and actions have helped to build confidence more so than any other political leader in Georgia’s post-Soviet history. Sadly, his overtures were complicated by more bellicose and provocative steps taken by former Defense Minister Alasania. Still, the fact remains that Garibashvili is firmly and sincerely committed to the restoration of Georgian unity through peaceful and pragmatic means.

Garibashvili’s government has had more difficulty in its relations with Ukraine. In particular, the new Kiev government’s proximity to former President Saakashvili, who is wanted in Georgia for abuse of office, has alarmed Tbilisi’s pragmatists. Relations recently went from bad to worse when the Poroshenko government decided to appoint Saakashvili political allies to top government posts.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Poroshenko even considered making Saakashvili himself Deputy Prime Minister, a position that the former Georgian President eventually declined. The decision to appoint Saakashvili allies also sparked indignation in Ukraine due to the fact that they were foreign citizens to whom Poroshenko had to grant immediate citizenship.

Responding to the appointments, Garibashvili emphasized that the presence of Saakashvili-era officials in the Kiev government was damaging relations between Georgia and Ukraine. He found it incomprehensible that Kiev would be interested in appointing Zurab Adeishvili, the Saakashvili-era Justice Minister who is wanted by Tbilisi via an Interpol Red Notice, to an official position. He also accused Saakashvili’s former Healthcare Minister, Aleksandr Kvitashvili, who was appointed by Poroshenko as Kiev’s new Healthcare Minister, of “destroying the Georgian healthcare system.”

Though he is experiencing difficulties with Ukraine, Garibashvili remains committed to restoring relations with Russia. At his recent marathon press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his readiness to meet with the Georgian political leadership.  “We are ready to move in this direction,” said Putin, “and if the Georgian government considers it possible, we will be glad to see any representative of the Georgian leadership – the President or the Prime Minister, in Moscow.”  In response, Garibashvili announced that the Georgian government is now officially ready for such a summit, which may take place in 2015.  Such a meeting would be a positive step forward for regional security, cooperation, and stability.

Regardless of what finally happens, Garibashvili must be cautious and pragmatic while simultaneously keeping Georgia’s national interests at the forefront. If this past year is any indication, the 32-year-old Prime Minister is certainly up to the task.

UPDATE (29 December 2014): On Friday, Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze spoke about the controversial Defense Ministry statement, again emphasizing that it was a mistake.  Meanwhile, in the Georgian parliament, a brawl erupted, instigated by an MP from Saakashvili’s UNM.  On Monday, the Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor Giorgi Badashvili stated that Tbilisi will spare no effort to convince Interpol to issue a Red Notice for former President Saakashvili.

Further commenting on the Defense Ministry statement controversy at a recent press conference, Prime Minister Garibashvili remarked that the government seeks to only grant humanitarian aid to Ukraine, not military assistance.  He noted that the government has “strongly distanced itself” from those Georgians fighting in eastern Ukraine. One reporter from the pro-Saakashvili Tabula magazine then asked Garibashvili whether or not “Putin was the common enemy of Georgia and Ukraine.” Garibashvili refused to answer the question, stating that it was a “reckless provocation” prepared by Saakashvili and the UNM. He maintained that:

The fact that former president Saakashvili, who is charged with multiple crimes, and his team were calling on Georgian soldiers – and they were negotiating it in their private conversations – to give up their Georgian citizenship, to quit Georgian armed forces and go to Ukraine, because of high payment there – it is a direct treason and calls for betrayal, I am saying it with full responsibility.

As for the Defense Ministry statement, Garibashvili remarked:

I said that the Ministry itself should not have made such statement, but if the minister or a politician had made such a statement, there was nothing unusual written in that statement.

What the former president is doing is a direct provocation. It is a betrayal to call on a soldier of your country to quit the armed forces and to serve and fight elsewhere in exchange of payment. This is a betrayal.

When pressed further by reporters, Garibashvili stated:

Saakashvili is the enemy of our country and the enemy of our people.  What the former commander-in-chief is doing is a shame and betrayal of our country and our people.

