Sakartvelo Revisited: Russia Must Adopt A New Georgia Policy

The opposition to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has cornered itself by making his resignation the only demand of the street protests in Tbilisi — and the only topic of a potential dialogue with the authorities.  Meanwhile, the protest actions organized by the opposition are rapidly losing steam, whereas Saakashvili has been much cooler under pressure than the famous tie-chewing video of him would imply.  

It's hard to say how many Georgians really want to see Saakashvili gone today, in the midst of economic crisis.  (His second — and last — term in office officially expires only in 2013).  It's worth remembering, however, that two previous Georgian presidents had both left office prematurely, ousted as a result of either a violent coup d'etat (Gamsakhurdia) or the fairly peacefull "Rose Revolution" (Shevardnadze).  The burden is on the opposition to explain why forcing the third president in a row out of office by force or pressure would benefit Georgia's long-term national interests — especially in light of the opposition's loudly professed fondness of "constitutional order" and the "rule of law." 

Besides, some faces in the opposition camp can't help but raise eyebrows.  Take Irakli Alasania.  At the tender age of 35, Alasania boasts a resume full of law enforcement jobs, including a two-year stint as deputy Minister of State Security.  Everyone watching the U.N. Security Council meetings on tv during the August war between Russia and Georgia remembers Alasania, then Georgia's U.N. representative, passionately defending Saakashvili's aggression against South Ossetia.  But in December, Alasania quit his job, returned to Tbilisi, and immediately accused Saakashvili in "falling into a Russian trap."

It beats me what differences an "opposition leader" like Alasania can have with Saakashvili.  Apparently similar to those that Judas had with Jesus Christ when Jesus was arrested by temple-guards in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Not surprisingly, Alasania and another sworn Saakashvili foe (and, naturally, his close ally in the very recent past), Nino Burjanadze, are darlings of the American media.  The Wall Street Journal has explained why: "Both speak fluent English, and want the U.S.-Georgia relationship to grow."  (Ironically, Salome Zourabichvili, a real opposition figure – she broke with Saakashvili back in 2005 — who also wants the U.S.-Georgia relationship to grow, is virtually unknown in the United States.  No wonder: born in Paris, Zourabichvili speaks fluent French.)

It is becoming increasingly evident that barred an unforeseen event — like a provocation by a "rogue" opposition group followed by mass riots — Saakashvili will successfully navigate through the rough waters of public discontent to remain in power.

And this raises an uneasy question of what Russia's policy toward Georgia should be.  For now, Russia has  poor choices.  On the one hand,  having labeled Saakasvili a "political corpse", Moscow has made it abundantly clear that, with Saakashvili in place, its dialogue with Tbilisi is out of the question.  On the other hand, Moscow should realize that all major opposition groups are as strongly anti-Russian as Saakashvili.  In other words, Russia will be facing hostile Georgian leadership until 2013 — with Saakashvili at the helm — or until 2014-2015, should the opposition have its way by ousting Saakashvili and holding a new presidential election. 

Russia should adopt a new Georgia policy, a policy that would temper Moscow's passion for the "regime change" in Tbilisi and would instead employ a direct outreach to Georgian people.  (Recent examples of such "over-the-head" approaches have been provided by President Barack Obama with his video message to Iranians celebrating Nowruz and easing restrictions on travel and money transfer to Cuba). 

The goal of this new policy would be preventing further alienation of Georgia's political elites and helping pro-Russian (or at least, Russia-"neutral") forces come to power during the next electoral cycle.  

The time for such an outreach is ripe.  There is a lingering feeling in Georgian political circles that Saakashvili had "overinvested" in Georgia's relations with the United States at the expense of its relations with Russia.  There is also a sober realization of the fact that with two wars and economic crisis at hand, the Obama administration will make Georgia a lesser priority than it has been for the previous administration.  Should Russia decide to unclench its fist, this move will likely be met with a guarded welcome the other side of the Caucasus mountains. 

