As the world observes the continuing clash between Russia and the West in Ukraine, tensions are rising further south, in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Like in Ukraine, rivalries among political factions and ethnic groups in Georgia dangerously intersect with the broader Russian and Western struggle for influence in the former Soviet space. Without the dialogue necessary for peace, a serious conflict could erupt here as well, with very negative implications for regional and international security. The situation can’t be ignored.
Located at a strategic crossroads between East and West, Georgia has been a major theater of contention for many years. A country rich in history and hospitality, it is viewed by Washington as a conduit to Central Asian energy and as a means of expanding influence into the former Soviet Union. Moscow views it as an important component of its traditional security structure, enhanced by history and the shared ties of Orthodox Christianity.
In 2003, the Washington-backed Rose Revolution in Tbilisi swept Georgian President and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze out of power, and brought in the American-educated, staunchly pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili’s government immediately sought to join the European Union and NATO and engaged in provocative anti-Russian rhetoric. Relations with Moscow quickly deteriorated. The situation reached the boiling point in August 2008, when Saakashvili launched a military assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which was protected by Russian peacekeepers. The attack precipitated a five-day war in which Russia expelled Georgian forces from South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, and then formally recognized both as independent states. In response, Saakashvili severed ties with Moscow. Six years later, Russo-Georgian relations remain at a standstill.
In many respects, the 2008 conflict seemed to be a prelude to the developments that are now unfolding in Ukraine. In both conflicts, NATO expansion and attempts by Washington to strengthen US influence in the region played key roles. In both cases, pro-Western governments—overtly antagonistic toward Moscow—did much to fan the flames. And in both cases, Moscow stood firm in protecting its interests.
In the years following the 2008 conflict, Saakashvili’s regime gradually collapsed. In October 2012 his party, the United National Movement (UNM), lost to the Georgian Dream coalition headed by the charismatic Imeretian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili’s victory seemed to herald a new era for Georgia. It was to be one informed more by balanced pragmatism than by Saakashvili’s penchant for pro-Western bluster.
As a leader, Ivanishvili was neither entirely pro-Russian nor pro-Western. He understood the benefits of a relationship with Moscow and vowed to repair relations with the hope of fully restoring diplomatic ties. He also sought reconciliation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and advocated for reopening the Abkhaz railway, which linked Armenia to Russia during the Soviet era. He kept Georgia’s NATO and EU ambitions on the table, likely as negotiating chips with Moscow to help ensure a peace deal with the Abkhaz and Ossetes. At the same time, he openly considered the idea of joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union.
Despite Ivanishvili’s reformist stance and his strategic and diplomatic posturing, he was limited in his ability to fundamentally change the situation because Saakashvili remained the nominal head of state in a power-sharing arrangement. After Saakashvili’s final defeat in the 2013 presidential election and Ivanishvili’s decision to retire from politics, they were replaced by two Ivanishvili associates: the philosopher and bon vivant Giorgi Margvelashvili as president and Irakli Garibashvili as prime minister, a mere 31 years old at the time of his appointment. With Saakashvili out of office, a new hope emerged that Russo-Georgian relations would be finally restored. The high point in this growing thaw occurred during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, when Russian President Vladimir Putin personally invited Margvelashvili to a one-on-one meeting.
However, when all eyes turned toward the Maidan, the meeting was put on hold indefinitely. As the Ukraine crisis intensified, the United States and the European Union stepped up their efforts to enhance their geopolitical position in the former Soviet space. US officials emphasized the importance of a Georgian future in NATO and full US support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. Meanwhile, the EU moved up the date of the signing of its Association Agreement with Tbilisi from August to June, granted more money to Tbilisi and persuaded the pro-Moscow leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church to support EU membership. In the absence of full diplomatic relations with Tbilisi, Russia was powerless to counteract any of these moves.
There were domestic concerns too. Within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, there are divisions between pragmatists (like Prime Minister Garibashvili) and hawks (like Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili) over how to pursue relations with Moscow. Even within the pragmatist camp, disagreements have emerged between Garibashvili and President Margvelashvili. Points of contention range from who should meet with Putin to who should sign the Association Agreement. The delineation between the power of the president and that of the prime minister in Georgia’s developing political system remains a subject of debate, and has been at the center of the ongoing Margvelashvili-Garibashvili feud. Until recently, both Margvelashvili and Garibashvili were planning to attend the UN Climate Summit, which would have made Georgia the only country represented by two heads of state. In the end, Margvelashvili canceled his participation at the event.
It is noteworthy that Ivanishvili has criticized Margvelashvili but has been largely silent amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis. In March, he only briefly touched on Ukraine when he predicted that Russia will “not concede regarding Crimea.” In an interview published in the weekly Kviris Palitra on September 15, he commented further. “God forbid the continuation of what is now going on in Ukraine,” he said. “Of course, it is horrible what is happening in Ukraine. We, all of us, and I personally support our neighboring country, Ukraine.” He also hoped “very much that everything will be settled in the near future” and for “peace to be established there soon.”
Contrast this to former President Saakashvili who has been a vocal supporter of Kiev and even served as an unofficial advisor to the post-Maidan Ukrainian government. The former Georgian leader’s involvement with Kiev led to protests from the Georgian government as well as the government of breakaway Abkhazia. In Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia, it was lampooned on ArmComedy, the Armenian version of The Daily Show. Speculation in the Caucasus about an official Saakashvili advisorship increased after the election of Petro Poroshenko. On May 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized a potential Saakashvili appointment, while Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili offered some “friendly advice” to Kiev: “keep Saakashvili at bay.” In the end, Poroshenko opted to appoint Kakha Bendukidze, a Saakashvili political ally, instead.
