KAVKAZ UPDATE: AN ANNO DOMINI 2007 PRIMER ON RUSSO-GEORGIAN RELATIONS
One of the highlights of 2006, was the bringing to the international stage the antagonism between Russia and Georgia. While the conflict between the two powers was fierce and at times voluble, it remained, notwithstanding the predictions of some observers, almost entirely verbal and economic, rather than military. Indeed, as the Tbilisi-based journalist, Diana Petriashvili pointed out recently the year 2007, began as the prior year did, with Tbilisi accepting Gazprom gas supply price increases, notwithstanding Georgian President Saakashvili prior boasts about throwing off dependence upon the Russian energy giant (see her report in, "Gazprom makes the Georgian Government Pay" in www.eurasianet.org). And, notwithstanding certain Western based commentators who argue that Russian aggressiveness vis-`a-vis the current government in Tbilisi, will inevitably result in military conflict, I would argue that this seriously overdoes the 'enlightened self-interest' of both parties, to refrain from openly provoking a casus belli by either side (see the prognosis of the Amsterdam based, Colonel de Haas in "Current Geostrategy in the South Caucasus" www.pinr.com). Consequently, with however tensions still high, if not perhaps as high as some such as Colonel de Haas would like them to be, we feel it incumbent to provide our readership with an alternative view of the realities of Russo-Georgian relations. A relationship which has been both intimate and at times quite difficult, rather like a marriage between two emotional people. And, which has lasted for over two hundred years now. This is not to deny the fact, that going forward, Russo-Georgian relations will never be the same as they were in the Imperial and Sovietskaya Vlast periods. With the declaration of independence by Georgia in 1991-1992, Georgia as an independent state actor, with its own goals and concerns, at times similar to, if not necessarily opposed to Russia's, became an unalterable fact. And, notwithstanding the comments from Western commentators of the Russophobic variety, there does not appear to be any great wish in Moskva to return Georgia to the embraces of Russia proper. Any more in fact than say, Putin et. al., would wish to do the same for Belarus for example (on the case of Belarus see an interesting report in www.res.ethz.ch). What follows are two contrasting, if however not diametrically opposing views, of the recent past and the near future of Russo-Georgian relations. With one of the commentators being Russian and the other Georgian. Both essays are from the German & Swiss based, Russian & Eurasian research online journal: Russian Analytical Digest. So, we wish that our readers read and enjoy what follows:
"A Russian View: Russia Seeks to Promote Peace and Stability in the Caucasus"
By Sergei Markedonov, Moscow
A Broader Context for Georgian-Russian Relations
Relations between Georgia and Russia are one of the most problematic aspects of politics in the Caucasus. The erstwhile “fraternal” republic has become for Moscow the most inconvenient and disagreeable partner among all the CIS countries. Today many Russian and foreign experts are concerned about the insistence with which Russia seeks to preserve its political dominance in this part of the post-Soviet space. Russian relations with Georgia must be seen within a wider context. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia gave up its territorial claims to Ukraine and Kazakhstan without wavering even though, in ethnic and cultural terms, the northern and eastern parts of Kazakhstan and the Crimea were much closer to Russia than Georgia. Russia’s policies toward the Baltic states were even more passive despite the large ethnic Russian communities in Latvia and Estonia. Compared to the South Caucasus, Russia is much less involved in the political processes in Central Asia. In 2001, Russia approved the American intervention into the region and now is not putting up much resistance to China’s “assimilation” of the territory. In the case of Transdniestria, the Russian Federation is ready for an internationalization of the conflict resolution process.The South Caucasus, and Georgia above all, is different. Here Russian foreign policy-makers are only ready for small concessions and compromises, seeking to preserve their exclusive role in the resolution of the “frozen conflicts,” and will not allow other “honest brokers” to become involved.
Problems Despite Years Together
Russian-Georgian relations have a paradoxical character. On one hand, there are strong traditional ties, particularly social-cultural, between the two countries. Moreover, over the course of 200 years, Georgia was part of a common state with Russia. Its political class was incorporated into the Russian elite (from the Bagrationi family to Shevardnadze). On the other hand, there is the weight of mutual claims against each other from the perestroika and post-Soviet periods.
