The latest crisis in the chronically uneasy relationship between Moscow and Tbilisi is not likely to fizzle out any time soon, as the positions of the two sides appear to be irreconcilable. This poses a painful dilemma for the West: do the United States and the European Union want to make the fate of Georgia and its breakaway regions a central issue in their relationship with Russia?
The Georgian “spy row” that triggered massive Russian retaliation laid bare the unbridgeable chasm between the strategic outlooks of the Kremlin and the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (see EDM, October 2, 4). There is a general consensus among the Russian policy elite that for Georgia to normalize relations with Russia, it has to stop its integration into NATO, abandon plans to forcefully establish control over the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and try not to rattle the Russian leadership with harsh and, at times, outright provocative rhetoric.
But most Russian analysts concede that Tbilisi can hardly accept these three basic conditions. The first condition cannot be met, as NATO membership is a matter of principle for the new generation of Western-leaning politicians who make up the bulk of the Saakashvili administration. The second one is also out of the question: the current Georgian government came to power on a pledge to restore the country’s territorial integrity; however, it is highly unlikely that the self-styled secessionist statelets would agree to return to Tbilisi’s fold peacefully. Even the third condition is problematic, given the hot-tempered nature of most Georgian policymakers.
For their part, Georgian strategists say Russia also has to do three basic things if it wants to have a friendly neighbor at its southern flank. First, the Kremlin has to reconcile itself to Georgia’s pro-Western geopolitical orientation, which means the country’s eventual integration in Euro-Atlantic structures. Second, Russia has to stop its support of Georgia’s separatist regions. Third, Russia has to agree to replace its peacekeepers in the conflict zones with an international contingent, possibly composed by the troops from the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) countries. Most Georgian pundits concede that Moscow will likely regard these terms as unacceptable.
Ironically, the only thing Russian and Georgian analysts seem to agree on is their utterly pessimistic forecasts of how relations between Moscow and Tbilisi will evolve. According to Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, Russian-Georgian relations are bad, will likely get worse in the future, and there is no sign of a “thaw” in sight. The seemingly irreconcilable positions of Russian and Georgian policy elites bode ill for bilateral relations, as the further escalation would likely lead to bloody flare-ups, echoes Ghia Nodia, director of the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi.
But the significance of the Russian-Georgian spat goes far beyond the limits of the South Caucasus, thus making it a truly international problem.
First, it is widely accepted in Moscow that the United States sees Georgia as a geopolitically pivotal state and strategic partner. Thus the Kremlin believes that Tbilisi would never risk antagonizing its powerful northern neighbor without an encouraging nod from Washington. As a result, U.S.-Russian relations, already fragile, have deteriorated even further at a time when Washington badly needs Russian support in dealing with the nuclear defiance of North Korea and Iran as well as in the fight against the global jihadist networks.
“It is time to put aside the traditional hypocrisy and accept that what has developed around Georgia is a sort of mini Cold War,” one Russian liberal commentator asserts. Some Russian and international analysts warn about the danger of using Georgia as a playground in a zero-sum game between the world’s great powers. The problem is, they say, the big-time international actors risk ending up hostage to the weaker players. The latter are usually seen as the great powers’ proxies, but in fact they are sometimes quite good at playing the “big guys” off one another to pursue their own strategic ends.
Second, it is clear that Tbilisi’s urge to break up the Russia-supported status quo regarding the “frozen conflicts” is prompted by the approaching deadline to determine the status of Kosovo. As the likely outcome for the Serbian province is some sort of independence, the Saakashvili government is racing against time, fearing that Georgia’s breakaway regions may be lost forever following the international contact group’s decision.
While the West has always argued that Kosovo is a unique case, Russia has been pressing for the universality of the Kosovo model. But on October 4, the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, acknowledged that Kosovo’s quest for independence could have a negative effect on Georgia’s territorial integrity, conceding it would set a “precedent.” He also said that, during a recent phone conversation, the Georgian president had confessed to “tremendous worry” about the possible consequences that the ongoing UN-sponsored Kosovo status talks could have for Georgia. “We are trapped here,” Solana told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “President Saakashvili is trapped, all of us are trapped in a double mechanism that may have good consequences for one, but not for the other.”
The way this tricky knot is untied will seriously affect Russia-West relations. “The simultaneous exacerbation of the situation in Kosovo and the unrecognized regions in Georgia,” one Russian commentary argues, “will have reciprocal effects, threatening to destabilize the situation in both cases.”
(Moskovsky komsomolets, Vremya novostei, October 5; Kommersant, Moscow Times, RFE/RL, October 4; Gazeta.ru, October 3)