North Caucasian Activists See Relations with Georgia Under Threat

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 215

After the dramatic changes in Georgia’s political leadership in October 2012, experts in the North Caucasus see signs of a decreasing Georgian presence in the politics of the North Caucasus. “The North Caucasian policy of Georgia will become more flexible, cautious and subtle,” Lachin Lachinov, the head of the Nash Kavkaz NGO and the Alazan-Info news agency told the Regnum news agency. “We already see it in the example of the shutting down of the PIK TV station and the simultaneous return of Russian TV channels broadcasting to Georgia, which were shut down after the conflict in South Ossetia.” Lachinov predicted there would be fewer funds available for the exchange programs that allow scholarly, cultural and educational visits by North Caucasians to Georgia. “For us, Dagestanis who border Georgia, it is very important that these relations develop further and that it is done in a peaceful and more intensive manner,” Lachinov told Regnum. Dagestani politician Albert Esedov told the same news agency that, according to his sources in Georgia, the state programs for the North Caucasus are in limbo but may be continued for a year. Esedov expressed the opinion that because Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is trying to improve relations with Russia, “projects that have an anti-Russian character will either be discontinued or modified,” apparently implying that a more assertive Georgian policy in the North Caucasus was “anti-Russian” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1596259.html#ixzz2DBKICbOS). 

A brief overview of North Caucasian experts’ opinions on Georgia’s activities in the North Caucasus indicate that even those who dislike Georgia for some reason recognize that there is more good coming out of those initiatives than harm. So why is the perception that Georgian activism in the North Caucasus is “anti-Russian” so pervasive among Russians? Perhaps it is due to the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 and the general attitude toward Georgia as an inimical power? In order to answer these questions, it is useful to ask: what projects implemented by a foreign country or other foreign entity in the North Caucasus are not labeled as “anti-Russian” by Russians? That question is easy to answer—there are no such projects. Activists in the North Caucasus also have been calling for Azerbaijan to play a larger role in the region as well, despite the fact that Baku has limited activity. Dagestani expert Lachinov told Regnum that Dagestan needs more substantial relations not only with neighboring Georgia, but also with Azerbaijan (http://www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1596259.html#ixzz2DBKICbOS). 

Apparently, Moscow regards any foreign involvement in the North Caucasus as suspicious and unwanted. A large number of foreign NGOs were forced to shut their offices, and even the UNHCR’s mission based in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, was eventually shut down. North Caucasian NGOs that receive foreign funding are increasingly under government pressure to stop their activities. However, having isolated the North Caucasus from the world as much as it was possible under the given circumstances, Moscow found out that it did not help it to establish control over the region. In fact, the number of special operations and casualties has only increased during the past several years, along with the insurgency’s expansion to other parts of the North Caucasus. 

So the question is not whether Georgia’s activities in the North Caucasus will be perceived as “anti-Russian” by Moscow, because they will be considered anti-Russian by default as long as Georgia has any kind of policy toward the North Caucasus. The Georgian political leadership must remember the experience of previous Georgian governments. Most of them tried hard not to get involved in the North Caucasus affairs. As a result of the policy of non-involvement, Georgia was still affected by events in the North Caucasus either directly or indirectly, while at the same time Russia showed little appreciation, if any, for Georgia’s hands-off approach. Only following the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 and recognition of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, did officials in Tbilisi start to develop a coherent policy toward its neighborhood to the north. In his famous speech at the UN General Assembly, President Mikheil Saakashvili proclaimed: “We might belong to different states and live on different sides of the [Caucasus] mountains, but in terms of human and cultural space, there is no North and South Caucasus, there is one Caucasus, which belongs to Europe and will one day join the European family of free nations, following the Georgian path” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22696). 

Having cleansed all foreign entities from the North Caucasus, Moscow discovered to its surprise that there were few foreign investors willing to come to the region. Perhaps, partly because of this unpleasant discovery and partly because of natural economic laws, a delegation of Turkish businessmen was allowed to visit the North Caucasus in November. In Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, the Turks announced their proposal to create a transportation corridor from Turkey to North Ossetia via Georgia. The purpose of the corridor would be to facilitate bilateral trade between Turkey and Russia, while also contributing to the development of the North Caucasus (http://region15.ru/docs/news-day/2012/11/13/). Clearly, this project would benefit Georgia, but again it would require a certain level of relations with the North Caucasus. So, regardless of who is in power in Georgia, it may in the end have no choice but to develop and maintain a policy toward the North Caucasus that will intermittently collide with Georgian and Russian interests.