Emphasizing the government’s responsible position to the pro-Saakashvili Tabula journalist, he added:

There is extremely difficult situation in the region. Ukraine is in flames. Your favorite Saakashvili has only one thing on his mind – to cause conflict and unrest in Georgia and to lead Georgia into armed confrontation with Russia. This is the enmity against our country and our people and we will not allow it happen; we are the responsible government… I assure you with 101% that Georgia would be in war now and in a worse situation than Ukraine is, if Saakashvili and his sect – [and the UNM] has turned into sect, because only those [who] are left there… are tied to each other with ideology… – were still in power.

Asked whether or not he wanted to meet the former Saakashvili officials now in the Kiev government in Ukraine, Garibashvili responded “Not only do I have no desire to see them in Ukraine, but I have no desire to see and meet them in Georgia either.”

The Russo-Abkhaz Treaty and Russo-Georgian Relations

Raul Khajimba and Vladimir Putin after signing the Russo-Abkhaz treaty of "alliance and strategic cooperation" in Sukhumi. (Kremlin.ru)

Raul Khajimba and Vladimir Putin after signing the Russo-Abkhaz treaty of “alliance and strategic cooperation” in Sukhumi. (Kremlin.ru)

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.

Abkhaz Revolution, 2014 (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Mokrushkin)

Abkhaz Revolution, 2014 (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Mokrushkin)

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.

Former Georgian Defense Minister Alasania with former US Defense Secretary Hagel and US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland. (DefenseImagery.mil)

Former Georgian Defense Minister Alasania with former US Defense Secretary Hagel and US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland. (DefenseImagery.mil)

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.

Irakli Alasania (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Irakli Alasania (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

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.

Davit Usupashvili (Reuters)

Davit Usupashvili (Reuters)

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.

Irakli Garibashvili (InterPress News Agency)

Irakli Garibashvili (InterPress News Agency)

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.”

Zurab Abashidze (BBC World News)

Zurab Abashidze (BBC World News)

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.

Georgia: Crisis Averted

Georgia's embattled former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania

Georgia’s embattled former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.

This week sparks flew in Georgian politics. A corruption case, that involved high level officials in the Georgian Defense Ministry, culminated in the dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

Regarded as a pro-Western hardliner within the context of the Georgian Dream, Alasania had uneasy relations with the rest of the ruling coalition. These date back to at least January 2013 when Alasania was demoted from the post of First Deputy Prime Minister by then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili also favored Giorgi Margvelashvili for the post-Saakashvili presidency, passing up Alasania’s long-time ambition for that post. Disagreements emerged between Alasania and Ivanishvili on the future political course of Georgia, with Alasania favoring a strong presidential system and Ivanishvili favoring a parliamentary one. A pragmatist interested in resetting ties with Russia, Ivanishvili also did not trust Alasania due to the latter’s more hawkish stance on relations with Moscow.

Following this, the ruling coalition continued to face tensions with Alasania, who practically managed the Defense Ministry as his own autonomous structure. This deprived the pragmatists in the ruling coalition of control of a critical institution, which Alasania used to push Georgia toward a renewed confrontation with Moscow. Among other things, Alasania played host to visits from major American security figures like Defense Secretary Hagel and NATO commander Breedlove. Such moves, together with the recent granting to Georgia of a “NATO aid package,” further alienated Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Above all, they aggravated and antagonized Russia, which regards NATO expansion as a threat to regional security.

Alasania reviews the troops (Voice of America)

Alasania reviews the troops (Voice of America)

When Moscow officially expressed its concern about a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus on 9 October, Alasania responded that same day, claiming that Russia and its “aggression against Ukraine” represented the only “big threat” to the region. He further stated that Tbilisi would never “bow” to a “diktat” from Moscow over establishing NATO training facilities on Georgian soil.

Such remarks likely embarrassed pragmatists in the ruling coalition who seek improved relations with Russia. When asked by reporters whether or not he agreed with Alasania’s statements, Prime Minister Garibashvili only responded, “Alasania and [his political ally] Petriashvili are members of our government.”

Moscow’s response to the rhetoric was to enhance ties with Georgia’s breakaways and to propose a controversial treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. The text of the proposed treaty sparked negative reactions in Georgia and Abkhazia. It also communicated to Tbilisi that if it did not take Moscow’s concerns with NATO seriously, then it may lose any remaining chance at reconciliation with the Abkhaz permanently.

