On November 28, the Committee for Defense and Security in the Georgian parliament held hearings on whether to amend the Law on the Occupied Territories (Sputnik-georgia.com, November 29). The proposed changes in the legislation would concern the criminal prosecution of Russian citizens who visit Abkhazia and South Ossetia via Russia.
According to current Georgian law, Russians and other foreigners can enter the occupied territories only via Georgia, not by crossing the “Russian-Abkhazian” or “Russian–South Ossetian” borders (Mfa.gov.ge, accessed November 30). Those areas of the Georgian-Russian border were closed by then-president Eduard Shevardnadze back in the 1990s. In reality, however, few people paid attention to this prohibition because Georgia did not de facto control Abkhazia and South Ossetia even then.
After Georgia’s August 2008 “five-day war” with Russia, the Georgian parliament, on November 24, 2008, passed the Law on the Occupied Territories, which specified criminal charges for illegal crossings of the Georgian-Russian border in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Sputnik-georgia.com, October 24, 2008). It appears that many Russians were never aware of the ban. When they arrived in Georgia and Georgian border guards saw stamps in their passports indicating their previous visits to these separatist statelets, the “law breakers” were routinely placed under arrest. Some of them received 3–4 years in prison, although most such individuals were released quickly. Normally, the offenders reached a deal with the General Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia and paid a large fine.
Now, the ruling Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia (GDDG) government intends to “humanize the law.” According to the proposed changes, after the first offense, Russian citizens would be subjected to administrative rather than criminal proceedings in Georgia (Sputnik-georgia.com, November 29). However, the opposition thinks that the government of Giorgi Kvirikashvili is reverting to a “pro-Russian course” and is forgoing the fundamental principle of “non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
Giorgi Kandelaki, a parliamentarian with the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, noted that “with this amendment, the ruling party is watering down and practically abolishing the Law on the Occupied Territories.” According to Kandelaki, the same “pro-Russian trend” can be seen in Georgian Dream’s “removal of the question of the occupation of Georgian territories from the international agenda—even though the events in Ukraine provided a chance for the international community to examine the Ukrainian situation ‘in a package’ with the issue of breaking the territorial integrity of Georgia and its occupation.” The opposition deputy further pointed out that neither the current Georgian prime minister nor the foreign minister have visited Ukraine. “Thus, the Georgian authorities are acting like Moscow’s satellites,” he concluded (Author’s interview, November 29).
Ukraine is clearly dissatisfied with the limited international support it has been receiving from Georgia, and this is negatively impacting their diplomatic ties. For the past two years, Kyiv has refused to dispatch a new ambassador to Georgia, relying instead on the services of a chargé d’affaires (Svoboda.org, November 24).
The opposition also points to other ways the Georgian authorities are allegedly weakening the pro-Western institutions in the country. Independent analyst Iosif Tsiskarishvili argued that one of Georgia’s most influential pro-Western media outlets, the television channel Rustavi 2, remains under pressure from its former owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi. “This businessman is close to the ruling party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. If, in the near future, the court decides to seize Rustavi 2 from its current owners, nothing will prevent the authorities from pursuing openly pro-Russian policies instead of doing it covertly,” he said (Author’s interview, November 29).
The opposition is also concerned about the government’s proposal to sell 25 percent of the shares of the Oil and Gas Company, which owns the strategically important Russia–Georgia–Armenia natural gas pipeline. Russia delivers gas to Armenia via this pipeline, which passes through Georgia. Member of parliament Nugzar Tsiklauri told this author, on November 29, that he suspected Gazprom might buy up the pipeline as a “first step to test waters.” Tsiklauri said that “Russia has long aspired to acquire larger control over the gas pipelines in the area, and Gazprom is likely to use its shares to take over this strategic resource and influence the foreign policy of our country.”
The government and the parliamentary majority flatly deny reversing Georgia’s pro-Western course. GDDG deputy Yekaterina Beseliya told journalists that the changes to the Law on the Occupied Territories were made at the recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) (TV-GDS, November 28). While, last August, Zurab Abashidze, the prime minister’s special envoy for relations with Russia, told this author that the proposed amendments were a “purely humanitarian issue.” The government’s overall position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained “unchanged,” he said. “It is our ‘red line’ that we will not cross… and we will never recognize the lawfulness of the Russian forces’ deployment there, although we are prepared to discuss with Russia those issues that can be agreed upon, including humanitarian, and economic ones,” Ambassador Abashidze explained (Author’s interview, August 12).
Prime Minister Kvirikashvili also reiterated that the country’s course toward integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union “remains unchanged.” At the same time, Kvirikashvili promised to “continue the policy of de-escalation in relations with Moscow” (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, November 15).
Earlier this year, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Energy Kakhi Kaladze clarified that that the authorities “do not plan to sell the strategic [Russia–Georgia–Armenia] gas pipeline in its entirety, but only a small portion of it” (Author’s interview, January 20). While GDDG parliamentarian Zacharia Kutsnashvili reassured that the authorities “will not interfere in the court trial concerning […] Rustavi 2” (Author’s interview, November 17).
Nevertheless, some independent analysts think that Tbilisi’s behavior will depend on what Moscow offers. “Russia is quite preoccupied with the issues in Ukraine, and Syria. So, the Russian government has no time for Georgian affairs or for proposing some new deals. Moscow prefers the status quo,” Levan Jishkariani, an analyst with the news analysis website Factum.ge, told this author. According to Jishkariani, Georgian authorities are also unlikely to make any quick decisions. “Most likely, the proposal to stop the criminal prosecution of Russian citizens who visited the occupied territories was born out of the Georgian authorities’ fear of losing Russian tourists,” Jishkariani said (Author’s interview, November 29).” Indeed, the Russian foreign ministry has repeatedly warned Russian citizens that they faced potential prison time when traveling to Georgia (Newsgeorgia.ge, November 10). It appears the GDDG government’s policy decisions pertaining to Russia will increasingly take economic concerns into account.