Georgia and Russia in no rush to normalise relations

According to the new Georgian government of Bidzin Ivanishvili (photo), Tbilisi’s priority remains joining NATO and other western organisations. Source: Reuters

According to the new Georgian government of Bidzin Ivanishvili (photo), Tbilisi’s priority remains joining NATO and other western organisations. Source: Reuters

There is no clear public mandate in either country that would push for the restoration of diplomatic ties.

As the anniversary of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war rolls around, Moscow and Tbilisi have officially taken the exact same positions that they had five years ago. The new Georgian government of Bidzin Ivanishvili blames the "08.08.08" catastrophe personally on President Mikhail Saakashvili and his team, but continues to refer to Russia as an occupier.

The ambivalence in the new Georgian authorities is observed in their relations with Russia as well. On the one hand, Ivanishvili announces that the broken diplomatic relations with Russia cannot be restored until Russian troops are withdrawn from the territory of Georgia, i.e., Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Tbilisi continues to consider its own. On the other hand, he also talks about the need for a radical improvement in relations with Russia.

In Moscow there are also conditions placed on restoring diplomatic relations: Georgia should recognize the new realities, that is, to accept the sovereignty of its former autonomous regions. These rigid, mutually exclusive demands do not give much hope that in the foreseeable future that diplomatic relations will be normalised.

Contacts between Moscow and Tbilisi are now being carried out in two ways: The Geneva multilateral consultations on the prevention of tension in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, held once every one to two months, and direct negotiations on economic and humanitarian issues between the deputy minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Federation Grigori Karasin and special minister of Georgia on Russian relations Zurab Abashidze, which are held in Prague less often than the meetings in Geneva.

Of course, it is not normal when neighbours don't talk with each other. But, if you look at the situation from the point of view of Russian and Georgian societies, the issue of restoring diplomatic relations does not seem to be very relevant. There is no clear public mandate that would push the two countries towards addressing this issue.

For the Russian side, not having an embassy in Tbilisi is more of an image question. The Russians in Georgia don't have problems. They don't need a visa even to enter the country, Russian investments are welcome here as well as American or any other, the market is full of Russian products, Georgians still consider Dostoyevsky and Pushkin to be geniuses, Georgia picks up Russian TV channels, not local, and shows Russian movies without translation into Georgian, and speaking Russian in public doesn't elicit negative reactions.

But for the Georgian side, a lack of diplomatic relations causes some inconveniences, if only because there are Georgian citizens who, for a variety of reasons, continue to spend most of their time in the Russian Federation and any problems they have must be handled through the Swiss embassy. However, if Russia, as projected, rescinds, or at least eases visa requirements for Georgian citizens (it is very difficult for a typical resident of this country to get permission to enter Russia), the Georgian authorities may adhere as long as they want to the conditions for restoring diplomatic relations with Moscow. From a practical point of view there is no visible loss.

Russia opened its markets to Georgian products, it is on the verge of starting regular charted flights, land and water routes have been opened. With which country does Georgia have wider contacts? It would be difficult to say.  Better economic ties with Russia are in Georgia’s best interests. For example, in the agricultural markets of its neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey (named by Tbilisi as strategic partners) Georgian products are largely absent. So the Russian market is indispensable for the Georgian economy.

It would be naive to believe that Russia-Georgia relations are significantly improving. The change of regime in Georgia has not equalled a change in foreign policy goals. In any case, according to Ivanishvili, Tbilisi’s priority remains joining NATO and other western organisations. Moscow, as was seen on the recent interview of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Georgian TV station Rustavi-2, is categorically opposed to Georgia's entry into NATO, and will definitely not observe this process with a smile. At any moment a careful analysis may show harmful substances in Georgian products allowed on the Russian market. Moscow is also not very keen to welcome Georgian citizens with open arms. And this may, as experience of the past 10 years of Russian-Georgian relations shows, prove to be only a prelude to a new intergovernmental crisis.

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