The corruption cases against the Defense Ministry officials and the subsequent political scandal occurred within this context. However, the rhetoric of Alasania against the government, claiming that the prosecutions represented an “attack” on Georgia’s European integration, was the breaking point.

Irakli Garibashvili

Irakli Garibashvili

This was more than the pragmatists could bear. Prime Minister Garibashvili sacked Alasania and replaced him with Mindia Janelidze.  In his subsequent remarks, Garibashvili harshly and openly criticized the former Defense Minister as a “traitor” and as an “adventurer, stupid and ambitious.” He added:

Personally for me what Alasania has done is a betrayal of the October 1, 2012 victory [of the Georgian Dream in the parliamentary elections]. This is yet another attempt to deceive the Georgian people – he has done it more than once previously and our population will see it, they will see many surprises.

…We are not afraid of adventurers like Alasania… and we will of course easily overcome these absurd obstacles. What he has done, which was done in Saakashvili’s style, raises many questions.

…I want to firmly state to our population that we are the strong state, we are united, strong government and our strength is demonstrated in our democracy; our institutions work properly and there will be no obstacles either in the government or in the Parliament. There is no threat of crisis whatsoever. We will have strong majority in the Parliament and the government will continue to work with more efficiency.

On the other hand it’s not bad – the sooner such traitor people would have been sidelined from our team, the better for us and our people and the country.

Alasania’s dismissal prompted an official split of his party, the Free Democrats, from the Georgian Dream coalition. It also prompted the resignation of Alasania loyalists Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze (Alasania’s sister-in-law), State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksei Petriashvili, and Georgia’s Representative to NATO Levan Dolidze. Notably, Georgia’s Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, stayed loyal to the ruling coalition, despite rumors that she too might resign given her association with Alasania’s party.

Tamar Beruchashvili (RFE/RL)

Tamar Beruchashvili (RFE/RL)

Initially, some of Panjikidze’s deputy ministers in the Foreign Ministry resigned as well, including Tamar Beruchashvili and Davit Jalagania. However, through person-to-person meetings and swift political maneuvering, Garibashshvili managed to persuade almost all of these deputy ministers to reconsider their decisions and stay loyal to the ruling coalition. The only exception was Davit Zalkaliani, Georgia’s representative for the Geneva talks with Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

It is rumored that Beruchashvili may replace Petriashvili, though Garibashshvili has neither confirmed nor denied this. The position of Foreign Minister also remains vacant. A possible contender for that post might be Georgia’s current envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze. One of the country’s most experienced diplomats, his presence would give Tbilisi more gravitas in international affairs.

The Georgian Dream was also able to retain a majority in parliament, despite speculation from some observers that the resignation of Alasania would prompt a breakup of the coalition and possibly new elections. Instead, three of Alasania’s deputies in parliament have decided to leave Alasania’s Free Democrats and remain part of the Georgian Dream coalition. Conversely one member of the Georgian Dream left the ruling coalition to side with Alasania. Regardless, the addition of the defectors from the Alasania camp and some independent MPs have allowed the Georgian Dream to maintain a majority and prevent a new parliamentary election.

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Overall, Garibashvili’s moves, combined with his continued reassurances on Georgia’s “European course” managed to maintain the stability of the Georgian government and to avert a potential political crisis.  Only one year into his tenure as Prime Minister, the 32-year-old Garibashvili has already begun to come into his own and prove himself to be a truly effective and pragmatic political leader, with Georgia’s best national interests at heart.

Further, Georgian President Margvelashshvili, abroad in Austria, likewise commented on the situation.  Despite prior disagreements with Garibashshvili, he appeared to side with the pragmatists and did not challenge Alasania’s dismissal. For his part, the philosopher-president called for a meeting to be convened to assess the progress of Georgia’s European integration. At the same time, in recent weeks, he has continued to signal interest in a pursuing a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was proposed by Putin himself during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, but still remains unrealized.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania (Interpress News Agency)

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania (Interpress News Agency)

Ivanishvili himself weighed in on the Alasania scandal. On 7 November, he met with Alasania in a closed-door meeting at his business center. The precise details of the discussion were not disclosed, though after the meeting, Alasania stated:

We have exchanged views about the current political situation in the country. It was a very frank conversation. An agreement was reached that we should proceed the political process in a way that will not damage the state – that was mainly the substance of our conversation. We discussed many issues, but it will naturally remain between us.

