New Georgian Cabinet to Walk Tightrope

The headquarters of the victorious Georgian Dream coalition was abuzz and crowded both inside and outside earlier this month, shortly after the group led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili unexpectedly won the parliamentary elections in Georgia.

The headquarters of the victorious Georgian Dream coalition was abuzz and crowded both inside and outside earlier this month, shortly after the group led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili unexpectedly won the parliamentary elections in Georgia.

Inside, members of the new cabinet spoke in a radically new tone about their intentions to improve relations with Russia and decrease the tension with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognized their independence in the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia that led to the break of diplomatic and economic relations between the post-Soviet states sharing 200 years of common history.

In the crowded square and surrounded by agitated visitors seeking appointments and jobs in the new government, the US ambassador’s car was parked, proudly carrying the Stars and Stripes on the front fender and signaling that the superpower, which used to be seen as a staunch supporter of  President Mikheil Saakashvili, is now talking to his political opponents.

“We have the same [foreign policy] priorities as Georgia has had for 20 years already – European and Euro-Atlantic integration, partnership with the United States and good relations with our neighbors,” Maya Pandzhikidze, who has since been approved as the country’s foreign minister, said then in an interview. “The new thing, we can say, is improving relations with Russia.” She said, however, that the cabinet had a “vision,” but no concrete roadmap for it, naming economic and cultural ties as a good starter.

On Monday, US Ambassador Richard Noland met with Ivanishvili and handed him greetings from President Barack Obama, RIA Novosti reported. Ivanishvili pledged to “do his best to deepen relations with Georgia’s greatest friend,” while the ambassador promised continued U.S. support for Goergia’s “Euro-Atlantic integration” – a euphemism for eventual NATO membership.

How the new cabinet is going to balance out these often mutually exclusive goals remains a big question. In the meantime, Georgia and Russia started a fascinating game of sending each other signals about possible steps to improve relations.

To fulfill the expectations of ordinary voters, the Georgian Dream government has to meet two immediate goals: to reopen the Russian market for Georgian products, namely wine, produce and mineral water which have a traditional demand in Russia. And to have Russia waive visas for Georgians, which were introduced as a result of the 2008 war. Everybody seems to understand that the greater goals, such as finding a solution over Abkhazia and South Ossetia where Russian troops are deployed, or achieving Moscow’s consent to Georgia’s possible NATO membership, should be left for a distant future, experts say.

Asymmetrical Signals

Ivanishvili sent the first major signal right after the elections saying that Georgia will not boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi as Saakashvili had vowed. That statement went unanswered in Moscow. But last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting with his Swiss colleague that Moscow expects Georgia to free Russian citizens who are “unfairly” sentenced and locked up in Georgian prisons.

“Russia has clearly said which gesture it would appreciate,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of Russia in Global Affairs journal and one of Russia’s top foreign policy commentators. He explained that the question applies to several Russians sentenced for espionage and others, who are sentenced under an “insane” Georgian law that criminalizes entering the territories of Abkhazia or South Ossetia other than from the Georgian side. That makes all Russians who had been to the republics criminals once they set foot on Georgian territory.

Saakashvili unilaterally lifted visas for Russians in February this year, and several politicians interviewed in Tbilisi said it would be seen as a good gesture from Russia if Moscow did the same for Georgians. But Lukyanov said this is unlikely.

“Moscow proceeds from the understanding that if Georgia needs something, let them show initiative, and we’ll see,” Lukyanov said. “In Georgia, they think that they will take a step and will wait for a step from Moscow. Unfortuantely, it won’t be that way. Georgia needs to take several steps, after which Russia may take its step, or show its positive reaction.”

Peaceful Means

What is changing already is the rhetoric in Tbilisi.

The new parliament speaker and leader of the liberal Western-oriented Republican Party, David Usupashvili, said in an interview that improving relations with Russia “is a long way” and no new problems need to be created.

“We have to give up the role of a whistleblower on how undemocratic Russia is,” Usupashvili said. “There are plenty of others who have always done that, it is not Georgia’s business to criticize Russian democracy.” He also said that Georgia should not be “arrogant” based on its hopes for American and European support but should pursue its strategic course of eventually joining NATO and the European Union.

“But it should be done not in a way that would be a victory over Russia, but in a way that Russians understand that it is not a loss for them, just a logical process,” he said.

The other major change is a repeated proclamation by the Georgian Dream politicians that the problem of Georgia’s territorial integrity – although acute and highly important – should be solved by peaceful means only.

“There is no military solution to this problem,” said Irakli Alasania, leader of the Our Georgia – Free Democrats party, who has become vice premier and defense minister. "The fundament of our relations [with Abkhazians and South Ossetians] should be economy, humanitarian issues and infrastructure projects carried out by people on both sides of the administrative border.”

The appointment of Paata Zakareishvili, a prominent expert on conflict resolution, to the post of “reintegration” minister in charge of relations with the breakaway territories is seen as another sign of a peaceful new course.

Alasania said that he planned to reduce Georgia’s army from the current 30,000, but would keep its commitments in Afghanistan, where it will shortly send a second battalion.

Such rhetoric is particularly important since it is coming from politicians with a solid pro-Western reputation, who were invited by Ivanishvili to the coalition in part to soothe Western concerns that he would lead Georgia back into Moscow’s realm.

Achieving the Impossible

It would nonetheless be a tough job to achieve Tbilisi’s new proclaimed goals, most notably convincing Moscow that Georgia’s NATO membership is acceptable.

“The question of Georgia’s NATO membership is not anybody’s agenda,” Lukyanov said. “The 2008 war had one effect – the question of NATO’s expansion to post-Soviet territory was de facto closed because even the hotheaded proponents of such membership did not want to risk another conflict with Russia. Georgia’s NATO membership is an absolute chimera, which will live forever.”

He added that much would depend on the position of the United States, which may endanger the equilibrium if neoconservatives regain influence in Washington.

On the other hand, what Russia is interested in is tricky issues such as a military transit to Armenia, which is vital for Armenia but complicated not only by Georgian fears of the Russian military, but also by Georgia’s economic dependency on oil transit from Armenia’s foe Azerbaijan.

“What we need is closed informal meetings with some empowered emissaries to talk not about Russian-Georgian relations, but about security in the South Caucasus, especially considering the possibility of a war with Iran, which will change everything dramatically,” Lukyanov said.

On November 1, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili appointed Zurab Abashidze the country’s special envoy for relations with Russia.

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