In January 2014 a possibility of a high-level meeting between the Russian and Georgian leaders was discussed in expert circles. Russia was completing the preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and managed to enlist Georgia’s assistance on some important security issues. Despite certain resentment existent in parts of the Georgian establishment, Georgia’s team took part in the Olympic competitions. In these favourable conditions the two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Irakli Garibashvili, did not rule out a possibility of a meeting. This made experts speculate about a probable agenda of these discussions. The first Russo-Georgian summit after the 2008 war was expected to arrive at some agreements bound by the leaders’ signatures. So in which spheres was the progress seen as most likely?
With all the huge expectations concerning the Russo-Georgian relations earlier this year, it is now difficult to admit these expectations are all in the past.
The Ukrainian crisis emerged high not only on the European agenda, but also on the agenda of relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Russia could not escape treating the processes in Crimea and Donbass – not to mention the political antagonism with the West, which was rising in the beginning and then started to decline – with paramount attention. In the short term, the highest priority for the Russian leadership are the Ukrainian crisis and the relations with the EU and the US in the Ukrainian crisis context. While President Putin and Prime-minister Medvedev used to publicly address the topic of Russian relations with Georgia several times a year, it has not happened once since the beginning of the acute phase of the Ukrainian crisis.
Georgia, in its turn, was tempted to take advantage of exacerbated tensions between Russia and the West to solve its problem of Euro-Atlantic integration. In spring and summer this year rumours were circulating in Tbilisi concerning the especially favourable decision awaiting Georgia at the September NATO summit in Wales. These rumours made the tense atmosphere of the political discussion on the Ukrainian crisis even more strained, reviving the fears of the ‘Russian threat’, which this time was expected to manifest itself in some sort of a provocation in response to Georgia’s signing Association Agreement with the EU. Not only did the harsh anti-Russian speeches come from some members of parliament, both from the ruling and the opposition parties. President Giorgi Margvelashvili could not abstain from making one as well. Most importantly, Defence minister Irakli Alasania during his visit to Washington in May signaled that Georgia is ready for the West to make use of its territory against Russia.
It is hard to imagine the turn of events if this scenario was to take place. Frankly, experts in Moscow were watching the political maneuvering of Tbilisi with anxiety. The Georgian attempt to play on the exacerbation of the Russia-West relations was seen as a hostile move, and the bluntly anti-Russian course brought back in Georgia was perceived as a serious threat. However, the common sense prevailed in Washington and Brussels as well as in Tbilisi. Confronting Russia has not become the West’s strategic choice. Likewise, Moscow, which had to protect its interests in Crimea, was not willing to choose the path of confrontation as well.
Georgian Prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, admittedly, managed to keep his assessments on the Ukrainian crisis sober, and in response to the obviously diminishing prospects for a breakthrough in the Euro-Atlantic integration he stated that Tbilisi’s contacts with Moscow and the events in Ukraine do not correlate. At the end of the NATO summit Georgia failed to get the membership Action Plan, which proved that Garibashvili was right in his calculations. Apparently, his pragmatic vision was appreciated in Moscow, and the normalization between the two countries continued with less damage than it could have been expected.
Nonetheless, in the short term the Russo-Georgian relations will not be among the top priorities both for Moscow and Tbilisi. After they studied each other’s positions in 2012-2013, the two states realized that normalization of their relations had considerable limits. It is not only the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia status that does not imply a compromise. In the root of the disagreement between Moscow and Tbilisi is a certain feature inherent in Georgia’s foreign policy since the times of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevarnadze. It consists in Georgia’s seeing itself as a part of entities that exclude Russia and not seeking possibilities for cooperation with Russia in efforts to solve the country’s problems. Multidirectional policies perfectly mastered by Armenian or Kazakh governments remain unfamiliar to Georgia.
Tbilisi prefers to neglect the benefits of cooperation with Russia at times it believes it can afford it.
Georgia is consistently striving to decrease its dependence on Russia, and has achieved significant results in it.
For instance, Georgia has supported development of alternative to Russian transport and energy-transporting projects on its territory. Even on issues of special interest for Tbilisi, Georgia is trying to limit its contacts with Russia to avoid becoming dependent on it. That is why normalization in Russo-Georgian relations has not been profound. In fact, the two states are in a dialogue limited by the set agenda that was proposed by former Prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and include the issues of mutual trade, tourism, air communications and humanitarian relations. Any step out of this framework is met by Tbilisi’s resistance including the important issue for the Georgian society on the facilitation of the visa regime with Russia. Exceptions are made only for some separate initiatives, which Georgia allows in order to counterbalance its dependence on Turkey and Azerbaijan with Russian influence.
This situation for Russia significantly raises costs of initiative policy toward Georgia.
Moscow cannot rely on Tbilisi, because Tbilisi does not want to rely on Moscow.
Relations of mutual trust and intense cooperation as they exist between Russia and Armenia are not possible between Russia and Georgia. And there are no incentives for this situation to change in the foreseeable future.
However, it does not mean that the two countries will stop neighbouring and stockade themselves off each other. In contrast, on the issues that were on the agenda of the normalization framework dialogue and saw enthusiasm from Georgia’s part – a noticeable success is achieved. Trade between Russia and Georgia has intensified by three times in two years. At the same time, the tourism flow has been on the rapid and continuous increase encouraged by the resumed regular air communication between the two countries. There are prospects for transport and energy projects to be realized. And the new Abkhaz government may be more compliant in the issue of resuming railway communications with Georgia. Land transport communications between Russia and Georgia are expected to be reconstructed, as the functioning of the Georgian Military Road has been interrupted twice this year because of mudslides.
Meanwhile, development of the transport infrastructure is vital not only for the Russo-Georgian relations, but also for the Russo-Armenian and Russo-Turkish cargo transit via the Georgian territory. Moscow and Ankara have set an ambitious goal of increasing their trade turnover by 2020 to reach the level of 100 billion USD, but the port infrastructure, both on the Russian and Turkish side, is already facing difficulties in managing the growing trade flows. Also, in the energy sphere Russian investment heads to the Georgian hydropower sector, and possibilities of expanded natural gas imports from Russia are under consideration.
These are the issues that will become the basis of the Russo-Georgian agenda in months to come.
Waning of the Ukrainian crisis may recreate conditions favourable for the meeting between the Russian and Georgian leaders.
However, normalization in relations of the two countries has distinctly set limits, for the global strategy of the Georgian leadership remains unchanged. It consists in closing in with the West and making use of its resources to force Russia to cease its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s stubbornness in pursuing this goal hinders thorough reconsideration of the relations between Russia and Georgia and prevents them from picturing an alternative future.
Western governments locked up in short electoral cycles are bound to continue same policies towards Russia.
The President promised to redirect Russian energy streams to countries where “economy is not confused with politics”. He was referring to the Summit host Turkey in the first place with its increasing need for energy resources. Despite the differences between Turkey and Russia on the Syrian issue, the two states are deepening their cooperation in the energy field making their relations genuinely strategic.
The key question for Russia is whether the Operation Atlantic Resolve will become the start of permanent stationing of American and NATO forces in the countries of former Warsaw Pact and the post-Soviet space. Moscow insists that its security needs be taken into account, whereas the American leadership believes that the motives of Russia stem from “misinterpretations and outdated thinking”.
The space of the modern Europe is clotting, strategic depth is fading away and partners-opponents are at the front door.To escape confrontation and revive its role of the Eurasian dynamic kernel peacefully, it is important that Russia follows the motives and logic in policies of both its rivals and buffer states on its periphery.