A few concrete steps could be envisioned.  First, Russia should lift the 2006 embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water as it is only hurting its own consumers.  After all, it's little secret that the decision to impose the wine embargo, although political in its core, was heavily lobbied by Russia's beer and hard liquor manufacturers.  The immediate resumption of the cross-border trade will also be taken as a friendly gesture by many ordinary Georgians.

Second, Moscow should lift all restrictions in traveling  to Russia and resume granting working and tourist visas — in addition to educational and "humanitarian" that it began issuing in March.  Completely visa-free travel should be allowed to Georgians having close relatives in Russia.  Entry to Russia should only be closed to top Georgian officials and all individuals suspected in planning and executing Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia.  

Third, Russia should come up with a list of bilateral business projects.  Here, soliciting advice from Kakha Bendukidze, former Russian "oligarch" and former Saakashvili state minister on economic reforms, could help.  Having been accused by the opposition in promoting "too-Russia-oriented" economic policy, Bendukidze was finally forced, in February, out of government.  He might be available, and giving him a call would be a good idea.

Lastly, when the Russian ambassador to Georgia is to return to Tbilisi, Moscow should consider replacing the current one, a career diplomat Vyacheslav Kovalenko, with a public figure who will be known to and popular with the Georgian people.  In 1991, Alexandr Bovin, a prominent journalist and TV personality, was appointed as the Russian ambassador to Israel.  Immensely popular with Israelis of Russian origin and the Israeli public at large, Bovin has profoundly contributed to improving Russia-Israel relations.

(When thinking about Alla Pugacheva who, at age 60, has just announced the completion of her outstanding artistic career, I'm only half-joking.  To be sure, Pugacheva will consider the ambassadorship to Georgia as a demotion.  But you get my point).

Recently addressing an audience at the London School of Economic and Political Science, President Medvedev spoke of "the deep-rooted friendship that has long existed between the Russian and Georgian peoples."  It would be a shame to make this friendship a hostage of a madman sitting in the presidential palace in Tbilisi.  

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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24 Responses to Sakartvelo Revisited: Russia Must Adopt A New Georgia Policy

  1. Those are all excellent ideas. I nominate Zurab Tsereteli.
    I’ve always been under the impression that all these embargoes are counter-productive, and Russia should focus more on soft power (things are improving on that front, but not quickly enough – Russia is good with getting its point across via media, which is not surprising because it has the best funded TV channels in the region and everyone knows Russian in the region, but there are too little people to people and cultural contacts). Give a decade, and all the former Soviet republics will fall into place to the pro-Russian camp.
    The US has accepted this state of affairs in Latin America, what with its outreach to Venezuela and perhaps even Cuba; Russia should follow suit.

  2. Eugene, DR & Co.
    The predication on the next Georgian president is of the view that he/she will be not be anymore pro-Russian than Saakashvili.
    Perhaps this plays in part on why Russia decided to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Specifically, the view that trying to woo Georgia is a lost cause of sorts. On the other hand, Russia seems more comfortable with the political situation in Moldova, in a way that partly explains why the Kremlin doesn’t support Pridnestrovie’s independence.
    As discussed earlier at this blog, I understand the opinion that Russia recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia makes it possible for Russia to better legally enter into agreements with territories that are recognized as nations. On the other hand, just how recognized are South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
    Russia can pretty much do what it wants in South Ossetia and Abkhazia without granting independence recognition to them. Unfortunately, for the latter two, they seem to have limited options. “Legality?” How legal is it to recognize Kosovo’s independence relative to UNSCR 1244? Russia’s position in South Ossetia and Abkhazia falls under the “might makes right” reality. Russia couldn’t fly supplies and personnel into Kosovo to support its troops on the ground there because Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania denied over flight permission for such action. Did NATO receive over flight permission from Yugoslavia to bomb that country? Did NATO get UN approval to bomb Yugoslavia?
    The Russian independence recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia served to further infuriate Georgians at Russia.
    PR wise the greater number of countries recognizing Kosovo’s independence to South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s isn’t in Russia’s favor. This has nothing to do with Kosovo having so much a better case (if at all) for independence as it does with the greater geopolitical clout of the leading Western countries over Russia. Nevertheless, the differential isn’t a positive for Russia. A Russian non-recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence can be spun in a way that shows consistency over hypocrisy, in addition to making Russia not as unpopular with Georgians.
    I once again note how the Western NGO support to Kostunica and Djindjic didn’t include open support for Kosovo’s independence. Had the Western NGOs pursued such a path at that time, Djindjic and Kostunica would’ve probably been dead meat.
    An ongoing theme of post-Soviet Russo-Georgian relations notes how it has taken a noticeable dive. Just as quickly as it dived, it can improve with the right policies put in place.
    Not recognizing South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence at this time would arguably focus a greater Georgian anger at Saakashvili and less of it towards Russia.
    Pardon my repeating some of these points again.

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Anatoly!
    With regards to embargoes, Russia had argued many times in the past (on Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, etc.) that “embargoes don’t work.” The burden is therefore on Russia to prove that this embargo is working.
    Regards,
    Eugene

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike!
    The points you’re “repeating” here are so good that there is no harm to repeat ’em again🙂
    You know my position on the recognition of independence of Abkhazia and S Ossetia (articulated here in August: http://theivanovosti.typepad.com/the_ivanov_report/2008/08/the-point-of-no-return.html), and I know that you disagree with this opinion.
    However, quoting our president: it’s time to look forward, not back.
    I do believe that the August war was not exactly a bilaterial conflict between Russia and Georgia. Rather, it was a “trilateral” conflict between Russia and Georgia and Georgia and S Ossetia/Abkhazia (and this is on the assumption that relations between Russia and S Ossetia/Abkhazia are harmonius, which are not).
    Even the opposition in Georgia realizes, however grudgingly, that it’s not the August war that led to the loss of S Ossetia/Abkhazia; it happened long ago. Consequently, there is realization of the fact (and let’s give Alasania credit for that) that Georgians have their work to do to patch their differences with the separatists.
    In my opinion, this gives Russia some opportunity to talk to Georgia outside the issue of lost territories. And Russia must use this opportunity.
    Let’s face it: S Ossetia and, to a lesser extent, Abkhazia are burden for Russia — at least in the short term. (Yes, I know that Abkhazia could be the next host of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but let’s not discuss it here). It’s thus quite possible that in the future, Russia will have to decide what is more important to it: the independence of S Ossetia/Abkhazia or good relations with Georgia. Russia therefore has to pave the ground for the other option, too.
    Regards,
    Eugene

  5. Interesting times for sure Eugene.
    Some say that down the lines Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia might eventually get joint international recognition in a great power negotiated scenario.
    On the other hand, I’ve noted recent talk that Kosovo’s recognized independence can be de-recognized by at least some nations taking that route. Going back on an independence recognition is tough because of the increased expectation level the given disputed territory gets after receiving some independence recognition. In addition, a number of countries that recognize a disputed territory might not like to go back on their decision because it can be seen as acknowledging a mistake. On the other hand, the future political leadership in countries can dramatically change, with new folks and ideas.
    All this can likely remain unresolved for quite some time, if there’s a prolonged non-violence between the disputed parties, with socioeconomic improvements. Under this situation, many would take a leave it alone stance on the basis that a decision against one sides or sides could potentially escalate tensions in a way that could enhance the likelihood of an ignited conflict.
    Best,
    Mike

  6. Interesting article I found…
    http://www.finchannel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=35088&Itemid=1
    Basically it argues that much of the growth that occured under Saakashvili was phantom, and that Russia’s ban on Georgian wine imports significantly hurt its economy.