The April 1989 events in Tbilisi, in which the soldiers of the Transcaucasus Military District dispersed a demonstration, was one of the catalysts for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Georgia’s acquisition of sovereignty coincided with a parallel growth of anti-Russian feelings. For Yeltsin-era Moscow, Eduard Shevardnadze was above all a colleague of the “hated Gorbachev.” As a result, Russian leaders of that time looked on all of Shevardnadze’s actions as potentially
Georgia Blames Russia for Its Problems
It seemed that the rise to power of Mikheil Saakashvili, having overthrown the “White Fox,” should have substantially transformed relations between our countries. However, the leader of the Rose Revolution began his policy of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity with a search for an external enemy to blame for the collapse of the Georgian state. With this approach, post-Soviet Georgia’s responsibility for the multi-ethnic confl ict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia was transferred to Russia. In this way, the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian confl icts became Russian-Georgian confl icts.
Among the Georgian elite, the idea of fleeing the Russian empire became seen as the principle precondition for the liberalization of the country, and its ability to join the “civilized world” and the “west.” Accordingly, the “young Georgian democracy” could only overcome its confl ict with Moscow by gaining the full support of the US, European countries, and international organizations (above all NATO), according to the ideologists of Georgian independence. Such partners would presumably bring Georgia internal stability and restore calm.
Saakasvili’s Western Priorities
The current Georgian leader became president on a revolutionary wave of hope for a quick resolution of the problem of the separatist territories, resettling refugees from Abkhazia, and an end to the nationalhumiliation caused by these conflicts. Now Mikheil Saakasvili must pay back the political credits he has received and strengthen his reputation as a patriot and defender of “Georgian unity.” In the battle to restore Georgia, he acts like a pragmatic politician. If in achieving this goal he can use the political resources of Russia, then he is ready to become a pro-Russian politician. But since Russia is not ready for a unilateral exit from Abkhazia and South Ossetia (without a full resolution of the confl ict), Saakashvili opted for strategic partnership with the USA.
However, it might turn out that the US and Russia have common interests in stabilizing the situation in Georgia. The format of Russian-American relations in recent years makes it possible to think along these lines, however, it is obvious that neither the US nor the European Union has developed plans for removing their presence in the Caucasus, at least before the resolution of the intra-Georgia conflicts. Even the idea of a quickened entry of Georgia into the North Atlantic alliance is not accepted by all members of NATO (the US is an influential member of this organization, but hardly the only one).
Russian Security Depends on the Caucasus
Despite this, Russia remains one of the most important gravitational centers of the Caucasus. It is objectively interested in the existence of a unified, open, and friendly Georgia. Just as Tbilisi seeks to preserve its unity and territorial integrity, Russia would benefi t from a neighbor capable of preventingpart of its territory from being turned into a base forterrorists. A separate question is whether the return of Georgia’s separatist territories should be achieved at any price, particularly with the use of “iron and blood.”
The Caucasus is a unified social-political organism despite the borders tyrannically imposed on it by the Bolsheviks. Any conflict beginning in the South Caucasus might continue in the Russian North Caucasus. Russian dominance of the South Caucasus is not a question of its “imperial resurrection.” Securing stability in the former republics of the South Caucasus is a principle condition for the peaceful development of Russia itself and the preservation of the state’s integrity.
Russia is a Caucasus state. This thesis is not a beautiful metaphor. Seven Russian regions are located in the North Caucasus and an additional four are on the steppe abutting the Caucasus. The territory of the Russian North Caucasus is larger than the size of the independent states of the South Caucasus. Almost all of the ethno-political conflicts in Southern Russia are closely connected to the conflicts in the former Soviet Transcaucasus republics. The Georgian-Ossetian standoff led to a flow of refugees from the former South Ossetia autonomy and other parts of Georgia to the neighboring North Ossetia in Russia. The reconstruction of the Transcaucasus republics into independent “fraternal republics” took place in part by squeezing the Ingush from the Prigorodny district. The Georgian-Abkhaz confl ict made possible the consolidation and radicalization of the Adyg ethno-national movement in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Adygeya, activating the Confederation of Caucasus Peoples, which became one of the chief actors in the Georgia-Abkhazian standoff . The removal from Georgia of the Kvarelsky Avars at the beginning of the 1990s led to the knotted conflicts in Northern Dagestan. The mountain-dwelling Avars sent to the Kizlyar and Tarumov raions of Dagestan came into conflict with the Russians and flat-land dwelling Nogai. As a result there was a significant outflow of Russians from the northern parts of Dagestan. Resolving the “Chechen Question” depends crucially on stabilizing the situation in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Thus, it is impossible to provide security in the Russian Caucasus without stability in Georgia.