The departure of Alasania and his Free Democrats has significantly minimized the presence of the hawk faction in Georgia’s ruling coalition. The Republican Party of Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili is now the only remaining hardline group within the coalition. This places Usupashvili in a precarious position.

Davit Usupashvili (Agenda.ge)

Davit Usupashvili (Agenda.ge)

Immediately prior to the split, Usupashvili seems to have attempted a mediation between Alasania and the pragmatists in an effort to prevent this outcome. Commenting on the situation to reporters, he stated that the split was caused by the fact that “all main participants of the process have wittingly or unwittingly hurried up excessively.” He also regretted the departure of Alasania and the Free Democrats as an “important loss.”

Meanwhile, Usupashvili’s wife, Tina Khidasheli, openly criticized Garibashvili’s remarks on Alasania, placing the Parliamentary Speaker in an even more difficult spot. In spite of this, Usupashvili is unlikely to step down from his post for now.  Further, he does not represent a seriously destabilizing factor for the ruling coalition in the way that Alasania did.

Reactions on the Alasania scandal from aboard have varied. In the US, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed “strong concerns” about Alasania’s dismissal and about “political retribution” in Georgia. In Europe, Sweden’s recently dismissed ex-Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, one of the continent’s foremost anti-Russian hawks, warned on Twitter of a “grave political crisis” and that the “path of the country is under threat.” Bildt is not well-liked by the ruling coalition. Earlier this year, Garibashshvili accused him of being part of a “club of Saakashvili’s friends.”

Grigory Karasin (TASS / Valery Sharifulin)

Grigory Karasin (TASS / Valery Sharifulin)

Meanwhile, Moscow has been reportedly watching events unfold with great interest. In an interview with TASS, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin remarked that “resignations taking place in the Georgian government, firstly, modify the government itself and secondly, it is important to understand how it will affect the Georgian government’s course.” He added, “we are watching closely and analyzing these developments.”

It is clear that Alasania’s future in Georgian politics will be greatly reduced. Despite his popular following, Alasania simply does not have the mass backing behind him needed to become a real competitor. Predictably, he completely rejected any cooperation with the opposition United National Movement (UNM), the party of Alasania’s bitter rival, Mikheil Saakashvili. Meanwhile, the prosecutions against the arrested Defense Ministry officials continue and Alasania has not ruled out potential investigations by prosecutors against himself. Overall, it was Alasania’s provocative actions and rhetoric that nearly led Georgia into political crises, both at home and in the region. Tbilisi’s pragmatists can be relieved to see his departure, in addition to seeing a political crisis averted.

UPDATE (9 November 2014): Bidzina Ivanishvili gave an extensive interview to the Georgian Public Broadcaster on 8 November discussing current political events in Georgia, including the Alasania scandal.  For more information on Ivanishvili’s interview, see my full analysis here.

Georgian Defense Ministry in Hot Water

Georgian Defense Ministry Building, Tbilisi (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Georgian Defense Ministry Building, Tbilisi (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

On 28 October, a major scandal erupted in Georgia. Five high-ranking officials in the Georgian Defense Ministry were arrested for embezzling 4,102,872 GEL (over $2 million USD) from the state budget. The court ordered a pre-trial detention of the arrested officials.

The scandal sent shock waves throughout Georgia since it has certain political implications for Tbilisi’s current Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania. Regarded as one of the most prominent anti-Russian hawks in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Alasania has been a staunch supporter of Georgian NATO membership.  He was abroad when the scandal emerged, on a trip to shore up security ties in Europe.

In the meantime, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office called for Alasania’s deputy, Aleksandr Batiashvili, to be questioned as a witness and has not ruled out the possible questioning of Alasania himself.  US Ambassador Richard Norland voiced Washington’s “full confidence” in Alasania.