  7. Igor says:

    Good summary, Eugene & informative – as usual.
    Just as an off-the-cuff remark… – you see, I am too busy/lazy to write my own blog so I use yours instead🙂
    Perhaps, with military bases within ~40km from Tbilisi, Moscow does not really need to care about what Georgians think about Russia or who the president is there-and, perhaps, Moscow does not ( really care & should stop pretending that it does – after all SO & Abkhazia are now **permanent** problems, created not without Russia’s carefully(?) calculated “help” ) .
    An interesting view of the problem from T.Gudava http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1239484920 :
    “Суть проста: народ [грузинский –I.Y.] избрал именно ТАКОГО президента [Саакашвили- I.Y.] , как избрал германский народ Гитлера. И проблема тут не в президентах, а в народе”.
    Improve Russia’s image among Georgians?
    Shall the Russians be concerned what such a nation thinks about them?
    Continuing the analogy (and off the original subject), what was the “solution” then, in 1940s? Yes, add Kosovo, Pridnestrovie, Afghanistan etc etc plus the recent/current spectacular demonstration of the advantages of free market capitalism… A question which really bothers me: had the “reset” button been really pressed in Washington or we are still going full speed where we were going ..
    Cheers , Igor

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    “All this can likely remain unresolved for quite some time, if there’s a prolonged non-violence between the disputed parties, with socioeconomic improvements.”
    Mike, this is a good point, and I would emphasize “a prolonged non-violence” here.
    I think that Moscow should be open to any (initially, low-key) negotiations with Tbilisi with the major precondition being signing a legally-binding agreement not to use military force in disputed territories — and not Sakkashvili’s removal.
    Best,
    Eugene

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Anatoly,
    Thanks for the great link. I have to(shamefully) admit that it was the first comprehensive report on Georgia’s economy that I ever read.
    I also have to admit that, no matter what, I like Bendukidze (whom I met in our “prior” lives as Russian scientists). I do believe that Russia had missed the boat of buying Georgian state assets when Bendukidze was in charge of privatization and was always sympathetic to the needs of his former Russian colleagues. I believe that had Russia been more assertive in buying into Georgian economy back then, many things could have been differently now.
    One more thing: I reject criticism of Putin for his alledged “inability” to restructure Russian economy in 8 years. By the same token, I’d be reluctant to criticize Saakashvili for failing to dramatically imptove Georgian economy in 5.5.
    Best,
    Eugene

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Igor privet!
    Great comments as usual.
    I don’t think you’re as cynical as you want to appear: if our tanks are 40 km from Tbilisi, we shouldn’t care what the Georgian think about us. What is the distance we should start caring: 400 km, 4,000 km ?🙂
    You understand pretty well the need for a decent PR to project “good” Russia image on other country — don’t pretend otherwise. (By the way, generally negative attitude toward Russia makes “resetting” US-Russia relations very difficult, no matter how hard the guy in the Oval Office may try.)
    Russia should be concerned what Georgians think about it for one simple reason: when during the next parliamentary elections some potentially pro-Russian forces start campaigning, they should be able to point to something positive emanating from Russia — without danger of being labeled “Russian spies.”
    Best,
    Eugene

  11. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Igor privet!
    Great comments as usual.
    I don’t think you’re as cynical as you want to appear: if our tanks are 40 km from Tbilisi, we shouldn’t care what the Georgian think about us. What is the distance we should start caring: 400 km, 4,000 km ?🙂
    You understand pretty well the need for a decent PR to project “good” Russia image on other country — don’t pretend otherwise. (By the way, generally negative attitude toward Russia makes “resetting” US-Russia relations very difficult, no matter how hard the guy in the Oval Office may try.)
    Russia should be concerned what Georgians think about it for one simple reason: when during the next parliamentary elections some potentially pro-Russian forces start campaigning, they should be able to point to something positive emanating from Russia — without danger of being labeled “Russian spies.”
    Best,
    Eugene

