Tbilisi Moves Closer to Moscow Vis-à-Vis the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 29

Tbilisi airport (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Georgia’s policy toward the North Caucasus has never been marked by continuity. It experienced ups and downs throughout the ages, according to historical evidence. The Chechens helped the Georgians against the Khazars in the distant past, and the first king of Georgia, Farnavaz, was married to a Chechen. Chechens restored the second Georgian king, Saurmag, to his throne (https://constitutions.ru/archives/2364). Georgia’s Queen Tamar incorporated Chechens and other North Caucasians into Georgia’s sphere of influence though the work of missionaries and the building of churches in the Northern Caucasus (https://www.bogoslov.ru/text/409098.html). The Georgians and North Caucasians fought alongside each other against the Mongol invasion (https://www.iriston.com/nogbon/print.php?newsid=17). The North Caucasians supported Georgian Prince Alexander in his fight against the incorporation of Georgia into the Russian Empire (https://statehistory.ru/books/Kavkazskaya-voyna–Tom-2–Ermolovskoe-vremya/12). Georgians and North Caucasians also fought together against the Bolsheviks (https://www.gazavat.ru/history3.php?rub=25&art=437), and so on.

In more recent times, Georgian politicians have based the country’s policies on the premise that Tbilisi should not irritate Moscow. Moreover, Georgian politicians tried to forge a union with Moscow against the radicals, above all the Chechen separatists (https://lenta.ru/vojna/2004/09/29/saakashvili). However, Moscow showed no appreciation for these overtures by Georgia, which, in turn, started to move toward closer cooperation with the North Caucasian peoples.

Georgian policy changed dramatically following the Russian aggression in August 2008, and then President Mikheil Saakashvili made a statement about supporting the Chechens in their struggle against the Russian government (https://vesti.az/news/17978). A range of decisions were taken to improve Georgia’s special positions in Caucasus regional politics. Perhaps most notable was Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian “genocide” of the second half of the 19th century (https://www.newsru.com/world/20may2011/genotsid.html).

The Georgian government’s logic was not entirely coherent, however. Having recognized the Circassian “genocide,” Tbilisi did not note that the European Parliament had recognized Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of the Chechens as an “act of genocide” back in February 2004 (https://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&reference=P5-TA-2004-0121&language=PL).

Also following the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the government of Georgia took several significant steps to make it easier for North Caucasians to travel to Georgia. Visa requirements were lifted for all residents of the North Caucasus, students were invited for study in Georgia at the Georgian government’s expense, and a cultural center was established in Tbilisi, among many other things.

However, after the new government came to power in Georgia in 2012, the policies initiated by the Saakashvili government toward the North Caucasus began to be reversed. The new Georgian government of Bidzina Ivanishvili, and that of his successor Irakly Garibashvili, tried to mollify Russia and discredit the policies of their predecessor. Statements about Georgia’s willingness to help Russia to combat terrorism started to be voiced again (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/236717/; see EDM, February 12).

Today, the Georgian government has discussed the policy of opening a joint anti-terrorist center in Batumi and Pankisi (https://www.frontnews.ge/ru/news/25340). In theory such a development would allow the Russian security services to be in the position to play a covert role in Georgia again and would eliminate all the previous efforts to restore trust between Georgia and the people of the North Caucasus.

The possibility of opening a joint anti-terrorist center with Russia inside Georgia does not look improbable against the backdrop of the gestures the government of Garibashvili is prepared to make in order to restore relations with Russia. These moves give Georgia little in terms of its development, but they provide Moscow with trump cards to put pressure on the Georgian government.

Since the summer of 2013 Chechen students studying in Tbilisi have complained that Georgian border guards discriminate against them when they enter Georgia from Russia, subjecting them to hours-long inspections at the border. In the last few days, some students were even refused entry into Georgia (https://wordyou.ru/v-rossii/na-xolmy-gruzii-legla-ten-shovinizma.html).

North Caucasians who arrive at the international airport in Tbilisi are made uncomfortable as border guards allow ethnic Russian tourists, businessmen and politicians to pass through, while those with passports indicating they were born in the North Caucasus are subjected to numerous lengthy inquiries. A well-known Dagestani scholar who lives in Moscow recently found himself in such a situation: all his ethnic Russian colleagues received a warm reception in Tbilisi, while he was questioned at the border because of his birthplace.

The official website of Tbilisi’s International School for Caucasus Studies (https://iscs.iliauni.edu.ge/index.php?lang_id=RUS&sec_id=8) has made no announcement about accepting North Caucasians for study during the period of 2014–2016. This program has made it possible for North Caucasians to receive the equivalent of a European Certificate and it will be disappointing for many if the program is discontinued.

The current Georgian government sometimes attempts to use Chechens in their struggle with the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili. It has used the 2012 Lopota incident—when Georgian special forces became involved in a shootout with an armed group that included ethnic Chechens who had allegedly tried to cross into Georgia from Dagestan—to try to depict its opponents from the United National Movement in a negative light (https://www.georgiatimes.info/interview/80525.html).

A year and a half after the incident, Georgian authorities tried to force a Chechen who resides in the Pankisi Gorge to provide false testimony against the previous government. Saikhan Musaev, 35, who lived in Pankisi and worked as a translator for various non-governmental organizations, revealed that top interior ministry officials tried to force him to provide testimony against former Saakashvili government officials and to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zS_7faJn9s). In his statement, Musaev provided the names and telephone numbers of people in the government who allegedly tried to obtain evidence against the officials who worked in the Saakashvili government. Musaev’s story shows that the Georgian authorities are prepared even to move closer to Russia in order to mar the image of their political opponents inside Georgia.

Thus, we see the North Caucasians once again becoming a bargaining chip in Georgian internal politics. This trend is likely to cause North Caucasians to see Georgia as a country that is not a reliable political ally. More generally, this could undermine the image of Tbilisi as an alternative to Moscow as a center for all Caucasians. The chances for Tbilisi to become such a center could quickly evaporate given the policies adopted by the current Georgian government. While failing to move closer to Russia, Georgia may at the same time experience a rupture with North Caucasians that would reverse all the gains made in the past several years when Tbilisi became a new beacon of education and enlightenment for the beleaguered peoples of the Northern Caucasus.