Back in August 2008, the world watched live on TV as Georgia and Russia spent five days engaged in a military standoff. Since then, much has changed: in 2012 Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili lost power to a new government under the premiership of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in Russia. Ivanishvili has declared improving relations with Russia a priority, and some results are already visible: Georgian wine is back in Russian shops, and political and cultural contacts between the two countries have increased.
The decision to improve relations with Russia was right and reasonable, after all, Russia is a mighty neighbour and an important market for Georgia. It is also an acknowledgment of the fact that the Russo-Georgian conflict is no longer a priority for Western policy-makers - the international ricochet has ended. Georgia now has to deal with Russia on its own – not on an international stage but through small steps on the ground. It is a chance for Georgian diplomacy to demonstrate its problem-solving capabilities.
Ivanishvili has declared improving relations with Russia a priority
Local conflicts remain
So, progress in relations with Russia is important, but we should not forget the local level of the conflict. The roots of the August 2008 war were Georgia’s long-standing conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Even if Russia suddenly withdrew all its troops from Abkhaz and South Ossetian territory, the breakaway territories would not happily return to the Georgian motherland but rather still continue to fight for their independence. So, what is the new government’s strategy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
The Georgian Ministry for Reintegration is to be renamed the Ministry for Reconciliation.
Premier Ivanishvili has rarely missed an opportunity for criticising the previous Georgian government, but, like his predecessor, he has also refused to recognise or hold direct negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the grounds that they are territories occupied by Russia. The restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity has always been the principal goal of any engagement with the breakaway territories. Only the style has softened: the Georgian Ministry for Reintegration is to be renamed the Ministry for Reconciliation; and illegal entry into the breakaway territories will be punishable by fines, not prison sentences, as before.
Bidzina Ivanishvili has assumed a more pragmatic stance in respect to Georgia's relationships with Russia and the breakaway territories. Photo: (cc) Demotix/Ketevan Mghebrishvili
However, in his latest anniversary speech on August 8, remembering the war, Premier Ivanishvili suddenly announced, to the surprise of everyone, that Georgia is ready for direct talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying that it was time ‘to find a common language in order to build common future relations.’
This is a significant change in policy, given that the physical build-up of barbed wire and fences at the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia has intensified. The delineation of the border is still disputed by both sides: Georgia, for example, accuses Russian border guards of illegally seizing land, which belongs to Georgian farmers. There are any number of so-called ‘fingers’ and ‘pockets’, where the boundary line takes a detour; villagers are often confused, and may inadvertently stray onto the ‘other; side.
Is there a way forward?
Premier Ivanishvili is a pragmatist; he understands that improving relations with Russia alone is not sufficient. A comprehensive engagement strategy towards the breakaway territories is needed to end the political deadlock between Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. Direct negotiations are a first important step towards accepting Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as political actors with their own interests and aspirations.
Will Ivanishvili's conciliatory statements act as a first step to resolving the longstanding conflict? Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/Ssolbergj
A pragmatic analysis would have to start with the acknowledgment that the breakaway territories are, for the time being, lost to Georgia. This does not mean that Georgia has to accept their independence, but, if it accepted the de facto truth of the situation, Georgia could perhaps gain more room for manoeuvre; and so prepare the ground for an alternative discourse about its future relationship with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Far beyond the horizon, ideas about some sort of a federal model might emerge.
The breakaway territories are for the time being lost to Georgia
Premier Ivanishvili is surely right to reach out to Abkhazia and South Ossetia; with each day that passes, the conflict grows in complexity. History has shown that once a country splits apart, it can be very difficult to piece it back together again.