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.

An 8-Point Resolution on Georgia

As the leaders of the Russian and Georgian governments prepare to meet one another for the first time since 2008, a historic opportunity awaits them to pave the way for not only mutual reconciliation but also a peaceful settlement to Georgia’s protracted territorial conflicts. Below is my recommended 8-point resolution to the Georgian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian conflict, a resolution that I believe could potentially pave the way for a more united Caucasus and for a more united post-Soviet space:

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

1. A non-use-of-force agreement should be adopted by all sides, especially Georgia vis-a-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia vis-a-vis Georgia. An agreement like this will serve to build confidence on all sides leading to a peaceful resolution. This is especially true in the case of Russia. Even though Moscow claims that it is not a party to the dispute, a non-use-of-force agreement regarding Georgia would go a long way toward building trust with Tbilisi.

2. Official Tbilisi should agree to end its ambitions to join NATO and the EU, thus providing Russia with a sense of security and enhancing the conditions for mutual trust.

3. Borders between Russia and Georgia and between Georgia and Abkhazia and Georgia and South Ossetia should be reopened. The Abkhazian railway should also be reopened and should resume traffic immediately.

4. An arrangement whereby Abkhazia and South Ossetia become co-equal members with Georgia in a united Georgian federal republic should be agreed upon. This would make Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia proper like what Scotland and Wales are to England in the United Kingdom. The Georgians would ideally favor making the two regions autonomous within a unitary Georgia state, while the Abkhaz would favor outright independence, and the South Ossetians would favor unifying with the Russian republic of North Ossetia–Alania. However, none of these scenarios are realistic nor do they constitute a lasting peaceful resolution. Consequently, a federal solution would serve as a compromise and thus works best.

Georgian woman and child during the war of 2008.  (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

Georgian woman and child during the war of 2008. (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

5. Refugees. In Abkhazia, over 40,000 Georgian refugees have already returned. Georgia must recognize this and both sides must agree on the return of an additional, though very limited, number of Georgian refugees, with the rest being settled in government-funded housing in Georgia proper. Again, it should be stressed that the number of returnees must be very limited and should not dramatically shift the demographic balance of Abkhazia which in turn would create conflict and instability. Sukhumi would never accept the return of all Georgian refugees, especially if it meant making the Abkhaz a minority in their own republic again. For their part, Tbilisi must see and understand the Abkhaz ethnic sensitivities if they are serious about achieving Georgian unity. As for South Ossetia, all Georgian refugees should return, especially those expelled after the hostilities in 2008.

6. The accession of the united Georgian federal state to the Eurasian Customs Union. This would ensure the economic viability of the new state. By contrast, membership in the economically tenuous EU would threaten and seriously undermine its stability. Another benefit of the Customs Union is that it would ensure Russian protection of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes and guarantee the South Ossetians free access to the brethren in North Ossetia, while simultaneously remaining a formal part of Georgia.

7. Switch all Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Georgian passports to passports of the new Georgian federal state. All Abkhaz, Ossetes, Georgians, and others holding Russian citizenship and passports should relinquish these to the new state as well. The Russian passports were largely issued (a) to enable residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to travel internationally and (b) for Russia to protect the Abkhaz and the Ossetes from a potential attack by Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia. A new passport for a federal Georgia would enable the citizens of these regions to travel internationally without any problems. Meanwhile, Russia would feel no need to protect the residents of these regions as long as it was secure in the knowledge that Tbilisi had no aggressive intentions against them. Guarantees for an equal say for the Abkhaz and Ossetes in a new federal Georgia combined with a non-use-of-force agreement by Tbilisi, Tbilisi renouncing its intention to join NATO, and potential membership in the Eurasian Customs Union would mitigate any need for the people of these regions to have Russian passports.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya.  Both were victims of Stalin and Beria's Terror in the 1930s.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya. Both were victims of Stalin and Beria’s Terror in the 1930s.  Lakoba was a popular leader in Abkhazia and his murder by Beria in 1936 is regarded as a national tragedy by the Abkhaz to this day.  A Georgian acknowledgement of this painful episode would go a long way toward rebuilding trust and friendship.

