Leaving public opinion aside, the leadership of all post-Soviet countries enjoy reasonably amicable relations with Russia The exception is Georgia, whose ongoing conflict with Russia is recognized as the most acute across the entire post-Soviet territory. Following the August War in 2008, Russia and Georgia are now officially enemies: direct diplomatic relations between the two countries has been cut. Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been seriously damaged by Russia’s official recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “independent states”, or, in reality, Russian protectorates. In light of the worsening political relations between Georgia and Russia, ordinary Georgians overwhelmingly desire a positive relationship with Russia. According to a poll undertaken by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) in August 2009, 54% of Georgians continued to favor extremely close political cooperation with Russia. [I] But this bilateral dispute is highly personal, with Russia’s leadership saying it will not engage with President Saakashvili. And the dispute between these two countries is not based on a misunderstanding; it is a power conflict rooted in specific choices made by the political leaders of Russia and Georgia.
Most local analysts believe that relations will improve with new leadership, and have focused on the search for short-term political parallels in the 2012 presidential elections that will take place in both Russia and Georgia: will Saakashvili use the “Putin Model”? If so, who will be the Georgian “Medvedev”? But there is no speculation that really illuminates Georgia’s political trajectory and its future relations with Russia. Perhaps the most striking issue is that personal relations at the highest level are extremely poor; the mutual dislike between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has in some ways come to define the current relationship between Russia and Georgia. The impact this clash has had on relations between the two countries reflects the intense role that personality plays in governments of the former Soviet states. The information war between Russian and Georgia after the August War was based largely on the mutual accusations of culpability between leaderships.[II] It seems that the problem is to do with the leadership; the majority desire of Georgians for close cooperation with Russia changes when the focus is placed on Moscow’s current government. According to a Gallup poll, Georgia is the country with the highest percentage of people who do not approve of Russia’s leadership (76%).[III]
- Tbilisi’s choices
Saakashvili and his government face a dilemma with regard to next year’s parliament elections and afterwards presidential elections. Either they can try to focus on the problems more important than regaining the lost territories, or they can continue to dangle the illusions of future EU and/or NATO membership. Most Georgians – and this is true across the demographic – would be convinced by a short term government commitment to liberate Abkhazia and South Ossetia and make them part of Georgia, and moreover, few are willing to pay the costs associated with further military action, after the August War.[IV]The net result is that Georgia can neither change the reality nor accept it. The Georgian government does not believe that there is any point in forming relationships with Sukhumi and Tshkinvali, official or otherwise, on the grounds that at this stage, the issue is Russian occupation. Thus for as long as that continues, there is nothing to be gained by engaging with these de facto authorities.[V] There are two pillars of the government’s current policy: non-recognition [of independence] and diplomatic engagement. While both of these approaches entail maintaining or establishing contact with the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they do not necessarily sit easily together. The Parliamentary Elections next year and Presidential elections in 2013 will be politically decisive, and the current government’s concrete planning is in tension with fear about a change in government.
* Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 3
** Zaur Shiriyev is foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan