Russia’s uneasy relationship with Georgia offers clues for how to resolve the geopolitical struggle for power and influence in the post-Soviet space.

A Georgian man holds Ukraine and Georgian national flags during a concert marking the signing of the association with EU agreement in Tbilisi, Georgia, June 27, 2014. Photo: AP

Russia has had a mixed record in convincing states in the post-Soviet space to reject EU efforts at wooing them away from what has historically been viewed as a Russian sphere of influence. Russia has usually responded by influencing the states in its “near abroad” not to sign cooperation agreements with the EU, and instead, to cooperate with Russia by joining its rival Customs Union. The current situation in Ukraine, which started as an effort to influence Ukraine not to sign an association agreement with the EU, can viewed as part of a broader Russian initiative to neutralize the growth of the EU in the region. 

While the world's attention is focused on Ukraine, little attention is being paid to the fact that Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit.  As a result, Georgia finds itself in the unique position of becoming the blueprint for cooperation with both Russia and the EU that would benefit all of the states involved. Moreover, if this blueprint were to be developed by Russia, other states in the region could in turn follow Georgia's lead and learn how to turn a zero-sum game between the EU and Russia into a positive sum game for all of the states in the region.

Georgia's actions in signing the association agreement are sure to displease Russia, with whom Georgia has signaled an intention to improve relations. Further, Georgia has shown an interest in pursuing closer cooperation with NATO, and has said that it wishes to join NATO. NATO, in turn, has shown an interest in increased cooperation with Georgia. Yet, is it really possible that relations between Russia and Georgia won't deteriorate, but will actually improve after Georgia's most recent actions toward the EU? 

Russian-Georgian relations have always been complex. For centuries, Russia influenced the internal affairs of Georgia. Even after Georgia gained its independence from the Soviet Union, Russian and Georgian relations were strained. Specifically, Russia supported separatist republics in their bid for independence from Georgia. Further, Russia sent so-called peacekeeping troops to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus granting de facto independence to the two regions. In 2008, the Russo-Georgian war all but destroyed relations between Russia and Georgia. 

In 2010, Georgia revised its constitution, granting more powers to the parliament and fewer powers to the president. The new constitution was to take effect after the presidential election in 2013. In 2012, Saakashvili's political party suffered electoral defeat and Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who has dual Georgian-Russian citizenship, won the election and formed a coalition government. He proclaimed a new era of Georgian politics, and expressed hopes for better relations between Russia and Georgia.

In 2013, Giorgi Margvelashvili (from Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream Coalition) was elected president. One of his promises was working to improve relations with Russia. Foreign policy analysts predicted that Georgia and Russia would indeed work to mend their relations. It should be noted that the Georgian Dream Coalition has stated its goals of trying to improve relations with Russia while simultaneously pursuing closer ties with Europe, which they recently did by signing the association agreement with the European Union at the Vilnius Summit.

The time is indeed ripe for Georgia and Russia to begin building their relations after the 2008 war. There are many trade issues that would benefit both states, and they could certainly cooperate in security issues in the Caucasus. However, both Russia and Georgia need to build their relationship carefully. 

They have many years of conflict to overcome, and they need to start slowly building trust. Georgia is in a unique position: it can cooperate with both Russia and the EU. With almost a non-existent relationship with Russia, it can continue to increase cooperation with the EU and NATO while trying to repair its relationship with Russia. Russia does not have the ability to influence Georgia to do otherwise. 

In building a new relationship with Russia, Georgia must be careful. If it chooses increased cooperation with the EU and NATO, then it cannot build a relationship with Russia unless it gives something substantial in return. Perhaps if Georgia were to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, it could pursue cooperation with both. 

Further, relations will have to be built more on Russia's terms than the terms that Georgia has stipulated. However, if Georgia approaches relationship-building with Russia in a careful way, it could prove to Russia that it does not need to fear the increased influence of the EU in the region, but rather that both powers could become important allies in continuing to stabilize the region.

Recently, Georgia made overtures to Russia to reestablish its relationship. However, Georgia stated that it is willing to normalize relations with Russia only if Russia withdraws its troops from all Georgian territory and that it recognizes Georgian territorial sovereignty to include Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If it continues to insist on this, relations between Georgia and Russia will never be reestablished, and there will be continued instability in the Caucasus region. Both states have a lot to gain from reestablishing their relationship, but the prospects for such a relationship continue to look bleak. 

Where can Russia and Georgia find common ground? 

Georgia and Russia can lay the groundwork for developing relations prior to normalization. The first avenue of cooperation should be in trade. Georgian wine was once plentiful in Russia, but since Russia's import ban, has been replaced by wines from Chile, Australia and even California. Georgia produces wine that can be competitive in both taste and price in the Russian market. Russia, in turn, has been trying to become more competitive in manufacturing. It could export manufactured goods as well as technology to Georgia. The economies of both countries would benefit from such a relationship.

Security is another avenue of cooperation that both states can pursue. Keeping in mind the terrorist attacks in Volgograd that took place before the Sochi Olympics, terrorism is again a central issue of importance to the Russian government. Russia and Georgia could work together to disrupt terrorist networks in Georgia. Increased cooperation in security could lead to cooperation in other areas, which could in turn eventually lead to normalization of relations between the two countries even if Georgia continues to cooperate with the EU.

Russian expectations of Georgia are relatively low, and the relationship between Russia and Georgia is at an all-time low. Both countries have spoken about the desire to improve relations, yet there are fundamental issues that must be overcome. The best way to overcome the lack of trust is to begin to cooperate in simple areas that benefit both countries until enough trust can be built up to establish a normal cooperative relationship. Trade is just one area that can begin to rebuild trust between Georgia and Russia. Mutual security is another area. 

If Georgia and Russia can get beyond these initial hurdles to reestablishing a relationship, they can provide a blueprint for other states in the region (like Ukraine) to follow in order to cooperate with both the EU and Russia in such a way that benefits all the states involved and, potentially, other states in the post-Soviet space.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.