MOSCOW (Sergei Markedonov for RIA Novosti) - Russia's relations with Georgia are one of the most acute and problematic aspects of foreign policy in the Caucasus.
Previously a "fraternal," i.e. former Soviet republic, Georgia has become one of Moscow's most intractable partners in the former Soviet space.
Relations between the two are paradoxical. On the one hand, traditional bilateral ties are maintained, primarily cultural: Georgia was part of the Russian Empire for 200 years, and its political class from the Bagrationis to Shevardnadze was incorporated into the Russian elite. On the other hand, there is a burden of mutual claims and differences inherited from perestroika and the post-Soviet era.
The events of April 1989 in Tbilisi, when soldiers broke up demonstrations, were a catalyst for the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia's newly won sovereignty was accompanied by the growth of anti-Russian sentiments. During the Yeltsin era, President Eduard Shevardnadze - the "White Fox" - was primarily seen as an associate of Gorbachev, Yeltsin's greatest opponent as the Soviet Union fell apart, and thus his actions were seen as potentially hostile.
Mikhail Saakashvili's takeover should have lead to radically changed relations between the countries. However, the Rose Revolution leader's aim of unifying Georgia stemmed from a search for an external enemy to blame for the country's insolvency. Post-Soviet Georgia's responsibility for inter-ethnic conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia was thus shifted onto Russia, and the Georgian-Abkhaz and the Georgian-Ossetian conflicts became Russian-Georgian conflicts.
The Georgian elite and experts pushed the idea of a "flight from the empire" as a basic prerequisite for the country's integration into the community of "civilized states" and the "Western world."
Consequently, according to the ideologists of Georgian independence, the "young Georgian democracy" could win the confrontation with Moscow only by maintaining full-scale cooperation with the United States, Europe, and international organizations (first of all NATO). This was supposed to bring internal stability and peace to Georgia.
The current head of Georgia became president on the wave of the revolution and hopes for an early "unification of Georgian lands," for the settlement of the issue of refugees from Abkhazia and to overcome national humiliation. However, Saakashvili now has to fulfill the generous political promises he made.
In the "struggle for the unification of Georgia," Saakashvili is pragmatic. If Russia suits this purpose, he is prepared to become pro-Russian. However, as Russia is unprepared for a unilateral withdrawal from Abkhazia and South Ossetia (without a fair settlement in these hot spots), Saakashvili made his choice in favor of strategic cooperation with the United States.
However, it may turn out that the United States and Russia have common interests in a stabilization of the situation in Georgia. In recent years, Russian-U.S. relations have suggested this is the case, although it is obvious that neither the United States nor the EU has prepared scenarios to deploy a presence in the Caucasus, at least to settle internal Georgian conflicts.
However, regardless of this, Russia will remain one of the Caucasus's centers of gravity. It is objectively interested in a single, open and friendly Georgia. Tbilisi is interested in the preservation of unity and territorial integrity, while for Russia it is advantageous to have as a neighbor, a state which can prevent terrorists from turning a part of its territory into a testing range and recreational base.
The Greater Caucasus is a single social-political organism, despite the borders arbitrarily drawn by the Bolsheviks. Any conflict that begins there may spread to Russia's North Caucasus.
Russia can be criticized for its support of Abkhaz separatism, but the pro-Russian sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Abkhazians and their reluctance to see anyone except Russian servicemen as peacekeepers is a hard fact. As a result, there are no pro-Georgian politicians in Abkhazia, with the Abkhaz "government-in-exile" being led by ethnic Georgians.
Undoubtedly, for Russia to recognize Abkhazia's sovereignty would be a mistake. However, the Georgian side also needs to reconsider the reality: Georgia is not a country of ethnic Georgians alone, and it was the attempt by Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, to ignore this - and not "Moscow's imperial schemes" - that led to the split that Georgia still cannot overcome single-handed.
Ethnic minorities in Georgia are interested in a Russian presence there, seeing Russian peacekeepers as a guarantee of security. Although the withdrawal of Russian bases is already decided, it would be premature to pull Russian peacekeepers out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The most important thing is to prove to the Georgian elite and the world community that the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers would lead to new conflicts. This was proved by last year's events in Tskhinvali. Does Georgia need this?
Sergei Markedonov is deputy head of the interethnic problems department at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis