A realistic appraisal of the situation suggests that Russia and Georgia will continue to enlarge the sphere of their mutually productive relations outside the knot of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, without setting as a precondition that the other side formally surrender their principled position on the status of these two long-troubled regions.
Given the obvious challenges to normalizing Russian-Georgian relations, the year 2012 started off on a cautiously optimistic note. Last November, Russia and Georgia successfully concluded bilateral negotiations enabling the World Trade Organization to extend Russia an invitation for membership. These negotiations led to an agreement that provides a mechanism for renewed economic activity between the two states, if they so desire, via Georgia’s breakaway autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In February of this year, Georgia introduced visa-free travel for all Russian citizens. The next month Georgian Patriarch Ilya II publicly congratulated Vladimir Putin on his victory in presidential elections (something that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was unlikely to do, less because of the mutual hostility between Mr. Putin and himself than because the Russian government continues to declare him persona non grata). The Russian government reciprocated in various ways, proposing to restore diplomatic relations, conditionally offering to extend visa-free travel (pending changes to Georgia’s law on occupied territories), and tentatively and partially dropping its longstanding objection to a commitment to the nonuse of force against Georgia.
There remain many challenges. Tbilisi has not accepted Moscow’s latest overtures, while Moscow has yet to package them in ways that are more appealing to Tbilisi. Georgia says it is not willing to establish diplomatic relations so long as Russia maintains embassies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The other two overtures are perhaps more realistic in the near-term. It is possible to imagine Tbilisi considering some reasonable amendments to the law on occupied territories, especially if the WTO agreement is implemented, which would pave the way for reciprocation on visa-free travel. And Russia’s surprisingly welcome overture on the nonuse of force, at the19th round of the Geneva Discussions on March 29, is a crucial first step in an ongoing discussion that could eventually bear fruit.
Even if such steps did succeed, it would be unwise to ignore the fundamental obstacle to a full normalization of relations: not (as many would like to assume) the continuation in power of two governments long at odds with each other, but the elemental differences concerning Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and its militarization of the two regions (to say nothing of Moscow’s seeming lack of interest to help facilitate the return of Georgia’s internally displaced persons to their homes). Whatever Russian views are on their actions in August 2008, as well as before and after, Georgians deeply –and likely irrevocably – view Russia as an occupying power and Abkhazian and South Ossetian secession as an interim, even if long-term, condition. Georgians do not view Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “Kosovos” that they will eventually have to “get over.” On the contrary, most expect or at least hope for conditions to change over time in a way that will eventually facilitate their peaceful reunification (think of the Northern Cypriots’ 2004 acceptance of reunification with Cyprus, which Turkey readily supported).
This leads to the seeming paradox of Russian-Georgian relations today. On economic, social, and personal grounds, there are ample reasons for an improved relationship and a willingness on both sides to pursue such. Statements and policies of the Georgian government to this effect are genuine. But at the same time, Russian actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are impossible for Georgians to define as anything but hostile and continually threatening acts. While Georgian government officials, including President Saakashvili, might have political reasons to “demonize” Russian authorities, the foundation for the “enemy image” is well-set and tied to Russian policy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So long as Moscow is unwilling or unable to walk that policy back, it is unrealistic to assume that Russia can truly establish normal relations with Georgia.
In the meantime, a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests that Russia and Georgia will continue to enlarge the sphere of their mutually productive relations outside the knot of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With this, however, comes the strong hope that they may continue to find ways to practically engage via (and with) Abkhazia and South Ossetia, without setting as a precondition that the other side formally surrender their principled position on the status of these two long-troubled regions.