Re-setting Georgia's relationship with Russia

Erosi Kitsmarishvili
1 April 2009

I was the last ambassador of Georgia to Russia, though I was only in Moscow for a couple of months before the outbreak of war. Working with Russian colleagues, the main emphasis of my team was on creating the necessary conditions for "restarting" Georgian-Russian relations and developing a positive agenda for bilateral relations. The onset of military operations in August 2008 and other considerations meant that we were unable to reach a positive outcome.

Today it is already clear that this was the correct choice. Confrontation, oppression, and the predominance of force have had their day. The new tactics of President Barack Obama's administration and of American diplomacy are focused on settling the most serious and long-standing crises. Now, the main argument must be the force of reason. The world appears to be entering a new era, that of diplomacy, rather than conflict and armed confrontation. Diplomacy must become the decisive factor in shaping international law and order today.

The American diplomacy agenda is focused on solving the most important long-standing conflicts of the modern world - the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Korea. In this ongoing process, Russia is emerging as a priority on the agenda, one of the keys to addressing the new administration's main priorities.

We can only admire the way that the new US administration has been able to create a platform for a new dialogue with Russia. Authoritative think tanks, former ambassadors on both sides and a two-party American independent group prepared several parallel documents with the aim of putting Russian-American relations on a positive footing. These efforts culminated in the visit to Moscow by a group of special advisers headed by authoritative figures such as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, James Baker, Sam Nunn etc. Thanks to their efforts the Russian-American summit in London on 1 April will get off to a positive start.

These efforts have helped resolve grievances, recriminations and misunderstandings on both sides which have accumulated over the years. Diplomacy cannot afford to be complacent, as there are those across the world, in the USA, and especially in Russia who are not just sceptical, but actively oppose these efforts.

Unfortunately the official Georgian authorities still remain outside this process, preferring the old tactics and ideology that characterised the previous US administration. Tbilisi's reluctance to appreciate the new American administration's efforts may well lead the Americans to interpret this as a desire for them to fail. In the context of their previous aggressive rhetoric the actions of Georgian diplomacy, or rather its essential inactivity, suggest that we prefer the language of force, pressure and confrontation between the superpowers.

At the same time, experienced diplomats in Georgia are saying that fundamental policy changes are needed, that we need to keep up with the modern world and stay in step with our main allies. America's view, according to the president and vice-president, is that Washington should build new relations with Russia, concentrating on what unites the two countries, rather than on controversial, conflicted and unresolved issues in bilateral relations. In the new American administration everything seems to have been thought out in detail: the president's team appears united on the fundamental issues of American foreign policy, including attitudes to Russia. Obama's "Russian team" has a number of excellent like-minded Russian specialists, from a strategic as well as a tactical point of view.

It must be admitted that until quite recently Georgian diplomacy had skilfully adapted itself to the prevailing mood in the world, when the lack of mutual trust between the superpowers created many opportunities to exploit their contradictions.

One way or another, the tasks of Georgian diplomacy have only become more complicated. At present Georgia is facing special problems - the task of de-occupation. Pressure and confrontation in dealings with Russia are counterproductive. In the current situation we must re-establish dialogue and activate all our diplomatic skills to solve these problems. The way the authorities are behaving today is leading nowhere.

At the moment the only forum we have is the Geneva talks. The last international diplomatic meeting in Geneva stressed the need to restrict the opportunities of the war party in the region, opening the way for an active phase of diplomacy. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the consultations held in Geneva on Transcaucasian security problems ended with an agreement to set up forwith a permanent framework for preventing military incidents. This agreement involves the participation of international intermediaries. The framework is intended to prevent incidents, which could have a negative effect on security in the region. High-level and authoritative international support for this diplomatic initiative is guaranteed and will create a basis for stabilising the situation. It opens the way for international diplomacy.