Today, Saakashvili is in self-imposed exile in Brooklyn, New York and with good reason. He is a wanted man in Georgia. Initially targeted for questioning with regard to the murder of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, he is now the subject of an investigation into alleged abuses and excesses of power during his presidency. Tbilisi's prosecutor has issued a warrant for his arrest, his property in Georgia has been impounded, his assets frozen, and efforts are now under way to issue an international arrest warrant via Interpol. In addition, Russia has spoken of a possible arrest warrant for Saakashvili’s attacks against civilians in the 2008 war in South Ossetia.
In response, Saakashvili laughed off the charges and promised to “arrive in Georgia” not as a criminal but as a hero, threatening to bring his own Maidan to Tbilisi. The Georgian government noted these declarations with concern. In April, Tbilisi’s Interior Ministry claimed that Saakashvili and the UNM were planning to “destabilize” Georgia with the aim of “overthrowing state institutions.” Interior Minister Aleksandr Tchikaidze also claimed that UNM members purchased car tires to stage Maidan-style burning barricades. In his interview, Ivanishvili warned that Saakashvili and the UNM “want Georgia to burn in flames, because they are no longer in power.” He maintained that “God saved us that they are no longer in power.”
Significantly, on September 10, the Interior Ministry raised these concerns for a second time. Prime Minister Garibashvili commented on the initial reports in April, stating that “no one will dare to stir destabilization in this country while we are in the government; if anyone has any such desire or attempt, they will be strictly punished.” He responded similarly to the second report in September. The possibility of widespread civil unrest is particularly troubling to Georgian officials, as the memory of the civil war in Georgia during the 1990s is still fresh in many people’s minds.
Yet, even though Saakashvili’s popularity is marginal in Georgia, and though his regime undoubtedly committed many abuses, the criminal charges from Tbilisi against him still prompted a barrage of criticism from the West. US senators from both parties expressed “extreme disappointment” and “concern” with the charges against Saakashvili, while EU officials and members of the Obama administration accused Tbilisi of “selective justice,” backsliding on its democratic obligations, and “deviating from the European path.” Georgia reacted with surprise to these accusations from its Western “partners.” Responding to Western criticism of the initial charges against Saakashvili, Prime Minister Garibashvili retorted that “no one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.”
In response to further criticism from the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, Garibashvili remarked that their reactions were not surprising as they represented members of a “kind of a club of Saakashvili’s friends. Regrettably, they were not aware of those terrible things that had been happening in Georgia for years.” On Twitter, Bildt replied that “if the Georgian Prime Minister does not want to listen to the best friends of his country in EU that’s his choice.”
Moscow has expressed concern about other recent developments. Georgia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement in June led to the suspension of the Russo-Georgian Free Trade Agreement, which had been in place since 1994. Bilateral trade between Russia and Georgia increased by 35 percent in the first few months of 2014, largely due to the restoration of trade relations under Ivanishvili. The Association Agreement threatens these dynamic new trade relations between both countries.
Moving toward the EU and potentially joining it carries even more serious economic risks for Georgia. As the Eurozone struggles to recover from a severe currency crisis, it is unlikely to deliver on the promise of a major economic transformation for Georgia. The EU’s newest Eastern European members (Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) have already stopped converging with their Western European counterparts. Citizens of several other Eastern European (and increasingly Southern European) countries have emigrated west, with no return in sight. For a country like Georgia, with a GDP per capita of about $6,000 and continued poverty and unemployment in the countryside, membership in the EU would not bring any dramatic changes and may, in the long term, serve to turn the population against the political elite.
A far greater concern to Moscow is Georgia’s continued pursuit of its NATO ambitions. At the height of the Ukraine crisis, Georgia’s hawks hoped that NATO would grant Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit in Wales in September. Despite signs that Washington might support such a move, Germany’s Angela Merkel quickly shot it down before it even reached serious discussion. Instead, Tbilisi was granted a NATO package that would, among other things, establish a NATO training facility in Georgia and give NATO the right to “occasionally” hold military exercises in the Caucasus country. Moscow was less than thrilled, though the denial of a MAP must have been a relief. Still, Putin took precautionary measures. In the run-up to the NATO summit, Russia began the process of forging a defensive military alliance with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After the NATO summit, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Tbilisi and pledged military aid to Georgia. This increased militarization of the Caucasus region is a troubling development and could have negative implications for broader European and the Middle Eastern regional security.
So, what is to be done? Georgia and Russia have to come to the table and start talking. Even without formal diplomatic relations, the leaders of both countries must meet. Putin’s invitation to Georgia’s Margvelashvili remains open. A meeting like this could set the tone for warmer relations, including a possible resolution of the longstanding Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues along federal or confederal lines.
Meanwhile, the West should recognize that efforts to expand NATO and the EU are not helpful to the pursuit of peace and should instead encourage all parties involved to settle their differences peacefully, amicably and naturally. Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia could work with the West as partners toward greater economic and political integration. The vision of a united Europe without walls, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, might then be realized. It could also lead toward a common security structure to address global problems, such as nuclear nonproliferation, limited water resources, world hunger, threatening diseases and common threats like ISIS.
The alternative to this option is the continued expansion of NATO into the post-Soviet space and the realization of Russia’s fear of seeing NATO bases within short distances of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. The ultimate nightmare would be to see these divisions entrenched and militarized with the presence of nuclear weapons. Suddenly, there would be a new cold war dividing line running directly through the volatile Caucasus. If the West persists with expanding into this region, it could very well make Georgia the next Ukraine.