8. A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (like the kind in South Africa) should be formed to promote justice and reconciliation among all those affected by the ethnic conflicts in Georgia.

On a separate note, official Tbilisi must make an effort to address and condemn the situation in Abkhazia during the Stalin and Beria years, especially the assassination of the charismatic Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba and his family by Beria and the efforts by Beria to increase the number of Kartvelians in Abkhazia. The legacy of this horrible time casts a long shadow over the present-day conflict. Consequently, such condemnations would go far in rebuilding and forging trust and friendship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. After all, the Georgian and Abkhaz people share much in common in terms of both history and culture. Though they speak two different languages, both share a love for polyphonic singing and traditional Caucasian feasts. Further, the Abkhaz were part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis and it was King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz-Georgian descent) who unified the first Georgian state in medieval times. These two fraternal peoples should not let the heavy burden of the Stalin-Beria years weigh on them forever. Such concerns need to be addressed.

Further, any rhetoric or discourse attempting to cast the Abkhaz and Ossetes as “new arrivals” to Georgia must be vigorously discouraged. The “Georgia for Georgians” philosophy has done more to undermine the cause of Georgian unity than anything else (even arguably among the Georgians themselves!).

Georgia Revisited

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

This past week, photographs of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s body emerged in the press. According to the official investigation by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zhvania died from a gas leak in his apartment. However, much of the Georgian public did not accept this finding. Suspicions arose when some former officials in the Saakashvili government questioned the formal explanation. The new photographs, disclosed this week on YouTube, show injuries on the former Prime Minister’s body, clear evidence of foul play. Lawmakers in Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), now in the opposition, immediately condemned the discovery as a “political act” by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

This weekend, the Georgian government ordered former President Saakashvili in for questioning. Saakashvili has refused to go, referring to the summons as an “Ivanishvili-Putin game.” He also stated the following:

As for your question, whether I will arrive in Georgia or not, I can tell you that I will arrive in Georgia not to fulfill Putin’s dream but to free my country of those who fulfill Putin’s orders. This will happen much sooner than Ivanishvili can imagine.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that if Saakashvili does not arrive, that the prosecutor’s office will act in accordance with the law and declare the former President wanted. “Whether he will arrive or not is a different matter but, in my mind, he must arrive if he has any common sense left,” said Garibashvili.

Official Tbilisi has been condemned by the West for its summoning of Saakashvili. The British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt both roundly criticized the move. More harsh were the words of former US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stating that Georgia does not deserve a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in light of the “politically motivated summoning” of Saakashvili. Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said that it would threaten Georgia’s chances of signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. In an inexplicable move, the summoning was also criticized by the US State Department late on Sunday, 23 March.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Regardless of what one thinks about Saakashvili’s summoning, it is extraordinary that the West is taking such a profound interest in the legal proceedings of a sovereign, independent country. This fact was underscored in Garibashvili’s response, in which he indicated that Georgia would stand firm on the issue:

I cannot understand where this hysteria is coming from. This is absolutely usual, democratic process. Similar thing is happening in the middle of Europe, as you probably know that there were questions towards former French president, I mean Chirac, Sarkozy, and also towards Berlusconi.

So it’s absolutely a normal process. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office is talking about very grave crimes. I think that we have not given any reason for suspicion, on the contrary, we reaffirm that we are guided by [the principle] of transparency and the rule of law is the most important for us. If someone tries to [demand from] Georgia to be more democratic country than France or Italy, I think this is a wrong assessment. No one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.

As for Saakhasvili, he is presently serving as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine. His advisor status has been criticized by the government of Georgia and the government of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Armenia, it has been lampooned on the popular satirical Armenian news program, ArmComedy (an Armenian version of The Daily Show).

Whatever the criticism from his home region, Saakashvili has certainly been relishing the role as a “seasoned advisor” in Ukraine. As one TIME reporter wrote, “the former Georgian leader is at home in Kiev, where he attended law school, served in the Soviet military and has countless political and social ties.” Indeed, Saakashvili has positioned himself as the man who “knows a thing or two about Russian invasions.” After the disastrous war in 2008, Saakashvili feels vindicated amid rising Western animosity against Russia and hysteria in the Western media over a “Russian invasion of Crimea.”

