Moscow’s Two-Track Response to Tbilisi’s Constructive Unilateralism

By David Iberi

In his highly publicized speech in the European Parliament on November 23, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled peace initiatives aimed at reducing tension between his country and Russia. They include the commitment of non-use of force against Russian occupying bodies and their proxies and a readiness to engage in high-level talks with Moscow without preconditions. The Kremlin’s response to what is called Georgia’s constructive unilateralism so far has been a mixture of diplomacy by proxy and a reinforcement of Russia’s military presence in the occupied Georgian territories in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia.

Although Georgia has vowed to seek reunification of the country within its UN-recognized borders only through peaceful means, it nonetheless retains the right to self-defense if Russia perpetrates new military attacks against the Georgian government and people.

On November 24, a day after Saakashvili spoke to the European Parliament, the Russian Foreign Ministry made its first comment on his speech only to argue that Russia is just a mediator and there is no conflict between Russia and Georgia. Instead, according to the Foreign Ministry, “at issue is…the long-running conflict between Tbilisi and the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Therefore, the statement went on, there should be “a legal enshrinement of obligations not to use force” between Georgia and the two Russia-sponsored proxy regimes.

In a matter of days, the proxy regimes themselves issued statements in which they pledged that they would not resort to force “against Georgia” and requested that non-use of force agreements be signed between Abkhazia and Georgia and South Ossetia and Georgia, “preferably under international guarantees.”

Then, on December 7, the Russian Foreign Ministry made another statement to sum up the non-use of force pledges by Georgia and the Russian proxies in the occupied Georgian regions. Hailing the “exceptionally important step…taken towards sustainable peace and security, Moscow stressed the importance of building “equitable and neighborly relations between Abkhazia, “South Ossetia” and Georgia. The “full-fledged legal enshrinement” of a regime of non-use of force between the three was again underlined in the statement and with that, apparently, Russia’s role as that of the guarantor of peace and security in “Transcaucasia” – Russian jargon for the South Caucasus used to make clear that the region is part of the Kremlin’s geopolitical orbit.

In parallel with these “multilateral” diplomatic overtures, Georgia announced in early November that it broke yet another network of Russian intelligence operating within its territory and arrested 13 people, including four Russian citizens, who were accused of spying for Russia’s military. This was the fourth time since 2006 that Tbilisi made a public announcement about the arrest of a Russian spy network. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called the latest incident a “farce” and “anti-Russian hysteria.”

In early December, Georgian police arrested several people accused of organizing, carrying out and participating in a series of explosions, including one fatal incident, that took place in September and November 2010. Police claim their activities were directed by a Russian general, Yevgeny Borisov, stationed in one of the Russian military bases in Abkhazia. It is not immediately clear from the statements made by Georgian law enforcement if Borisov’s activities were closely coordinated by Moscow.

On the ground in the occupied regions, Russia has continued to build up its military infrastructure and capabilities. New military garrisons were inaugurated in both Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, and in addition to S-300 systems already stationed in Abkhazia, Russian media recently reported the deployment of the BM-30 “Smerch” heavy multiple rocket launchers to the Tskhinvali region, within striking distance of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. According to Georgian estimates, there are at least 12,000 Russian troops in both territories.

Georgia has continually tried to disentangle itself from Moscow through a two-track approach of “diplomacy of peaceful de-occupation.” On the one hand, it asks the international community to condemn Russia’s illegal occupation of its territories and demand its termination. On the other, it shows willingness and readiness to engage in high-level talks with Moscow.

Russia seems to be using a two-track approach of its own, as well. On one side, it has proxy regimes in the occupied territories through which it reacts diplomatically to Georgia’s peace offers and, on the other, it continues to strengthen its military presence in the occupied lands in order to underpin the “proxy” diplomatic response. The irony is that the regimes in de-populated Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia are mere extensions of the Russian state structure and by no means do they represent the local populations, the majority of whom live in other parts of Georgia as victims of the two-decade-old ethnic cleansing.