  12. Alex says:

    Well, Eugene – that was very good – “What is the distance we should start caring..” Tuche. But mine was pragmatism, not cynism, meaning also that the distance depends on who we are talking about… And abot the elections – also good. I have to agree with this argument- as long as it does not cost too much. ..When I mentioned the “reset” button I did not mean the R-U surficial “relations”, but (the distinct feeling) that the US had been(?) seriously preparing a war with Russia under the later Bush – & I expressed my mild hope that the WH might have gotten wiser since..Cheers, Igor

  13. Alex says:

    Well, Eugene – that was very good – “What is the distance we should start caring..” Tuche. But mine was pragmatism, not cynism, meaning also that the distance depends on who we are talking about… And abot the elections – also good. I have to agree with this argument- as long as it does not cost too much. ..When I mentioned the “reset” button I did not mean the R-U surficial “relations”, but (the distinct feeling) that the US had been(?) seriously preparing a war with Russia under the later Bush – & I expressed my mild hope that the WH might have gotten wiser since..Cheers, Igor

  14. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Igor. A quick note: yes, the WT seems to have gotten wiser, but that appears to be the only place in this country so far that has experienced such a remarkable transformation… (Just read my WP pieces — kidding, kidding, kidding)
    Take care,
    Eugene

  15. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Igor. A quick note: yes, the WT seems to have gotten wiser, but that appears to be the only place in this country so far that has experienced such a remarkable transformation… (Just read my WP pieces — kidding, kidding, kidding)
    Take care,
    Eugene

  16. Alex says:

    I did.The last piece was no improvement over the previous – that is, it was as good as before.
    Re; “the only place in the country”.. What makes up the (US) “country”? As orthogonal basis functions I can list only: WH and Pentagon. We may add your blog as the third one if you were to insist :))
    Cheers

  17. “We may add your blog as the third one if you were to insist” NO-O-O-O!!!!
    As for last WP piece being of no improvement over the previous — well, point is well taken: Будем работать.
    Take care,
    Eugene

  18. Eugene & Co.
    THERE ARE NO PRO-RUSSIAN POLITICIANS IN GEORGIA
    http://www.eurasianhome.org/xml/t/expert.xml?lang=en&nic=expert&pid=2015
    The title and content gets back to what might’ve partly motivated Russia to recognize S. Ossetia and Abkhazia.
    Broken record and all, I still say it was in Russia’s interests to hold off on that decision. What in historical terms has seen a sharp decline in Russo-Georgian relations can eventually be changed with the right move(s).
    Eugene, I kind of get the impression that this time of the year is subject to bland coverage, unless something extraordinary happens. In May, many students and academics alike tend to be grinding things out. Early May is a holiday in Russia, with the end of that month being such for us Yanks.

  19. Eugene & Co.
    THERE ARE NO PRO-RUSSIAN POLITICIANS IN GEORGIA
    http://www.eurasianhome.org/xml/t/expert.xml?lang=en&nic=expert&pid=2015
    The title and content gets back to what might’ve partly motivated Russia to recognize S. Ossetia and Abkhazia.
    Broken record and all, I still say it was in Russia’s interests to hold off on that decision. What in historical terms has seen a sharp decline in Russo-Georgian relations can eventually be changed with the right move(s).
    Eugene, I kind of get the impression that this time of the year is subject to bland coverage, unless something extraordinary happens. In May, many students and academics alike tend to be grinding things out. Early May is a holiday in Russia, with the end of that month being such for us Yanks.

  20. I apologize for the awkward ending, which concerns your most recent post of May 19, as opposed to this one.

  21. I apologize for the awkward ending, which concerns your most recent post of May 19, as opposed to this one.

  22. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    Thanks for your comments. I find it somewhat unnatural — for the lack of a better word — that with one million of Georgians living in Russia, there are no pro-Russian politicians in Georgia.
    I considet this as a blatant failure of the Russian diplomacy and blame personally Lavrov for this failure. For Lavrov, diplomacy is Russia’s relations with the U.S. and E.U. The rest is either interior or tourism.
    Have a great Memorial Day weekend!
    Best,
    Eugene

