Russia-Georgia rapprochement? Get real

Ivan Sukhov
15 April 2009

The way things are, Ambassador Kitsmarishvili's proposals on procedural issues for ensuring a rapprochement between Georgia and Russia seem excessively optimistic.

Attempts are being made in both Georgia and Russia. But the very ideology of these countries rules out the possibility of serious rapprochement. Some proposals have been made which address the symptoms, but these do not resolve the issues both sides have with one another. Those proposals which do have solutions to offer are fundamentally unacceptable to the other side.

Among those proposals which address the symptoms is the creation of an international instrument which could prevent a resumption of military operations in the region. It assumes that until 8 August 2008 there was a system operating in the region whose notional goal was to prevent a renewal of conflict. That system did not work, as we know. Any other configuration of instruments and institutions will carry the same risk, until solutions are found to the most painful problems of bilateral relations.

These are the main issues: the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, the stationing of foreign troops on the territories of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and finally issues of transport communications. Only the second of these shows some signs of movement, and you have to look very hard to see them.

An example of the second kind of proposal is the federalisation of Georgia. A number of Russian special advisers on the region are working on such proposals. They are putting a good deal of intellectual effort into constructing scenarios which presuppose the development of separatist areas of Georgia inhabited by Armenians and Azerbaijanis. These would supposedly become "subjects" of a hypothetical Georgian federation - perhaps along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This proposal is so far removed from reality that it is unworthy of serious consideration.

Through Russian eyes

Let us look at the situation through Russia's eyes. After the war of 2008, Russia was more or less obliged to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If it had not done so Russia would have lost its foothold in the region completely, such was the logic of international relations at the time. This position came about not just as a result of the war in August 2008, but also because of Russia's peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before that. Russia had also invested considerable sums in the economies of these two regions.

By dint of recognising the republics, Russia secured two footholds where it could station troops in a region part of which may join NATO in the foreseeable future, as Moscow strategists see it. What Moscow somehow forgets is that these borders with NATO countries, including those which run through exotic regions like the Bering Straits, have been a model of stability throughout the NATO's history. There are no grounds for believing that NATO will not be able to ensure the stability of the Georgian border for any reason. What is more, so far Georgia's membership in the alliance is far from certain.

For Russia, the outcome of the August war is rather like someone firing a cannon at a flock of sparrows, with added unpleasant consequences for the perpetrator. If it were not for certain indirect but inevitable consequences, it would arguably be no bad thing to have two military bases in a region whose geopolitical future was unresolved. But so real are these consequences that the outcome as a whole is unsatisfactory from Russia's point of view.

Recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia has had the effect of blocking any initiatives to restore the use of the railway from Russia to Georgia through Abkhazia, as well as the two highways that run through Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are three of the six roads that connect Russian with the South Caucasus. Three of the four roads pass through Georgia.

By the end of spring the fourth road may be unblocked, not without efforts from Yerevan. This is the road that passes through Upper Lars, where Russia has for some years been engaged in repairing the customs terminal. But even if the Lars road were opened it would be like trying to drain a huge dam through a small drainpipe. Russia urgently wants to develop its economic presence in the South Caucasus, but this can't be done without these north-south roads. Until there is traffic through Lars, all talk about union with Russia's partner Armenia will remain just that. Not only the military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, but the whole of Armenia will still be an island connected with its northern patron only by air.

Nor did recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia bring Russia any closer to controlling, or being involved with, Caucasian projects for the transportation of Caspian oil and gas from east to west. The blockade of Azerbaijan-Georgian communications lasted several days during the war, but even this brief period was enough to cause genuine discontent in Azerbaijan. Russia's proposals to purchase all Azerbaijan export gas could have compensated Baku for this in August - if Russia had been technically capable of making this transaction. Not to mention Russia's inability to substitute the Georgian pipeline with a route through Russia.


Through Georgian eyes

The result of having recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been to make it practically impossible for anyone in Georgia to create a political bloc oriented towards Russia that would have any wide electoral support. Voters' sympathies for Russia decreased dramatically. This was not just because Russia invaded territories which Georgia would like to consider its own. The sight of Russian tanks, military planes and bombs in Georgia itself had a powerful effect.

Georgia's opposition leaders are prepared for pragmatic dialogue on disputed issues. But if any of them came to power Moscow would see none of the strategic changes in Georgian foreign policy it would like to see.

Realistic progress

These incontrovertible facts, each of which is enough to upset the Moscow strategists, could unfortunately be enough, if circumstances took a turn for the worse, to trigger the use of force again in Georgia. Clearly, if this pessimistic scenario were to arise, it would lead to the complete destabilisation of the South Caucasus region. It would trigger a chain reaction in the North Caucasus too, and cause any investment projects connected with the Caucasus to collapse. So it would seem that the regional players are primarily interested not in creating more diplomatic missions charged with vague new missions, but in a clear formulation of their own agenda and a swift search for means of carrying out these agendas.

It is possible that considerable progress might be made on the issue of the bloc status of territories and the rules for stationing foreign troops in the region - as long as all interested parties, including those outside the region, are agreed that what they want to achieve is not mutual military containment, but a peaceful Caucasus with a common, free and stable economic space.

There looks as if there is some scope too for a restoration of traffic by road from Russia through South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia to Armenia. This would allow Russia to become a proper party to programmes of regional development, and Armenia too, which holds a vital key to resolving the important problem of Nagorny Karabakh.

Obstacles, subjective and objective

Sadly, a number of obstacles, objective and subjective, make this prospect somewhat utopian at present, however pragmatic, adequate and peace-loving a changed leadership in Georgian might be. The subjective obstacle is Russia ruling elites, whose ongoing rivalry for dominance has no clear endpoint. The politics of the Caucasus sometimes becomes the vehicle of this internal rivalry, and this will remain true.

Furthermore, these ruling elites understand the meaning of the word "overload" very differently from the Americans. In Moscow, they are still inclined to assume a parity in relations with the United States, although in reality this has long since ceased to be true.

Among objective obstacles are the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia, like most post-Soviet nations, is a country where the concept of nationality is crucial. A national agenda for Georgians is barely compatible with the thesis of a Georgia for everyone (i.e. for Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, and for all other citizens regardless of their ethnicity). This is not a problem specific to Georgia. It is characteristic of almost all the post-Soviet nations, including Russia itself in many ways. But it is on the solution of this divisive issue that the chances of real Georgian integration and reliable security in the South Caucasus depends.

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