If we do not urgently resolve the diplomatic impasse, we shall end up trailing feebly behind world events.  Given the inclination of some of those in power to reach for aggressive rhetoric and impulsive actions, Georgia will be seen as a country that represents a threat to the new international efforts to return the world to stability and cooperation.

In the period before diplomatic relations are resumed, intensive Georgian, Russian, American and international efforts will be required. A good forum for this would be a Council for the Restoration of Georgian-Russian Relations. Its agenda should be developing recommendations and ideas on the most important Georgian-Russian issues. Such work will, in turn, help bring about the necessary conditions for restoring full diplomatic relations between the two countries.

This initiative has received the support of most of the former Georgian ambassadors in Moscow, as also by Mr Tedo Dzhaparidze, formerly Georgian Foreign Minister, and many other well-known Georgian diplomats. There is as yet no official support from Tbilisi for the idea. 

At the official level, the development of a new agenda for Georgian-Russian relations could be seriously complicated by the weight of errors made by both sides. The best and most respected brains in Russia and Georgia need to become involved, as do authoritative representatives from the international expert community.

This approach accords with the new ways of dealing with crises which are opening up at the moment. It is time for force and pressure to give way to diplomacy and dialogue. This is a job for the experts. We need a coalition of international diplomats to come and help Tbilisi and Moscow, to draw them into the modern international arena.

Both sides could consider setting up the post of special representative for relations with the other side, before diplomatic relations are resumed.  

The Swiss Embassy represents Georgia's interests in Moscow and those of Russia in Tbilisi.  Russian and Georgian diplomats should be brought into the process. Tbilisi should put its best team together and send back to Moscow the most experienced and well-qualified diplomats, who were recalled. The team could assist and coordinate the work of the expert community, the official authorities, and governments.

A high level of public confidence will be required to bring this about.  To this end the Georgians in the Council should include representatives of the opposition in the process.  The 2020 Foundation, which I direct, has already embarked on this work in Georgia.

Of all the countries in the post-Soviet space, Georgia is remarkable for the strength of its civil society. The suppression of protest in Georgia on 9 April 1989 provided a powerful impetus to the collapse of the USSR. Public pressure ensured that all the representatives of power who departed from the democratic path of development suffered the same fate - they were forced to resign.

There are many reasons for this vibrancy of Georgia's civil society: foreign policy errors, the war with Russia, internal contradictions, the authorities' inability to establish dialogue with the political opposition, the degradation of democratic institutions and a rising sense of a lack of freedom in society. This is why civil society has played a leading role in events, putting powerful pressure on both the government and the opposition. It is society, with its implacable desire for peaceful, non-violent protest that prompts the oppostion to act. 9 April has been scheduled for the beginning of a mass civil initiative.

As events in the country develop, representatives of Georgian society will be responsible for inter-party dialogue. But targeted acts of provocation and psychological pressure mean there is a serious risk of violent conflict.  This is a matter of extreme concern. Civil society in Georgia will need international solidarity. A group of authoritative international intermediaries, including American, Russian and European moderators would be a Board of Trustees, as it were, united by international consensus, a symbol of common responsibility for peace and stability. They would provide guardianship in the name of strengthening democracy. This would be the best way of signalling international support for Georgian civil society.

The Georgian Orthodox Church has a vital role to play in resolving the crisis, especially the Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II. His authority in the country is paramount.  He would play a major part in mediating between the parties: government, opposition and, above civil society, the protesting majority in Georgia.

The international community that is concerned with events in Georgia should understand that we are talking about more than mere social protest here. We are talking about the triumph of freedom, a public attempt to demonstrate to its government, and to the world, that it is behind the times.  Their action symbolises the desire for change in a society deeply attached to the notion of  progress and democracy, a society for whom reason and dialogue must be the main instrument for problem solving.  This public action must involve all the main dramatis personae, including the international community.

What is required today, in short, is to set up an authoritative group of international  intermediaries. It would be counterproductive and undesirable to nominate people who have discredited themselves in the eyes of Georgian society, whatever their status and legitimacy.




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