All of this is occurring as the West and Russia expand the frontlines of their geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space to include Georgia. Most recently, there have been calls in the West for Georgia to receive an MAP at the next NATO summit at Newport, Wales in September. For its part, the EU has moved up the signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement from August to June. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze are set to convene a meeting soon that will pave the way for a high-level diplomatic meeting between President Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since the 2008 war.

The stakes in this new front of the Russia-West geopolitical contest over the former Soviet space are considerably high. If the West succeeds, it will effectively drive a wedge between Russia and prospective Customs Union member Armenia. It would also give the West a continued open corridor to the vast energy reserves of post-Soviet Central Asia, posing a major threat to Russia as a European energy provider. Most significantly, it would permit the expansion of NATO squarely on Russia’s southern flank, paving the way for military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Russia will never let this happen. Suddenly, there would be a new Cold War dividing line running directly through the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko has indicated as much, stating that “I was absolutely very clear; we are against [NATO membership for Georgia]. We believe that this is a huge mistake to do it. This is the position of my country.” He has likewise stated:

NATO is free to take any decision and Russia is free to take any decision to protect its legitimate security interest and from the beginning we were telling to all our colleagues and we were very outspoken in all our discussions that we do believe that if NATO goes with enlargement it will continue produce new dividing lines, moving dividing lines towards the Russian borders and we said very clearly also that in some cases these dividing lines will cross the countries, inside the countries and this was a very important signal.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Yet, regardless of the West and Russia’s competition over Georgia, the real power broker behind the future geopolitical direction of Georgia rests in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili. A Georgian patriot and a pragmatist, Ivanishvili is the bona fide force behind the present Georgian government, and he appears to be playing both great powers off one another in order to secure the best possible deal for Georgia. The Georgian billionaire, the son of poor Imertian peasants who made it big in Moscow by selling computers and push-button telephones, is likely well-aware of Russia’s strong disapproval of NATO expansion. As a businessman, he also knows that for Georgia to join the EU would be to join an economically sinking ship. However, as I have argued previously, he is keeping both the EU and NATO on the table as leverage in his relations with Russia.

Specifically Ivanishvili wants Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is something that only Russia, not the West, has the ability and mechanisms to resolve. Such a concession by Moscow would appeal to Georgian nationalism and would significantly diminish the perception in Georgian society of Russia as a “threat,” thus rendering any reason for future NATO membership completely moot.

Of course, Moscow would not just return these breakaway regions to Tbilisi nor would the populations of these regions simply assent to this. Rather, Moscow would need to work and promote the “reunification” of these “independent republics” to Georgia in a co-equal federal structure that would then accede to the Eurasian Customs Union. A resolution like this would ensure protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian ethnic rights by Moscow and freedom of movement between these peoples and those of the Russian North Caucasus.

Only time will tell what will happen next during this incredible roller coaster ride of the last several weeks. However, the summoning of Saakashvili by Tbilisi this weekend, and the strong Western reaction will undoubtedly affect future developments in the Caucasus. Through all of this, one thing is clear: Ivanishvili is the man who will make or break any future deal regarding Georgia’s geopolitical future. One can only hope that such a decision will be beneficial for the unity, stability, and security of the Caucasus as an entire region.

Addendum (26 March 2014): As it turns out, the Karasin-Abashidze meeting has not yet been rescheduled. I read earlier that it may have been rescheduled for this week, but this has not happened. There will be likely an official announcement on this soon. I have corrected my piece accordingly.

