Why Is Moscow so Nervous About the Warming Trend in Georgia-Belarus Relations?

By David Iberi

On July 13, Georgian media reported that the presidents of Georgia and Belarus, Mikheil Saakashvili and Alexander Lukashenka, had met in Crimea during the Georgian leader’s short trip to Ukraine a few days earlier. According to the office of the Georgian president, Saakashvili and Lukashenka discussed “the issues of bilateral relations and economic cooperation” and expressed their satisfaction at “deepening dialogue between the two countries.” Then, on July 15, Belarus’s state-owned TV channel aired an interview with the Georgian president – a risky undertaking for the Belarus leader whose gradually deteriorating relationship with the Kremlin has hit the nadir in past few months.

For Lukashenka, developing ties with Georgia is a retaliatory measure against the smear campaign Moscow has waged recently against his rule in Minsk. They have all of a sudden remembered in the Kremlin about “some horrible things” that were allegedly happening in Belarus sometime in the 1990s, and put them together in two propaganda documentaries entitled “The Godfather” and “Europe’s Last Dictator”. For Tbilisi, on the other hand, it is important that Minsk remains supportive of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity even under intense Russian pressure. Another factor is Georgia’s interest in developing economic cooperation and trade with Belarus and attracting Belarusian tourists to Georgia’s Black Sea resorts and mountain sites. The two countries might soon as well sign a comprehensive agreement on economic cooperation and establish a permanent intergovernmental commission. Belarus’s decision to advise its citizens “on security grounds” against visiting the Russian-occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia has been another reason for Tbilisi to praise Minsk’s “bold position”.

Political analysts and commentators close to the Kremlin as well as Russian politicians have reacted angrily to both the Saakashvili-Lukashenka meeting and the Saakashvili interview on Belarusian TV. But their ire has been directed not as much against the Georgian president as against Lukashenka and his increasingly disobedient behavior. One of the analysts was quoted by Regnum, a Russian news agency, as saying “It is obvious that Saakshvili is completely unacceptable for Moscow…and the fact that Lukashenka (who is officially Russia’s ally) has met with him is demonstrative of Belarus’s strong discontent with Moscow.” Another political commentator told the same Regnum that Lukashenka’s meeting with the Georgian leader was “absolutely senseless, especially given the deep physiological animosity that [the Russian prime minister] Vladimir Putin and [the Russian president] Dmitry Medvedev have shown toward Saakashvili.”

Boris Gryzlov, Chairman of the State Duma, the Russian legislative organ, for his part, has told Russian media that Saakashvili’s interview on Belarusian television will not benefit the Belarus-Russia ties. “Those who grant the opportunity to Saakashvili to feel himself as president…make decisions that could not help improve the relationship with Russia.” Since the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory, the high-ranking Russian officials almost never openly call the Georgian leader president and, apparently, demand the same approach from their allies, such as Belarus and a number of other states across the post-Soviet space.

In parallel with developing closer ties with the United States and the European Union, Tbilisi has intensified its diplomatic efforts to diversify its trade and economic relations. Georgia intends to open embassies in Brazil and Mexico in the coming fall to more directly engage with Latin America and the Caribbean. After Venezuela and Nicaragua had recognized the independence of the occupied Georgian regions, Tbilisi concluded that more diplomacy was needed in that part of the world.

But the importance of the post-Soviet space can never be underestimated given the traditional influence Moscow has in that vast region. Although Georgia is no longer a member of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS), it seeks to have good relations with the individual members of the CIS in order to both secure support for its sovereignty and develop economic cooperation with and attract investments from the region’s resource-rich nations. Horizontal relationship between Georgia and the CIS countries is an irritant for Moscow, on the other hand, since it is seen as potentially endangering Russia’s traditional clout over its former Soviet satellites.

Instead of recognizing Russia’s right to a sphere of influence, the Belarus leader has chosen to openly challenge Moscow by first shaking hands with the Kremlin’s arch nemesis President Saakashvili and then airing his interview on national TV.