By David Iberi
On October 11, 2010, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed an executive order allowing the residents of the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation to enjoy a 90-day visa-free regime when entering and staying in Georgia starting October 13. The waiver applies to all seven ethnic republics in the North Caucasus: Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea. Symbolism aside, Georgia’s latest decision aimed at “deepening dialogue” with its immediate neighbors to the north might have serious consequences for Tbilisi’s standing in the Caucasus and could as well be seen as part of a more ambitious strategy that is just taking shape and substance.
It was nearly a month ago on September 23 in New York when the Georgian president spoke before the 65th General Assembly of the United Nations and elaborated on his views of a peaceful and united Caucasus. “For too long, [the Caucasus] has suffered from division, injustice, conflict, colonization and violence,” Saakashvili asserted, “Today, however, change is possible. In fact, change is already taking place.” He then talked about his vision of a “free, stable and united Caucasus.” To be sure, the Georgian leader then made a direct connection between Georgia’s rapid modernization and its deepening ties with the outside world, including the Caucasus, against a background of Russia’s failed policies in its ethnically diverse North Caucasus region – “a region that is exploding,” in Saakashvili’s own words.
Georgia has had visa-free relations with three out of its four neighboring countries. With trade and people-to-people contacts burgeoning with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia stands as an exception for understandable reasons. Tbilisi severed diplomatic ties with Moscow after the latter started to annex the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia following the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. But the establishment of a visa regime with Georgia had itself been a unilateral decision by the Kremlin almost ten years ago, in December 2000. Tbilisi had then felt compelled to take a reciprocal step.
Georgia significantly stepped up its engagement with the North Caucasus soon after the August war. A special body charged with a task to strengthen humanitarian relations with the indigenous populations across the major Caucasus ridge was created in the Georgian Parliament. In an apparent show of increasing confidence, in March 2010, the Georgian Parliament received an appeal by Circassian communities to recognize the massacres and deportations of Circassians orchestrated by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century as genocide. Georgia’s Public Broadcaster created a special Russian-language First Caucasus Channel to reach to the audiences in the post-Soviet space, including the North Caucasus. Although the channel was shortly removed from a French satellite under alleged Russian pressure, it is currently being renovated and its producers hope to resume satellite broadcasting soon. The number of students from across the Caucasus, including the North Caucasus, studying in public and private Georgian universities has dramatically increased over the past several years as well as think-tanks and academic institutions studying and researching the North Caucasus. Tbilisi’s visa facilitation policy seems to be the latest measure reinforcing the general trend in what could be called Georgia’s Caucasus strategy.
Nugzar Tsiklauri, a Georgian MP who is actively engaged in developing Georgia’s North Caucasus direction, told Israel’s 7kanal.com news agency in April 2010 that Georgia’s strategy was to help “create a friendly atmosphere toward the Georgian State in both North and South Caucasus and thus reduce the risks and threats emanating from Putinist Russia.” In the same interview, he also talked about a “democratic alternative” that Georgia was presenting to the peoples of the North Caucasus as a “rapidly modernizing, liberal, multi-ethnic, pluralistic, non-corrupt and transparent society.”
Apart from creating a “friendly atmosphere” and being seen as a “role model,” Georgia’s North Caucasus engagement strategy apparently has other objectives as well. Deeper ties with North Caucasus Muslim populations could help stability in Georgia itself; although the country is overwhelmingly Christian, it has a sizeable Muslim community, including Muslim Georgians, who would only hail good neighborly relations with the North Caucasus. Besides, Georgia has historically had close relations with all ethnicities across the Caucasus and although it is scientifically controversial, there is a pervasive popular belief among Georgians that most of the North Caucasians are related to them both ethnically and linguistically, and thus it is Georgia’s duty to champion the “Caucasus cause.” Several prominent Georgian writers and statesmen of the 19th and 20th centuries have helped inculcate that belief deeply into the Georgian psyche and public discourse, and many North Caucasians have only positively responded to it.
Lastly, against the backdrop of Russia’s continued occupation of Georgian lands, Georgia apparently seeks to secure a greater Caucasus-wide consensus on issues of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and hopes that a more intense interaction between Georgians and North Caucasians will play an instrumental role in it.