Russia Plays a Useful Role in Conflicts
One can criticize Russia for supporting Abkhaz separatism, but the pro-Russian feelings among the vast majority of Abkhaz society and their resistance to any but Russian soldiers as peacekeepers is a fact which cannot be ignored. As a result, there are simply no pro-Georgian politicians in Abkhazia. Moreover, the Abkhaz authorities in exile are led by ethnic Georgians.
The situation is slightly different in South Ossetia. Here there are pro-Georgian politicians (Dmitry and Vladimir Sanakoevy, Uruzmag Karkusov), though their political motivations raise many questions. Dmitry Sanakoev, currently the “alternative” South Ossetian president, and Karkusov participated in the Georgian-Ossetian military confl ict of 1990–1992. At the same time, while the Georgian leadershipis prepared to engage in negotiations about an increased status for Abkhazia within Georgia (while the Abkhaz leaders seek full independence), their position toward South Ossetia is different. Until now the Georgian authorities insist on calling South Ossetia “Tskhinvalsky Region” and refuse to cancel the Zviad Gamsakhurdia-era (1990) order liquidating the South Ossetian autonomy. Effectively this decree realized the policy once described by Gamsakhurdia as “In Georgia there are Ossetians, but there is no Ossetia.” The popularity among the residents of South Ossetia of Eduard Kokoity, the current leader of this de facto state, secures a similar course by official Tbilisi. The ethnic minorities living in Georgia are interested in a continued Russian presence in Georgia and view the Russian peacekeepers as a guarantee of their security. While the decision to withdraw the Russian bases from Georgia has already been made, hastily removing the Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be premature. Of course, a unilateral and forced recognition by Russia of the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia would be a mistake. But the Georgians should rethink the current situation: Georgia is not a country only of ethnic Georgians. The effort of Georgia’s first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia to operate in disregard of this reality, rather than the “imperialist intrigues of Moscow,” led to the division of Georgia, a situation the country cannot overcome by itself today. Georgia will hardly be able to address this problem in the near future.
Russia is not now seeking to obtain new territory. Russia must show the Georgian elite and international society that the rejection of Russian peacekeepers would inevitably lead to a new round of confrontation, which would threaten the security of the Russian North Caucasus. The events around Tskhinvali in 2004–2005 demonstrated this. Of course, Georgia is a not a threat to Russia. However, the build up of Georgian military strength and its militaristic rhetoric toward South Ossetia and Abkhazia could raise tensions in the Russian border zone. This would represent more than a loss of face for Russia. These high stakes are the main reason behind Russian “ambitions” and increased emotionalism toward what happens in and around Georgia.
About the author
Sergei Markedonov is the head of the Interethnic relations issue group at the institute for Political and Military
Analysis in Moscow.
"A Georgian View: Have Russian-Georgian Relations Hit Bottom or Will They Continue to Deteriorate?"By Ghia Nodia, Tbilisi
Two Views of the Same Problem
During the last fifteen years, Georgian-Russian relations have been moving from bad to worse, to a little bit less bad, and then to crisis again. Nobody expects them to improve in the near future. It is only natural to ask: Why are relations so bad? And – most importantly – have these relations hit the bottom already, or can they still get worse?
Both sides have radically different views on what exactly is at issue here. The most frequent complaint I have heard from Russians is that Georgian leaders are prone to blame them for their own disastrous policies, so they are bad-mouthing Russia just to re-channel their people’s wrath. (Sometimes they like to add that the Georgian people cherish a secret love for Russia but bad leaders do not allow them to consummate it).During the last three years, after Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, another charge has emerged: Georgians are preparing to renew wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus undermining stability in the Russian south. Of course, Russia must prevent this from happening. Georgians argue that the Russians are stuck in 19th century-style geopolitical thinking. Russia’s outlook is all about the wounded self-esteem of a fallen empire: a failure to control Georgia causes it to experience phantom pains, as if it is missing a limb. There are also ethnic stereotypes at work: Russians see Georgians as hopelessly frivolous and disorderly people who enjoy delectable food and accomplished dancing but cannot be trusted to have a state of their own. They believe that Georgians owe them special gratitude because more than two centuries ago, the Russians were the ones who saved their fellow-Orthodox country from being annihilated by its Muslim neighbors. Therefore, when Georgians claim to be a European country and say that NATO and eventually EU membership are its due, Russians take this as a personal offense. For two centuries we have fed and protected these hapless Georgians, and look how ungrateful they are: they like Americans better!