  23. You as well Eugene.
    Off the record, I heard from someone with Russian Foreign Ministry ties that the recognition move was Medvedev’s choosing (I’m not keen on naming unnamed sources – but see when certain situations gear one into such a mode).
    This would make sense given how a number of Kremlin connected Russian foreign policy elites were surprised by the timing of the recognition move. Dmitry Babich had an article about this at Russia Profile.
    This could very well be a situation where some key Russian foreign policy elites in government and/or close to it were overruled. The recognition move is more indicative of someone limited with foreign policy experience – inclusive of not having a developed Machiavellian way of seeing such matter on a long term scale.
    As was explained to me and making perfect sense, whatever the inner Russian government differences (on this matter) aren’t likely to be aired out in the open anytime soon.
    Prior to SL becoming FM, I recall Alexi Arbatov noting the decline in Russo-Georgian relations and putting part of the blame on Russia.
    With all this in mind, I’m not so apt to hold SL as such a negative heavy. Along with the current Russian UN ambassador, I appreciate SL’s savvy way of communicating in English. IMO, the two of them have a knack for being appropriately blunt. This particular pertains to “image.” Of course, there should be substance to the image as well.
    On a somewhat parallel note, in the US, there’ve been instances where foreign policy professionals in government lose out to others having less of an insight of the given issue.
    I’ll take a closer look at your point on what SL emphasizes. Offhand, I think he has been pretty good on the former Moldavian SSR. On the one hand, not favoring (at least openly) Pridnestrovie’s independence, while also stressing that its interests be respected by Moldova.
    He gave a pretty good answer on why Russia’s recognition of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia isn’t on par with the recognition given to Kosovo. He noted how the war in Kosovo ended with the signing of UNSCR 1244 (which from top to bottom recognizes Kosovo as a continued part of Serbia) – adding that since that time, Serbia hasn’t launched any military action in Kosovo. This contrasts to how the Georgian government acted after international mediation had calmed down the fighting in the former Georgian SSR.

  24. You as well Eugene.
    Off the record, I heard from someone with Russian Foreign Ministry ties that the recognition move was Medvedev’s choosing (I’m not keen on naming unnamed sources – but see when certain situations gear one into such a mode).
    This would make sense given how a number of Kremlin connected Russian foreign policy elites were surprised by the timing of the recognition move. Dmitry Babich had an article about this at Russia Profile.
    This could very well be a situation where some key Russian foreign policy elites in government and/or close to it were overruled. The recognition move is more indicative of someone limited with foreign policy experience – inclusive of not having a developed Machiavellian way of seeing such matter on a long term scale.
    As was explained to me and making perfect sense, whatever the inner Russian government differences (on this matter) aren’t likely to be aired out in the open anytime soon.
    Prior to SL becoming FM, I recall Alexi Arbatov noting the decline in Russo-Georgian relations and putting part of the blame on Russia.
    With all this in mind, I’m not so apt to hold SL as such a negative heavy. Along with the current Russian UN ambassador, I appreciate SL’s savvy way of communicating in English. IMO, the two of them have a knack for being appropriately blunt. This particular pertains to “image.” Of course, there should be substance to the image as well.
    On a somewhat parallel note, in the US, there’ve been instances where foreign policy professionals in government lose out to others having less of an insight of the given issue.
    I’ll take a closer look at your point on what SL emphasizes. Offhand, I think he has been pretty good on the former Moldavian SSR. On the one hand, not favoring (at least openly) Pridnestrovie’s independence, while also stressing that its interests be respected by Moldova.
    He gave a pretty good answer on why Russia’s recognition of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia isn’t on par with the recognition given to Kosovo. He noted how the war in Kosovo ended with the signing of UNSCR 1244 (which from top to bottom recognizes Kosovo as a continued part of Serbia) – adding that since that time, Serbia hasn’t launched any military action in Kosovo. This contrasts to how the Georgian government acted after international mediation had calmed down the fighting in the former Georgian SSR.

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