The absence of diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia is a global issue, one that is practically impossible to resolve without settling the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said recently that clever and cautious actions would allow Georgia to restore its territorial integrity. Georgia is taking certain trust-building measures. According to media reports, some districts of South Ossetia have started receiving gas from Georgia. There are plans to discuss restoration of railroad traffic. How can Moscow react to these steps? And, in general, is it possible to reach any compromise on South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
Restoration of trust and hence peace in the South Caucasus is a dire necessity, and Russia can only welcome any steps in this direction. The main problem between Russia and Georgia is not the absence of diplomatic relations. They do not exist, but bilateral contacts are maintained even at the diplomatic level – Georgian diplomats work in Moscow and their Russian colleagues work in Tbilisi, though they are represented by the Swiss embassies.
The main problem is trust. The Georgian political elite have lost it as a result of the six wars that it conducted against Abkhazians and South Ossetians in the last twenty years. These wars are still fresh in their memory and mistrust towards Georgia runs too deeply both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After sustaining defeat, the Georgian authorities stubbornly tried to subdue by force of arms those whom they considered their ethnic minorities. Mr. Ivanishvili launched his new policy not long ago. The resumption of gas supplies to a number of districts in South Ossetia is a tiny measure of what Georgia has to do to restore confidence. Even the restoration of the railroad traffic from Abkhazia to Georgia and further to Armenia is evoking many doubts in the Abkhazian public for lack of trust.
There is another aspect of this issue. The Abkhazians consider their homeland one of the oldest states in Europe and the world. It is older than the United States, Turkey, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and many other countries, not to mention Latvia or Estonia. Talk to them and they will tell you that Abkhazia emerged separately from Georgia, existed independently from it for centuries and joined the Russian Empire on its own. It was forcibly incorporated into Georgia by dictator Joseph Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. The fact that Abkhazians and Georgians happened to live in one and the same state in the Middle Ages is not a valid argument for them. If Abkhazia must return to Georgia simply because it was part of it in certain periods, Austria could then demand the return of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Croatia, Spain could claim the entire Pyrenean peninsula, Sweden could claim Finland while Ireland would not exist as an independent country. No matter what attitude Georgia may have toward this logic, the restoration of statehood is now a national idea in Abkhazia. Georgians are refusing to realize that integration into their state is not on the Abkhazian agenda and this does not depend on the recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by Russia. Russia did not recognize Abkhazia for 17 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it did not cease to exist as a state because of this. The same applies to South Ossetia, although South Ossetians justify their right to independence in a different way. To sum up, Russia and Georgia are unlikely to reach a compromise on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, because this is primarily based on the issue of Georgia’s relations with them. There is no reason for Russia to repudiate the recognition of their independence, all the more so since such a move would do enormous damage to its prestige.
Could a higher level of trade and economic cooperation, considering the lifting of the trade embargo by Russia, be effective in restoring confidence between Russia and Georgia?
Needless to say, a higher level of trade would be good. As with any economic ties, trade usually promotes trust, but not always. In the 1990s trade with Russia remained of primary importance for Georgia, and Russia had a large Georgian diaspora, the transfer of whose money was vital for family budgets and the domestic demand. Yet Georgia took a turn in its foreign policy from Russia towards NATO. Its striving to join NATO could in no way encourage Russia’s confidence. Russians do not consider NATO a peace-loving organization after so many wars conducted by Western countries and the revolutions sponsored by them in the last few decades.
To sum up, there is no automatic link between growing trade and economic contacts and a buildup of confidence. The latter requires political reciprocity and abstention from information wars.
In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that talks between Russia and Georgia did not concern Georgia's return to the CIS, and it is premature to speak about this. However, at a news conference in Tbilisi, Mr. Ivanishvili refused to confirm in the Constitution Georgia’s refusal to join post-Soviet inter-state unions, contrary to the demands of the opposition – the United National Movement (UNM). Do you think Georgia is likely to join the CIS one day?