Further, my friend Benjamin Sweeney has informed me that Georgia has not been officially offered a NATO MAP by the US. Instead, it seems as though there has been a push by some in Washington and in Brussels to give Georgia an MAP at the upcoming NATO summit, though, this is not an official policy of the US (at least not yet). This has also been amended. Ben is a fellow-traveler in Russian and post-Soviet studies and has extensive experience with Georgia. He is an MPP student at the Ford School of Public Policy and an MA student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES) here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

As the Ukraine Crisis Continues, Keep Georgia on Your Mind

As events in the ongoing Ukraine crisis continue to unfold at breakneck speed, another geopolitical contest between Russia and the West is currently unfolding in the Caucasus republic of Georgia.

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

In the 2000s, Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili was the West’s most loyal ally in the former Soviet space. The Georgian leader curried favor with the American media and the Bush administration, while simultaneously castigating Russia and its President Vladimir Putin as the eternal enemies of democracy. He also consistently refused to engage in dialogue with the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite major breakthroughs by his chief attaché Irakli Alasania to the breakaway regions.

Instead, according to the testimony of Paata Zakareishvili, Nino Burjanadze, and others, Saakashvili evidently favored military means to recapture these areas, underestimating Russia. He was convinced that he had full support of the Bush administration. The result was the disastrous war of 2008 which concluded with Georgia losing any foothold in the two regions and Russia recognizing them (likely in response to US recognition of the disputed region of Kosovo in Serbia). This and other scandals, including the infamous Gldani prison abuse scandal of 2012, eventually cost Saakashvili the presidency and his party’s total monopoly on power.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti)

The current Georgian president is philosopher, academic, and bon vivant Giorgi Margvelashvili and the Prime Minister is Irakli Garibashvili, the second youngest national leader in the world. Both are members of the Georgian Dream coalition that came to power in Georgia in November 2012. Its patron is the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who made his fortune in Russia and who preceded Garibashvili as Prime Minister until last year. Significantly, though Tbilisi managed to confirm the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU at the November 2013 Vilnius Summit to be signed in September 2014, it remains to be seen whether or not Georgia is entirely committed to the EU course. In an interview with Georgian television on the fifth anniversary of the 2008 war, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev invited Georgia to join the CU. Shortly after Armenia’s Serj Sargsyan announced the decision of Yerevan to join the Moscow-backed union in September, Georgia’s Ivanishvili announced that Georgia too would consider joining, provided that it be “advantageous for our country.”

While serving as Prime Minister, Ivanishvili kept the issues of the EU and NATO on the table for Georgia. As a businessman with a good knowledge of economics, he likely understands the current economic situation of the EU very well. Even more importantly, he also likely realizes that Russia strongly disapproves of the continued expansion of both the EU and especially NATO. At the same time, he also made reconciliation with Moscow a top priority. These seem like contradictory and mutually exclusive policies. However, they make sense once one realizes that Ivanishvili is likely using the pursuit of NATO and the EU as leverage in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow.

Therefore, it is conceivable that Ivanishvili’s successors, Margvelashvili and Garibashvili, will use the EU and NATO as bargaining chips for South Ossetia and Abkhazia respectively. After the disastrous 2008 war, Russia recognized both regions as independent states, making any future reconciliation with Georgia seem virtually impossible. Yet this is probably not the last word on the situation. The present Georgian Dream coalition government has made a resolution on its breakaway regions a top priority. Among other things, the current government includes individuals like Irakli Alasania, Guram Odisharia, and Paata Zakareishvili who have strong contacts with the breakaway governments (especially with the Abkhaz) and who are devoted first and foremost to the cause of conflict resolution.

As for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both are not members of the Moscow-backed Customs Union, despite the fact that they are dependent on and closely tied to Russia. Therefore, it is possible that a future solution would involve a “grand peace” in which Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Georgia proper would all enter the CU together in some sort of federal Georgian state structure. Such a solution must have negotiated terms acceptable to all sides and must be sensitive to the ethnic concerns of the Abkhaz and the Ossetians. In this case, Moscow would accept a decision by Sukhumi and Tskhinvali to freely join a federal Georgian state in which their rights would be ensured. To quote one Russian analyst, “if Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia express the desire to unite, Russia will not meddle in their affairs.”