Irakli Alasania (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Irakli Alasania (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Upon his return to Tbilisi on 1 November, Alasania gave full support to his employees.  “I am confident that my brothers-in-arms and my colleagues are completely innocent,” he told reporters.  “I will focus all my attention on them in order not to make them feel that they are oppressed – regrettably there already are elements of this in a  way, how the [court] process was conducted behind the closed doors.”  Later, the Ministry of Defense officially demanded a declassification of the case.

The embattled Defense Minister maintained that “from the security point of view, a huge blow has already been struck to our country with these [arrests].”  He emphasized that he would seek “high-level political consultations” with the President, Prime Minister, and Parliamentary Speaker about the case which he claims has “damaged our country’s security.”  When asked about possible political motives, Alasania stated, “whether there are political motives or not, we will talk about it later.”

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

There is now widespread speculation over whether or not Alasania will resign from his position as Defense Minister.  When journalists asked Prime Minister Garibashvili on whether or not Tbilisi would ask for such a resignation, he responded “I think you hurry too much,” adding that “this case is very regrettable. We should all wait for the investigation and we should allow the prosecutor’s office to investigate this case in order not to leave any question unanswered.”

A possible Alasania resignation would not be surprising. His relations with the ruling coalition have been uneasy for some time. After the victory of the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012, Alasania was appointed to two posts simultaneously: First Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister.  He hoped to gain the Georgian Presidency and to this end, secure the endorsement of the coalition’s primary leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.

However, there were political disagreements between Alasania and Ivanishvili over whether or not Georgia should have a presidential or parliamentary form of government, with Alasania favoring the former and Ivanishvili the latter.  Further, Ivanishvili also did not trust Alasania, especially because of Alasania’s hawkish line toward Moscow with whom Ivanishvili sought to restore relations. Consequently, Ivanishvili demoted Alasania leaving him in the post of Defense Minister, passed him up for the presidency, and instead favored the former Education Minister and philosopher, Giorgi Margvelashvili as the new post-Saakashvili President.

An uneasy partnership: Irakli Alasania with Bidzina Ivanishvili (Civil.ge)

An uneasy partnership: Irakli Alasania with Bidzina Ivanishvili (Civil.ge)

Alasania was upset by the move, but this frustration was not only limited to him and his political circle. He also has backers in the West, particularly in Washington, who wanted him to assume the presidency. Notably, following Ivanishvili’s decision, articles suddenly emerged in Western publications such as The Economist, with fresh criticism of the Georgian billionaire and renewed speculation of his being a pro-Russian puppet. However, again, this is not the case. Ivanishvili is pro-Georgian as opposed to being either pro-Western or pro-Russian.

Regardless, Alasania’s relations with the ruling coalition were also tested by his relentlessly push for NATO membership and his anti-Russian discourse, which became especially prominent after the Ukraine crisis. His total promotion of NATO has, among other things, alarmed the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians.  Notably, within the context of Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, Alasania was known as someone willing to compromise with the breakaways. He had especially good contacts with the Abkhaz and earlier sought to build peace with Sukhumi through dialogue. For their part, the Abkhaz liked working with Alasania. Ivanishvili, who made a reconciliation with Georgia’s breakaways a top priority, likely recognized this. Indeed, Alasania’s constructive working relations with the Abkhaz may be part of the reason that he was included in the Georgian Dream coalition initially.

Giorgi Margvelashvili (Civil.ge)

Giorgi Margvelashvili (Civil.ge)

However, in his position as Defense Minister, Alasania’s total advocacy for NATO has only created greater distrust with Sukhumi and Tshkinvali. Both view potential Georgian NATO membership as “proof” that, despite the rhetoric, “Georgia is really not interested in dialogue” and that “nothing has changed.”  Other Georgian leaders, such as President Giorgi Margvelashvili, have sought to allay Abkhaz and Ossete fears, emphasizing that NATO membership is not intended to be against them. Pragmatists within the ruling coalition likely see the pursuit of NATO as more of a negotiating chip with Moscow in return for a future peace plan with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

However, such reassurances did little to assuage fears in Sukhumi and Tshkinvali, especially given the history of conflict between these two regions and Tbilisi both in the early 1990s and again in 2008. Instead, as they have done traditionally, both regions have sought greater security ties with Moscow, which shares their disapproval of a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus. To this end it was reported immediately before the September NATO summit in Wales that Moscow intended to bolster ties with both regions.

