Emotions and ambitions slow down Russian-Georgian rapprochement.
Georgian soldiers stand during the inauguration ceremony of Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. Photo: AP
Tangible rapprochement between Russia and Georgia has occurred in 2013, a development initiated by the change of government in Tbilisi in October 2012. Yet real normalization of relations is still far in the future.
So far, Moscow and Tbilisi are trying not to touch sensitive issues and their rapprochement is limited to trade and economic ties. This year Russia opened its market for Georgian goods, especially wine, mineral water and fruit. There are ongoing negotiations to restore regular flights. Diplomats from both sides say that the plan for 2013 was “80 percent” fulfilled.
Former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who was seen in Moscow as the main obstacle for rapprochement, is no longer in office. So what prevents Georgians and Russians from becoming friends again?
The rationale behind the cautious approach becomes clear if you talk to the Georgian leadership: This opportunity was given to a group of Russian political scientists who visited Georgia in November at the invitation of Gorchakov Foundation and the NGO "Caucasian House."
Official Georgian position concentrates on the fact that in 2008 Russia attacked Georgia. According to most speakers in Tbilisi, the report of the Tagliavini commission appointed by the European Union to investigate the war between Georgia and Russia is unconvincing, while South Ossetia and Abkhazia are nonviable pseudo-states. In addition, Russia keeps in South Ossetia and Abkhazia too many troops and threatens Georgia. Any restoration of diplomatic relations is out of the question as long as there are Russian embassies in Tskhinvali (the capital of South Ossetia) and Sukhumi (the capital of Abhkazia).
Georgian politicians call the conflict of 2008 the Russian-Georgian war. They admit that Saakashvili made a mistake, but claim that Russia was the aggressor in this conflict. Moscow, for its part, insists that Georgian authorities should accept the status quo and stop ignoring the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As a result, the parties cannot even agree on the format of the negotiations: for Tbilisi the dialogue is between Georgia and Russia, and for Moscow the meetings are - Georgian-South Ossetian-Abkhazian. Negotiations simply come to a standstill when Georgia begins to insist that Russia is one of the sides of the conflict. Yet Moscow stresses that it acted in accordance with the Dagomys ceasefire agreements that marked the end of the Russ-Georgian conflict.
However Russia’s construction of the metal fence along the de facto Georgian-South Ossetian border was not one of the best moves. On the one hand, this caused a lot of inconvenience for the local residents, because sometimes the fence passes right in the middle of the fields, on the other hand, it causes nervousness in Tbilisi. The good news is that construction of the fence recently stopped.
The emotions are enhanced with ambitions. One can often hear in Tbilisi that within seven to eight years Georgia will be a European country, so Moscow should make friends with it now, in order to get preferential treatment later--since without Georgia, Russia cannot carry out its regional economic and political projects. However, in reality the only thing that Georgian leaders can offer to Russia is some vague help in normalizing the situation in the North Caucasus.
Georgian politicians believe that the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which declared independence in 2008, will be solved automatically when Georgia becomes a democratic European country. Separatists will simply opt for civilization. Previously, Georgians tried to convince Moscow that it should stop supporting the Abkhazians and Ossetians and prompt them to rejoin Georgia.
At the same time the Georgian leadership has great hopes for the Olympics in Sochi. Supposedly after the Games, the security issue will become less significant and Russia will take a more flexible position on Abkhazia.
One gets an impression that Georgian society and establishment are not yet ready to accept the status quo and solve the problem by establishing relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Pragmatic politicians are aware that the current ruling coalition "Georgian Dream" does not yet have a firm grip on power and will not risk a hasty rapprochement with Russia.
So pragmatists offer to postpone negotiations on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia until passions cool down, and place trade and economic cooperation at the forefront.
This approach seems to suit Moscow. It has no incentive to promote the process of reunification. It could help a friendly state, but Georgia, with its aggressive rhetoric and plans to join NATO, is not such a state from the Kremlin’s point of view.
There are very few people in Russia who believe that cooperation with the EU and NATO will turn Georgia into a regional heavyweight, so Moscow is ready to wait until the Georgians get rid of illusions. In the meantime, Moscow urges Georgians to negotiate directly with the leadership of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and promises to support any formula of coexistence worked out through such dialogue.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.