Vyacheslav Chirikba (Apsny Press)

Vyacheslav Chirikba (Apsny Press)

Significantly, on June 20, 2012, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba signaled his openness for future talks:

We are open for dialogue. I am sure that in a circumstance where there is a different president other than Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia would have also been a different country and we would have every opportunity to come to an agreement.

We need to have a more pragmatic interlocutor like Irakli Alasania or oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili for example– someone who has just entered into politics. Ivanishvili is a businessman and is perhaps pragmatic enough to understand what kind of solution would be beneficial for everyone.

Giorgi Margvelashvili

Giorgi Margvelashvili

Though the statement was dismissed by a pro-Saakashvili MP, members of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition have nevertheless responded enthusiastically. In his inauguration speech in November, President Margvelashvili, while calling for the need of European integration and dialogue with Moscow also stated:

Our offer to our compatriots living in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region [South Ossetia] is as follows: Let us build a successful democratic country together, a country that will guarantee the welfare of all citizens, preservation of their ethnic and cultural identity, and respect for their political rights.

As President of Georgia, the ruling party and I assume responsibility for implementing this policy.

Irakli Garibashvili

Irakli Garibashvili

Then, in a very telling December 2013 interview with the Moscow-backed English-language news service RT, Sophie Shevardnadze asked Prime Minister Garibashvili whether or not Russia was ready for serious political dialogue. He responded:

I do not know. And this is exactly why our government expresses its will to hold dialogue with Russia. We have already taken that step with a view to resetting and regulating our relations. In my opinion, I truly believe that it is a heavy burden to have recognized Abkhazia and Tskhinval as independent states. And 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.

…We have all made mistakes. Let us admit that we have all made mistakes in the early 1990s, for example. There is no way only one side can be spotless and unblemished. But we take it close to heart. We are hurt because our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers no longer live with us. Somehow I believe and I feel that sooner or later the Abkhazians and the Ossetians will be compelled to live with us. And I certainly hope that this dream too will come true.

Both Margvelashvili and Garibashvili have advocated not only a normalization of relations with Russia, but also a visa-free regime between the two countries. Russian President Putin fully endorsed this in his December 19 press conference, a move that was immediately hailed by Garibashvili. Even more telling, Putin also reached out to his Georgian colleagues with conciliatory language, placing blame for the 2008 war not on the Georgian people, but squarely on former President Mikheil Saakashvili:

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Personally my attitude has been changed towards the leadership of Georgia, but not towards the Georgian people. It is as kind and benevolent as it was previously. Even during the most difficult time, when fighting was underway in the Caucasus [reference to the August, 2008 war], relations with the Georgian people were very good. And it was confirmed even during those difficult days and hours and demonstrated in attitude of Georgians themselves towards Russia. Don’t remember if I have ever said it publicly, but in one of the towns a grandpa approached our soldiers and told him: “What do you want here? What are you looking for here? Go over there – Tbilisi and take Mishka [referring to then President Mikheil Saakashvili].”You know we had losses among our military servicemen. Aircraft was downed, a pilot ejected and landed somewhere; a Georgian babushka approached and told him: ‘Come here son’; she took him and fed him. Then he was sent towards the Russian military.

…I am not kidding, I am neither ironic, when I say that I have the kindest attitudes towards the Georgian people. We have the deepest relations both cultural and spiritual; I mean religious closeness to each other.

There are problems, which arose through no fault of ours; we did not start these hostilities [in August, 2008]. We did not start it and now it is quite obvious; everyone has already acknowledged it a long time ago. Whatever happened, happened. We said thousands of times: do not do it no matter what; do not allow bloodshed. But they did it anyway. Now there is a certain reality; we cannot neglect it. But still, we see some signals coming from the new leadership of Georgia.

