Will Relations Between Georgia and Russia Improve?

President Putin has shown very clearly that he does not want to see any country he considers a Russian sphere of influence to be engaged in any solid relationship with the European Union and even less so with NATO. Georgia has clearly chosen its path by initiating an association agreement with the EU. Russian pressure to persuade Tbilisi to move away from the EU is highly unlikely to have the desired effect.

Valdaiclub.com interview with Alain Délétroz, Senior Associate Fellow, FRIDE.

Fifty six per cent of Russians, according to a VTSIOM opinion poll, believe that with the arrival of a new presidential administration in Georgia, bilateral relations will improve. In your opinion, should we expect a radical improvement in relations between the two countries?

The fact that Saakashvili is not president of Georgia any more should indeed help improve relations with Russia. There was deep personal hostility between President Putin and President Saakashvili. But one should not forget that Saakashvili was basically powerless during his last year in office and could not bring about any political initiative. Under the new constitution, the real power shifted to the Prime Minister already last year. So the actual end of Mr Saakashvili’s hold on power occurred before he officially left office. Russian public opinion tends, nevertheless, to underestimate the deep wound in Georgian national pride that Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence has opened in the very flesh of the Georgian nationhood. This will long remain an insurmountable obstacle for any government in Tbilisi who would like to improve relations with Russia. How would Russians feel today if Georgia or any other state had recognized the independence of Chechnya in the 1990s, while Moscow was fighting such a harsh and costly war to keep its own territorial integrity?

Should we expect a recovery in interstate diplomatic relations in the coming years?

In spite of Mr Abashidze’s and Mr. Karasin’s regular meetings, first in Geneva, and now in Prague, which have helped re-establish trade and cultural contacts, the new Georgian government does not seem to have grand new plans to reopen other permanent channels of bilateral relations with Russia in the foreseeable future. The process of the “borderisation” of South Ossetia – essentially sealing it off completely – has accelerated. This came as a surprise to the new Georgian government. And one should not forget that the vast majority of Georgians view Russia as an occupant on their national soil. These feelings run deep and constrain any Georgian government in its ties with Moscow, whatever their willingness to improve the relationship.

How do you assess the simplification of Russian visa regime with Georgia? Is it possible to establish relations by means of people diplomacy?

Visa regime simplifications are always a good thing. Making it easier for people to meet and talk can only have a positive effect. But there has not been any regime change on the Russian side for ordinary citizens. Russia has promised visa simplifications only for Georgian diplomats, who do not go to Russia anyway. So this measure is merely symbolic. On the Georgian side, however, President Saakashvili did simplify visa requirements for Russians who want to go to Georgia for their holidays. The unexpected result of this was that many Russians who visited Georgia were quite astonished at some of the successes of Mr Saakashvili’s politics, like, for instance, the fight against corruption in the police, the modernization of Georgian service sector and some of his economic successes.

After the inauguration of the newly elected President of Georgia, the idea of boycotting the Sochi Winter Olympics has died down and there are even talks of a possible visit to Sochi by the representatives of the Georgian government. Is it a positive step?

Georgian athletes will take part in the Sochi games, but the government will probably not send an official delegation there. Boycotting the games would not be a smart move and it would have been pointless. Georgian athletes in Sochi will certainly get more positive media attention than a boycott would have. The new government seems to realize that. After all, many look back with sympathy on the touching pictures of Georgian and Russian athletes embracing each other in tears at the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. In front of all TV cameras they were displaying a brave show of mutual solidarity, at a time when war was raging in Georgia…

Georgy Margvelashvili announced the "readiness, in parallel with the integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures, to expand dialogue with Russia." But at the last summit in Vilnius Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU. At the same time, the country's new leadership has not given up plans for Euro-Atlantic integration. At the beginning of December, Georgian Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. How will this continuation of Georgia's pro-Western course affect Russia's position on the country?

It will have a strong impact on relations. President Putin has shown very clearly that he does not want to see any country he considers a Russian sphere of influence to be engaged in any solid relationship with the European Union and even less so with NATO. The way Armenia and Ukraine have been obliged to make a complete U-turn in their priorities – turning down an association agreement they had long been preparing for with the EU – is quite telling of Moscow’s new tactics. Russia is enjoying short term successes, but at the cost of publicly humiliating the governments forced to abide by Moscow’s will and also at the cost of showing to the world that the Eurasian Union will be first of all a political tool, not an economic structure geared at genuine integration. Neither countries nor individuals like to be forced on a path they haven’t chosen; one day, when the opportunity comes, they might rebel or defect. The Georgian government will be no exception. Georgia has clearly chosen its path by initiating an association agreement with the EU. Russian pressure to persuade Tbilisi to move away from the EU is highly unlikely to have the desired effect.

What are the chances of progress in the negotiations on the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the new Georgian administration?

There are no official negotiations underway on this subject. There have been a few informal discussions about setting up a road map for these two territories to re-arrange their relations with Tbilisi, but nothing more. Russia is in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the long haul. It has built up serious military bases and will not leave any time soon. But Russia might eventually be ready to consider a formal association between Tskhinvali, Sukhumi and Tbilisi in a rather loose confederation. If the three parties were to arrive at such a compromise, that would not touch upon the “independence” of the two territories, and hence not reconsider Russia’s recognition of their independence, Moscow would probably be accommodating. But Russia does not have much room for maneuver either and has very few positive arguments to bring to the table, as its hands are bound by its quick recognition. This was probably the biggest foreign policy mistake Moscow made in the last two decades. Not a single CIS country could be convinced to follow suit. Russia seems to stand almost alone in recognizing both territories and has lost its credibility as a state always defending the territorial integrity of existing states, in Kosovo, Chechnya or the Arab world. And the price to pay for this mistake will be to have bad relations with Georgia for a very long time with only few options to improve them. Keeping the card of a possible recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in its hands without playing it would have been a much smarter move for Russia.

The new head of Government of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili said that trade and economic relations would develop with all Georgia’s neighbors, including Russia. Experts also do not exclude the expansion of trade between countries. Is it possible to develop economic ties by creating a free trade zone for example?

This would be a highly desirable outcome for the economic stability and development of the region. But as Tbilisi plans to sign an association agreement with the EU and Moscow has clearly shown that it does not want this in its direct neighborhood, Georgia will be put between a rock and a hard place, no matter how much goodwill the new government shows. The humiliating way in which Russia obliged Armenia to turn away from its association with the EU has not gone unnoticed in Tbilisi. Moscow has lifted its embargo on Georgian wines, as a symbolic and positive sign of détente. But wine exports account only for three per cent of all Georgian exports. The Russian embargo on Georgian products has obliged Georgia to look for new markets; Georgia has partially found these and now is not so much dependent on the Russian market as it used to be.

Still, the new Georgian government understands that improving relations with Russia is essential. A mere look at its geographical location would speak for rapprochement with Russia. But Russia seems to have changed its stance: If in the past Moscow made it abundantly clear that it did not want any neighbor moving towards NATO, but could be accommodating with the EU, it is now clear that a relationship with the EU is also problematic for Moscow. It will be hard for Tbilisi to bring together the demands of the Georgian public, which seeks European integration, and this toughened Russian position. There seems to be goodwill in Tbilisi but the road to reconciliation with Russia is likely to be bumpy and long.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.