North Caucasians Look to Tbilisi to Provide a Counterweight to Moscow

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 18

With the approach of parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 1, the intensity of political struggle in the country is increasing. The Georgian elections are a historical opportunity for the country to make a political transition via democratic elections. Until now, leaders have come to power in Georgia through applying pressure on the government in the streets of the capital city. The upcoming elections in October will be a test of the maturity not only of the political system that President Mikheil Saakashvili has been building, but of contemporary Georgian society as a whole.
Because the stakes are so high, it is not surprising that virtually the entire world is following events in Georgia so closely. High profile officials from Europe and the United States visit the country regularly. On September 5, the newly appointed US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, arrived in the country (www.rus.ghn.ge/news-22889.html). On September 12, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet visited Tbilisi. That same day, a group of experts arrived in the country to fulfill the previous agreements between the Georgian and US presidents on military cooperation (www.blackseanews.net/read/44590). On September 13, ambassadors from NATO countries visited the country to assess reforms and discuss issues of global and regional security (http://newsgeorgia.ru/politics/20120913/215208893.html). The European Council also acted by extending the mandate of its observer mission in Georgian for another year, until September 14, 2013 (http://newsgeorgia.ru/conflict/20120914/215210060.html). Georgian Defense Minister Dmitry Shashkin visited the US on September 13, and joint Turkish-Georgian military exercises took place in the Black Sea near the city of Batumi.
There is also significant interest in the Georgian elections inside Russia. Having lost the means to have direct contact with Georgia following the military aggression against the country in August 2008, Russia has been forced to communicate with Georgians via third parties. This does not mean that the Russians do not also receive first-hand information from Georgia, where there are still political forces that see their country’s future in a close union with Russia. Moscow has not officially reacted to the impending elections in Georgia, but the Russians would undoubtedly be happy to see Bidzina Ivanishvili, Saakashvili’s main opponent and one of the wealthiest businessmen in Georgia, win the elections. Ivanishvili does not hide the fact that if he comes to power, he will restore relations with Russia (www.georgians.ru/news.asp?idnews=100317).
Russia, however, is made up not only of Moscow and Siberia. Another part of the country is following events in Georgia with great excitement—the North Caucasus. An increasingly large number of people in this region have come to regard Tbilisi as a counter-balance against Moscow. The official policy of Georgia aimed at improving relations with the people of the North Caucasian following Russia’s 2008 incursion started to take off in 2010, when an International conference titled “The Circassians & the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past & Future” was held in Tbilisi under the auspices of the Jamestown Foundation. Having realized that they cannot progress without improving relations with the peoples of the North Caucasus, the Georgian side unveiled its plans at this conference (www.vestikavkaza.ru/interview/politika/18030.html). Simultaneously, by winning the sympathies of the North Caucasians, Georgia would achieve its broader goal of weakening Russia’s influence in the region (www.gazeta.ru/comments/2012/08/06_e_4713253.shtml). That goal is not too difficult to achieve given the growing wave of anti-Caucasian protests in Russia and the increasing number of operations carried out by the armed resistance across the North Caucasus, from Derbent to Cherkessk. All these developments have forced the people of the North Caucasus to realistically evaluate their options for the near future, when Russia will cease to be interested in holding onto the permanently subsidized region at any cost (www.newsru.com/russia/01aug2011/kavkazfinance.html).
Since 2010, the Georgian government has consistently implemented the policy of weaving the North Caucasians into Georgian interests. Georgia’s decision in May 2011 to recognize the Circassian “genocide” had a tremendous impact on the transformation of pro-Russian Circassians into a more Georgian-friendly force. The new policy also affected the fate of a small Dagestani people—the Didois who, having become disillusioned with Moscow’s policies, officially asked Georgia to consider admitting two Didoi-populated districts on the border with Georgia into the Georgian state (http://derbent.tv/watch_video.php?v=G81RNOX4SUH9). Naturally, Georgia was not prepared to consider such an address, but the very fact that the North Caucasians started to regard Tbilisi as a counterbalance to Moscow signaled that Georgia was headed on the right path.
On June 28, Georgia took another step in the same direction when the country’s parliament adopted a state strategy toward the North Caucasus (www.civil.ge/rus/article.php?id=23585). Tbilisi plans to deepen relations with the region, starting with the economy and trade and ending with improved communications, education, healthcare and human rights related issues. For the past few years, Chechen students who study in Tbilisi have given high marks to Georgia’s policies toward the people of the North Caucasus (www.chechen.org/page,11,403-zhurnal-chast.html). The North Caucasians increasingly encounter instances in which the Russians do not even try to conceal their hatred for them. This trend can be traced not only at the level of the street mob, but also in the statements by leading Russian intellectuals (http://mya.so/category/terrorism), who also realize that the present situation cannot last for long (http://rusimperia.info/news/id7217.html). So the question over whether the North Caucasus will stay on as a part of the Russian Federation is now becoming just a matter of time.
Multiple academic conferences that have been held in Tbilisi have allowed North Caucasian scholars to visit and rediscover Georgia for themselves. Georgia’s archives are open to scholars and researchers. Opportunities for doctoral students abound, while master’s students receive degrees that are recognized internationally.
Precisely because of these developments, the North Caucasians will follow the Georgian elections and expect that the open door policy for them will remain in place. In these elections Georgia is deciding not the question of who will be in power, but the question of whether Georgia has irrevocably broken with its Soviet past. On October 1, Georgia has to elect a parliament that will be responsible for the whole Caucasus, not only for Georgia.