Running the risk of being accused of a bias, I would say that I find the Georgian perception closer to truth. This does not imply that my compatriots are without blame. It is handy for any government, especially that of a small and weak country, to have a powerful foreign enemy, and for the last fifteen years Russia has been excellent in this role. While taking the initial steps towards statehood, inexperienced and nationalistic Georgian leaders did quite a few stupid things which led to civil wars and economic breakdown. Naturally, they were happy to explain their incompetence away by blaming Russia for everything that went wrong.
Georgia Seeks Good Relations
However, it was obvious that having decent relations with Georgia’s northern neighbor was crucial – and the Georgian leaders tried hard to achieve this result. The two most recent presidents, Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili, despite their enormous differences, followed a similar trajectory: both sought to find a modus vivendi with Russia, but failed and ended up at loggerheads with the northern neighbor. In late 1993, after Abkhazian separatist forces – with sizeable Russian support – prevailed in the war with the national government, Shevardnadze went out of his way to appease the former metropolis: he signed an agreement on Russian military bases (which was never ratified), legitimated Russia’s exclusive control over Abkhazia by inviting Russians to serve as peacekeepers, and allowed Russian border troops to control its borders with Turkey. It seemed that the Russians considered relegating Georgia to the status of a Russian-satellite state as a return to normality, but did not propose anything in return. As Shevardnadze began to realize this, he gradually drifted to a pro-western orientation and formally announced his bid to join NATO. Relations with Russia reacheda nadir in 2001, when Russia accused Georgia of harboring Chechen terrorists in Pankisi Gorge and seriously considered a military invasion. Russia bombed Georgian territory several times then. That crisis was, in part, explained by personalities: Russian generals simply would not forgive Shevardnadze for his role in giving away the Soviet empire to the West, analysts argued. When the fresh, young Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, he made a new effort to improve relations, proposing a more or less clear deal: we will welcome Russian economic investments, not press for the withdrawal of military bases, and cooperate on the Chechen issue, but you should accept our wish to integrate into the European and Euro-Atlantic community. He also implied that Russia should take a more favorable attitude to Georgia’s wish to reintegrate Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Th ere was no distinct answer from the Russians, but for the first six months of Saakashvili’spresidency, relations appeared to be on the mend. The summer 2004 crisis in South Ossetia, when the Georgian government tried to solve the issue through a mixture of humanitarian off ensive and military intimidation, put an end to this – and relations have steadily worsened ever since.
Dealing with the Separatist Regions
The events of 2004 lead us to the alleged Georgian project to renew the separatist wars. Following the really unfortunate summer 2004 episode, this is the most serious criticism against Georgia and one that makes many western leaders – including those who generally favor the new Georgian government – think twice about rendering support. Can Saakashvili and his youthful advisers be considered credible and predictable partners?
Immediately after coming to power, Saakashvili’s government hoped that it could solve the issue of the separatist conflicts quickly. Such aspirations were mistaken, though the desire to address this issue is fully understandable since the presence of unresolved conflicts is the single most important impediment towards economic development and stable democracy in Georgia. However, while Saakashvili has a habit of making some statements that are hardly diplomatic (like referring to an unfriendly leader as Lili-Putin, for player who knows how to learn from his mistakes. His clear priority is state-building, which is a natural priority in a country which had frequently been described as a “failing state” in the past. He has achieved serious – arguably, even spectacular – triumphs in this regard: for the first time in modern history, the Georgian state is providing public services, its public servants get salaries they can live on, the armed forces are well-fed and under control, corruption and organized crime are down dramatically, and last year the World Bank officially recognized Georgia as the country that has made the fastest progress towards creating a more attractive business environment. Th e flow of foreign investments has already increased, though Saakashvili clearly hopes for much more. The October 2006 local elections confi rmed a strong popular mandate for the incumbent political party. While NATO membership is far from decided – mainly because of the reluctance of western Europeans who have developed an aversion
to anything smacking of “enlargement” – Georgia is now in “intensifi ed dialogue” with the alliance, which makes it a credible candidate for membershp: Bringing Georgia to NATO is clearly the highest priority of the government. Saakashvili knows very well that if he stirs up trouble in the separatist regions, he will lose western support and be left one-on-one with an unfriendly Russia. The conventional wisdom in this government is that Russia’s goal is to provoke Georgians into doing something stupid in Abkhazia or South Ossetia thus undermining Georgia’s NATO ambitions. The recent removal of Irakli Okruashvili, the former minister of defense who had made a foolish pledge of spending New Year’s Eve 2007 in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, was a symbolic gesture to alleviate the remaining western fears.