This demand on behalf of the UNM is naïve radicalism so typical of its leader. How can one impose such taboos forever? Who knows what form post-Soviet inter-state unions will take in several years? Georgia is a member of GUAM and this is also a post-Soviet union. Should Georgia quit it? Or should it abstain from all unions with Russia’s membership? But in this way Georgia would seal its hostility towards Russia in its Constitution. As a realistically minded man, Georgia’s current prime minister simply refused to include a political absurdity in the Georgian Constitution. That’s all. There are no more serious signs of Georgia’s intention to join the CIS and they are unlikely to appear in the near future.
For the time being Georgia has a dual political power. The former opposition that now represents the government in Georgia has accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of abusing power. But now legitimate government – the parliamentary majority – is acting in the same manner, repeating his mistakes. Do you think the law on amnesty passed by the Georgian Parliament is an improper decision? How will such a use of power affect Georgia’s international reputation and its relations with other countries?
The elements of dual power are present indeed. That said, Saakashvili’s power is continuing to shrink. Mr Ivanishvili is now the real leader of Georgia. He does not exceed his authority or make major mistakes. Analyzing his first hundred days in power, the majority of experts in Georgia think the same. The law on amnesty is fully justified, and not only because it has been adopted by the country’s highest legislative body, including UNM members. Obviously, Georgia was in an abnormal position – it has more prisoners per 1,000 than any other country in Europe. Importantly, this law has given freedom to 190 political prisoners. The government built by Saakashvili was a repressive regime, pure and simple. There is countless evidence of this, including testimonies by such friends of the West as Nino Burdzhanadze, one of three leaders of the Rose Revolution, or Defense Minister Irakly Alasania. But some people do not want to know anything about bloody crack-downs on demonstrations with people killed and wounded in Tbilisi in 2007 and 2011. Damage will come to those who try to conceal the crimes of the Saakashvili regime rather than those who try to reveal them.
All recent decisions of the Georgian leadership in foreign policy evoke rumors that Tbilisi is gradually turning off its pro-Western road. Having announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos that Georgia is not doing so well, as its international ratings show, and that this is a bluff on the part of Saakashvili, Mr. Ivanishvili has poured more oil onto the flames. Recently he made another statement in Yerevan, calling Armenia an example of building even relations with the West and Russia. This statement gave his opponents an excuse to suspect him of taking a geopolitical turn, because it is impossible to be a NATO partner and Russia’s strategic ally at the same time. How would you respond to this?
As for Georgia’s ratings, they are indeed largely a result of a bluff to which Saakashvili and his friends were so prone. Isn’t Georgia’s ninth place in the Doing Business rating a bluff, if Georgian business people were under constant pressure from the UNM and the authorities that acted as chief racketeers and bribe-takers? As for its departure from the pro-Western road, I wish this were true, but we should abstain from wishful thinking. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan quarreled with Russia, and this is a source of natural envy for the Georgian new political leadership. Georgia is the only country in the South Caucasus to have entered into a foolish and damaging confrontation with its enormous northern neighbor. Its striving to eradicate this absurdity does not evince even the slightest departure from its orientation toward the United States, NATO or the European Union. This orientation is confirmed by numerous declarations of its commitment to the West and practical participation in NATO’s events and generally intensive contacts with Western representatives. Regrettably, Georgia would gain much more if it kept its centuries-long orientation toward Russia. It is no accident that one fifth of the Georgian population moved to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for all the difficulties in their interstate relations. This voting with feet shows where Georgia’s natural pole of attraction is.
What do you think about the recent proposal of Georgia's Patriarch Ilia II on visa-free travel between Georgia and Russia (which is unprecedented in the absence of diplomatic relations)?
It is easy to understand the patriarch – the two countries have always preserved very close ties on the human level and many in Georgia are unhappy about the visa regime. It would be nice to meet their wishes. Regrettably, this is a multi-layered issue that requires some thorough thinking. It is enough to recall the absence of diplomatic relations severed by Georgia and unfriendly rhetoric towards Russia, and not only by the media but sometimes also at the official level. So the issue of visas is more natural under the circumstances. We should not forget the afore-mentioned pro-Western orientation of Georgia. For Russia Georgia’s intention to join NATO is not only fraught with the risk of a danger of war from the south. NATO countries have a visa regime for Russian citizens. What will Georgia do about it? Or, say, it also wants to join the European Union. Will it follow the example of other candidate countries and require visas from Russian citizens even before entering EU?