What to expect from Georgia?

It would be naïve to expect a sudden breakthrough in Russian-Georgian relations; however, there are reasons to hope for both the recognition of conflicts and, subsequently, the start of a dialogue.

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Niyaz Karim.

Today the parliamentary elections in Georgia can be considered completed, as both the highest representative body and the cabinet have been formed. The Caucasian republic ends this year with a new prime minister (former leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, filled this post) and a new speaker (professional lawyer David Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, was elected for this position).

The internal political landscape of the country has changed considerably, and the new government is trying its best to demonstrate the desire to revise the legacy of the previous decade. Thus, representatives of the winning Georgian Dream party have already declared a need to revise the policy concerning Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the first time since August 2008, a call to direct negotiations with the two de facto states has been voiced. Ivanishvili’s team defined their approach to Sukhumi and Tskhinvali with a rhetorical expression: “everything but recognition.”

During the parliamentary election campaign, representatives of the Georgian Dream party repeatedly reproached their opponents from the United National Movement for the absence of flexibility and for the inability to build adequate relationships with Russia. In return, Mikheil Saakashvili accused Ivanishvili of relations with the Kremlin and of excessive concern for Russian interests.

But now electoral battles are in the past. Emotions have calmed down, and rhetoric is to give way to real actions. Recently, new Georgian State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, stated that “the new authorities are a chance for Russia to normalize the bilateral relationship.”

But how well is Ivanishvili's team prepared for the realization of their pre-election promises and for serious changes in foreign policy?

Prior to answering this question, a few reservations are to be made. For any maneuvers on the external arena, the new government and parliament have their limiting factors. First, no matter how much is written about Saakashvili’s defeat, he will remain president of the country until 2013, controlling the State Office (similar to the Presidential Administration) and his party, United National Movement (it still holds 65 seats in the parliament, which is quite a few). This is supplemented with media resources and foreign relations. All these factors cannot be ignored by Ivanishvili’s team – even more so, since far from every citizen of the country has a strong desire to establish closer relations with Moscow. 

Secondly, despite some serious domestic policy differences, Georgian Dream and United National Movement have quite a number of positions on which both leading forces have come to a consensus. This concerns, first of all, the prospects of integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. With the help of Russian publicists, Ivanishvili has acquired the image of a lobbyist for Russian Federation interests. However, this is far from being true. There are various forces in his coalition, but one of them is the Republican Party. It is these members of this party who, starting from 1990s, have successively opposed the country’s entrance to the CIS and the presence of Russian military bases in its territory, while supporting the idea of joining the NATO and the EU. 

This position was voiced by the party as far back in time as when Mikhail Saakashvili was practically unknown in Georgia. And, in their own time, the former officials from Eduard Shevardnadze’s period who were brought onto Ivanishvili’s team have made quite a great contribution to the complication of relations with the northern neighbor. 

One of the first meetings held by Ivanishvili after his victory was a meeting with James Appathurai, NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia. And, in the course of the campaign and after its end, Ivanishvili and his companions spoke about preservation of the former pro-American and pro-NATO policy. 

Third, the society itself – despite all the grudges against Saakashvili – is not ready to admit the fact that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not return under the jurisdiction of Tbilisi. Today, Georgian citizens are not ready to pay such a price as the recognition of two former autonomies independent from Georgia for the establishment of friendly relations with Russia. Any politician – no matter how strong is his desire to reconcile with Moscow – has to take this factor into account. Thus, the new authorities in Tbilisi, with all their good wishes, are in no hurry to repeal the law regarding the “occupied territories.” 

At the same time, both parties are interested in normalization. Georgia would like to resume full-fledged economic contacts. After all, despite all the bravura statements about market reforms conducted according to the Western model, the country still remains agrarian to a considerable extent. Though 50 percent of Georgian citizens are engaged in farming, this industry provides only 8 percent of the country’s GDP. Today, it would be very important for Georgian peasants and the food industry to get a chance to enter Russian markets. 

Security issues are no less important. Moscow’s interests in this sphere are quite obvious, too. Recent incidents at Dagestan’s part of the state border have demonstrated that there is a third force (radical Islamists) at the Caucasian frontier that considers both Russia and Georgia its enemies. Coordination of efforts in this sphere would be really useful. 

Humanitarian contacts (numerous representatives of the Georgian diaspora in the Russian Federation) and relationships between the two Orthodox Churches should not be disregarded either. The Patriarchate of Moscow still recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as canonical territories of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Thus, besides the two partially recognized republics, Russia and Georgia have a special political menu that enables them to start a dialogue. 

Naturally, expecting a miracle and a fast breakthrough would be naïve, to say the least. Still, the parties are able to take a step in the direction of a greater pragmatism. The possibility of achieving a situation wherein contradictions are not denied but recognized is quite realistic. The very discussion or settlement of these contradictions is not interpreted as a fatal threat to state sovereignty or a challenge to the interests of the neighboring country. 

Sergey Markedonov is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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