Georgia’s Answer to Western Critics
Some critics (especially western Europeans) argue: this is all very well, but why does Saakashvili try to annoy Russians without need? Is it so vital to insist on NATO membership – if this is what makes Russians so mad? Why put salt on Russians’ wounded pride by demonstratively arresting Russian spies (no one argues they were not spying – but this is not the issue, right?).
The Georgian answer would be: being nice and reasonable would make sense had there been any chance of getting anything in return from Russia. But nobody in Tbilisi believes Saakashvili can do anything to make Putin happy. Every time Georgians ask Russians a straight question: what should we do so that you do not try to destroy us, there is never a clear answer, just nebulous hints. The story one hears often from Georgian politicians is about Putin’s reaction to Saakashvili’s question: What will Georgia get in return if it gives up its bid to NATO membership? The problems you already have will not get worse reportedly was the answer. Russia cannot accept Georgia for what it is: confident, independent, wanting to integrate with the West. It wants to change Georgia, not its specific policy.
Russia Seeks Regime Change
Which in practice means regime change. Russia’s steps as well as rhetoric give some credibility to this hypothesis. The Russian political elite appears to believe the theory repeatedly voiced by the Russian media during the last two years: Saakashvili is too emotional, probably mentally unstable, his popularity is dropping, and he is bound to end up like Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s temperamental first president who was in office just over a year before he was removed from power after an armed uprising in January 1992. Some trends in the first half of 2006 seemed to corroborate that theory: there was an increasing tide of public protests against different policies of the government, including some rather brutal behavior of its police. Th e Russian government apparently financed some political groups (at least that’s what almost all believe in Georgia) such as the anti-Soros movement or the Justice Party led by Igor Giorgadze, an ex-KGB officer sought by Interpol and frequently interviewed by Russian TV, that took active part in the protest. On the other hand, Russia believed it could aggravate the situation by causing additional economic grievances – for instance, by blowing up gas pipelines on the coldest days of the winter (in January 2006), or banning Georgian wines and mineral waters from the Russian market. These products were Georgia’s most important exports.
In August 2006, when a local warlord started an uprising in Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia still partially under Georgian control, Russian politicians opined this was the beginning of the end of Saakashvili’s regime. The uprising was easily quelled (so, maybe this was really just a local aff air), but after this event Saakashvili decided not to take chances and arrested the bulk of the allegedly Russia-backed activists of the Justice Party (they were charged with plotting a coup) and the Russian spies (who the government believed could also help organize some subversive actions).
One may believe this particular conspiracy theory or not. But this is the assumption on which the Georgian government acts. Th erefore, the most popular question in Tbilisi is: what else can Russia do to Georgia? Has it exhausted its levers, or does it still has something up its sleeve?
With most economic ties cut and the price of gas raised to western European levels, economic sanctions seem to have reached their limit. Painful as they are, all these measures may be a blessing in disguise. Russians – including Russian politicians – appear to have sincerely believed that even after the Soviet demise Russia had been “feeding Georgia” and could force its southern neighbor down on its knees by cutting the lifeline. If so, in 2006 the lifeline was cut, but Georgia survived: the IMF estimated its GDP growth to have been around 8 percent in 2006. Without Russian sanctions it would probably be closer to 10 percent – unpleasant, but not lethal. If Kremlin strategists hoped that they could help change the regime in Tbilisi – as I suspect they did – they have by now probably given up on this idea. This outcome allows me to end on a cautiously optimistic note: the best thing about 2006 may have been that Russian-Georgian came very close to hitting the bottom. But there is still one issue that may make things worse: this is a Russian project to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The highest ranking Russian politicians, including President Putin, have hinted that if the international community recognizes Kosovo, Russia might respond by recognizing separatist entities in its “near abroad”. Although the Kosovo solution has been postponed, the Russians still want to move forward: recently the Russian Duma adopted a resolution that recommends that the president recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin is still considering the options, but following the Duma recommendation looks like a plausible one. It is hard to say what Russia may gain from such a step, but just the urge to punish insolent Georgia may prove too strong to resist. There may also be a calculation that this time the emotional Georgian president will really be provoked into doing something stupid. I hope not – but this will be a real point of crisis. If this happens, though, it will also be the moment when Russia really exhausts its leverage against Georgia.
About the author:
Ghia Nodia is Chairman of the Board of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi and Professor of Political Science at the Ilya Chavchavadze State University.