Alasania and Hagel (Getty)

Alasania and Hagel (Getty)

At the NATO summit, Georgia was granted a “NATO aid package” which would establish a NATO training facility in Georgia and allow for the “occasional” holding of NATO military exercises on Georgian soil. Moscow, already faced with a crisis in Ukraine, was understandably alarmed and even more so when individuals such as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO commander Philip Breedlove, began to appear in Georgia. It is likely that Alasania and the Defense Ministry played an instrumental role in organizing such visits, irritating Moscow and testing the Russo-Georgian reconciliation process.

On October 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed fresh concern over plans to place “NATO-linked infrastructure” in Georgia. Defense Minister Irkali Alasania immediately retorted that the only “big threat” to the region is Russia itself, given its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and what he deemed was “ongoing aggression carried out by Russia against Ukraine.” He also told reporters that Russia cannot stop Georgia from establishing NATO training facilities on its own territory. “We will never bow to the Russians,” he said “to a ‘diktat’ from Russia on what is better for Georgia.” Predictably, his controversial remarks sparked anger in Moscow. They also must have embarrassed Tbilisi, and seemingly contradicted efforts by Margvelashvili and Garibashvili at pursuing a more pragmatic approach toward Russia.

Alasania’s statements also came amid rumors that he may even leave the ruling coalition to pursue his own political ambitions in Georgia in the 2016 parliamentary elections. If he does leave the ruling coalition, it is unlikely that he will join Georgia’s foremost hardliners, the United National Movement (UNM), due to his bitter relations with his rival, former President Saakashvili.

The tipping point for Tbilisi must have been Moscow’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. The text of the proposal called for deepening ties with the breakaway republic, so much so that it would have integrated Abkhazia’s military and economic structures almost entirely with Russia’s. It would also enhance the number of Russian troops along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border.

The reaction to the treaty was negative in both Abkhazia and Georgia. Though the Abkhaz support the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union, they viewed the treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the newly-elected Abkhaz President Khajimba, known for his close ties with officials in Moscow, voiced his disagreement with it. In Georgia, the proposed treaty caused more alarm, with some decrying it as an attempt by Russia to “annex” Abkhazia.

Grigory Karasin (newsinfo.ru)

Grigory Karasin (newsinfo.ru)

In reality, the proposed treaty was likely intended by Moscow to communicate to Tbilisi how seriously it regards a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus. It also signaled to Tbilisi that, while it still has a chance at reconciliation with the Abkhaz, it could lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO.

The Abkhaz issue dominated the discourse at a subsequent meeting in Prague between Georgia’s Russia envoy, Zurab Abashidze and his counterpart Grigory Karasin.  At the talks, Abashidze beseeched Karasin to have Moscow reconsider the proposed treaty. Karasin retorted that the treaty only concerned both Moscow and Sukhumi, and that nobody could determine the relations between Russia and Abkhazia. He also gave Tbilisi some blunt advice from Moscow: tone down the rhetoric.

Whether or not the recent scandal in the Defense Ministry has anything to do with Alasania’s hawkish posturing remains to be seen. However, his departure would no doubt be a welcome relief for pragmatists in Tbilisi, eager to reset ties with Moscow and to explore realistic solutions to the protracted Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.  The scandal also comes amid a greater backlash across Europe against anti-Russian hawks, such as Poland’s Radosław Sikorski and Sweden’s Carl Bildt, in light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

UPDATE (4-5 November 2014): On 4 November, Irakli Alasania was officially dismissed from his position as Georgia’s Defense Minister by Prime Minister Garibashvili.  In Alasania’s place as Defense Minister, Tbilisi appointed Mindia Janelidze.  Subsequently, Aleksei Petriashvili, the State Minister for Euro-Atlantic integration and a member of Alasania’s Free Democrats stepped down from his post.  More resignations followed, including that of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, Alasania’s sister-in-law, on 5 November.  That same day, Alasania formally announced the official split of his party from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

Russia and Georgia: In Search of a Caucasian Peace

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

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.

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

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.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

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.

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

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?

Hopefully not.

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.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

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.

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

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.”

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

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.”