By David Iberi
Summarizing Russia’s hardships in the North Caucasus, Mairbek Vatchagaev, The Jamestown Foundation’s leading Caucasus analyst, wrote in his article on January 6, 2011: “…further in the south, Georgia is emerging as a competitor and an alternative to Russian power, capable of influencing the situation in the region. In 2010, Tbilisi dramatically shifted its policy toward the North Caucasus and now seems to be poised to play a more dynamic role in this part of the region.”
Indeed, along with intensifying diplomatic, political, economic and trade relations with the international community two years after the Russian aggression and illegitimate occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory, Tbilisi stepped up its engagement north of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Through its open-door policy, Georgia aims to counter the centuries-old Russian monopolistic strategy of isolating the Caucasus and making it inaccessible to the outside world.
On October 11, 2010, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed an executive order allowing the residents of Russia’s seven ethnic republics in the Caucasus – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea – to enjoy a 90-day visa-free regime with Georgia.
Aiming at “deepening dialogue” with its immediate neighbors to the north, Tbilisi hopes this will boost its reputation in the neighborhood as the champion of modernization and a role model for development and cooperation. As reported by Tabula, a Tbilisi-based libertarian weekly magazine, on December 27, 2010, “thousands of Muslim pilgrims from the North Caucasus” made use of the Georgian route during their recent hajj to Mecca, and they were “pleasantly surprised” to see that Georgian police were “highly professional” and did not ask for bribes at the border-crossing checkpoint or along the road, as is “routinely practiced in Russia.”
In September 2010, Saakashvili spoke of a peaceful and united Caucasus at the General Assembly of the United Nations. “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 asked his fellow world leaders to support the idea of a “free, stable and united Caucasus” and highlighted Georgia’s rapid modernization against a background of Russia’s failed policies in the North Caucasus – “a region that is exploding,” in Saakashvili’s own words.
He apparently had in mind the ongoing low intensity warfare in the Russian-controlled part of the Caucasus where a gap is rapidly widening between the corrupt and highly incompetent elites and the increasingly nationalistic local populations. Speaking before the European Parliament in November 2010, Saakashvili again claimed it was “high time for the European peace to be extended to the Caucasus. And it is our responsibility, as political leaders, to conceive bold initiatives in order to make this happen.” He was most likely alluding to the Balkans of the past era when talking of the perils of the contemporary Caucasus, alleging that it is only a matter of time before Europeanization of the Caucasus becomes a reality.
The Georgian Parliament has found its own niche in elaborating Tbilisi’s Caucasus policy. There is a special body in Parliament charged with the task of strengthening humanitarian ties with indigenous populations in the North, and a parliamentary committee for relations with compatriots residing abroad was recently renamed as the Committee for Diaspora and Caucasus Issues. Georgian parliamentarians argue that “the issue of Caucasus solidarity is now active” and there is a need “to develop unified Caucasus policy.”
As Georgia’s engagement intensified, the number of students from across the North Caucasus studying in private and public universities in Tbilisi significantly increased as well, as has the reputation of Georgia as an educational, scientific and cultural hub and of the Georgian language as a newly discovered lingua franca for North Caucasians. Georgia has historically had close relations with all ethnicities across the Caucasus and there is a pervasive, popular belief among Georgians that most of the North Caucasians are related to them ethnically and linguistically. While Georgia’s popularity and attractiveness in the neighborhood are definitely on the rise, Tbilisi is experiencing difficulty in convincing the West of the usefulness of its Caucasus engagement (See Part Two).