Is a major Russian-Georgian reset in the offing? It certainly seems so. After the opening of the Sochi Olympics, a confident Vladimir Putin announced that regular flights would resume between Sochi and Tbilisi. More significantly, he invited Giorgi Margvelashvili to a top-level diplomatic meeting. As the Georgian President analyzed the possibilities, Prime Minister Garibashvili threw his support behind the initiative as did Georgian football superstar-turned-Minister of Energy Kakha Kaladze. Tbilisi’s Russia representative Zurab Abashidze and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gregory Karasin have already planned to hold discussions in early March leading to a subsequent high-level meeting. The installment by Moscow of barbed-wire fences around Georgia’s breakaway regions (something that had caused much controversy in Georgia) was suddenly halted. The installation was likely initiated by Moscow as a means of reminding Tbilisi that it risks losing any chance of reconciliation with its two regions if it decides to pursue the path of the EU and NATO. It is Moscow’s way of telling Tbilisi that it “speaks softly” but also carries “a big stick.”

Irakli Garibashvili and John Kerry (Civil Georgia)

Irakli Garibashvili and John Kerry (Civil Georgia)

However, considering the crisis in Ukraine, the United States has redoubled its efforts to lure ex-Soviet states into the Western fold. Last week, Prime Minister Garibashvili headed to the United States for a high-level visit. Meanwhile, likely in response, Moscow resumed its border installments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as soon as the visit began, much to the annoyance of Tbilisi.

In Washington, the young Georgian Prime Minister was in awe. He was greeted warmly by members of the US political elite including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, and John Kerry. All pledged unconditional support to Georgia for EU and NATO membership. According to Tbilisi’s Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze, Obama said that “there was no-one in the building [i.e., the White House] who doesn’t support Georgia’s territorial integrity.” Kerry even promised to visit Georgia in the Spring. In the course of the visit, Garibashvili, who previously said that “NATO is not a priority for Georgia,” suddenly backed a full NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) for Georgia.

More was to come. Yesterday, the EU’s enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle visited Tbilisi where he emphasized Brussels’ full support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. More significantly, he met with the Georgian Catholicos Ilia II. The patriarch was previously a staunch supporter of Russian President Putin. However, Füle managed to convince him that the EU would in no way interfere with the Church’s position on traditional family values. Subsequently, the patriarch released a statement saying that the Church would now do “everything to make Georgia an EU member.”  During the same visit, Füle also signed an agreement between the EU and Georgia pledging 22.5 million euros to Tbilisi.

Considering such developments, Moscow has called for the meeting between Abashidze and Karasin to be postponed until March 14. They need to think of a major counter-offer quickly. Compounding all of this is the growing imminence of Georgia signing the final version of the proposed EU Association Agreement in August or September.

Whatever happens, it is clear that Georgia is a major front in the battle between Russia and the West for control over the post-Soviet space. In this respect, Georgia is particularly significant for the Kremlin. Moscow knows that, at the end of the day, it needs Tbilisi and it wants to prevent it from joining the EU and especially NATO at all costs. The idea of NATO military bases on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range, aimed at Chechnya and Daghestan and within close proximity to Sochi must be a major concern for Putin. Further, without Georgia, Moscow will be unable to have a direct geographic link with prospective Customs Union member Armenia. Additionally, if Armenia joins the CU without Georgia, it also means major economic and unemployment problems and even more geopolitical isolation for Yerevan. This would be a major headache for Armenia, even if it means greater security guarantees from Moscow vis-a-vis neighboring Turkey and especially Azerbaijan, both of which maintain a blockade on Armenia over the Nagorny Karabakh dispute.

In summary, the viability and legitimacy of the Customs Union in the Caucasus depends on the geopolitical fate of Georgia. If Tbilisi spurns Moscow for Washington and Brussels, then both it and Moscow stand to lose. Georgia would be unable to reconcile with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moscow would have NATO bases right on its southern flank. Meanwhile, Yerevan would face economic hardship resulting from all of this.  Arguably, the West too would not benefit.  If Georgia joins NATO and Armenia remains a military ally of Russia due to security concerns vis-a-vis Turkey and Azerbaijan, then there will be a new Cold War-style divide running right through the volatile Caucasus.  Nobody would gain from such a scenario.  Meanwhile, if Tbilisi goes with Moscow then all of this could be averted and the West’s expansion into former Soviet Eurasia would effectively end. In this regard, the Kremlin knows that the West has no mechanisms to resolve the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, whereas it does and this could be its major trump card.