BACKGROUND: Since the October 2012 parliamentarian elections, the Georgian Dream coalition has undertaken a series of unilateral steps to resurrect a progressive dialogue with Russia. These cooperative initiatives include a new bilateral forum to discuss trade relations with Russia as well as the December 2012 closure of the Russian-language PIK television channel that was broadcast into the Northern Caucasus and highlighted Georgia’s reforms to these audiences. In addition, in May the government made a political decision for Georgia to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, an area that lies adjacent to the Russian-occupied territory of Abkhazia.
International observers have characterized Ivanishvili’s new approach towards Russia and the occupied territories as having three tiers: cooperation, engagement and conflict resolution. Under this rubric, the bilateral forum, chaired by Zurab Abashidze and Giorgy Karasin, will supplement the preexisting Geneva process talks as well as the Georgian Ministry for Reintegration’s (MRA) work with the Abkhaz de facto authorities.
Accordingly, Ivanishvili’s foreign policy seems more flexible than that of the previous government as he seeks to balance ties with NATO and the European Union with better relations with Russia. However, while Ivanishvili’s cooperative initiatives towards Russia may yet produce positive results, there is a systemic lack of effective communication and management between the Georgian institutions involved in these policies. This situation is impeding any sustainable on-the-ground conflict resolution activities as well as long-term conflict resolution efforts.
While Abashidze’s bilateral vector has powerful political support, the MRA’s engagement projects in the occupied regions have decreased from 162 to 31 in the last seven months. The reduction in these projects is not due to lack of political will to support engagement activities but rather indicates a lack of strategic planning and support for the various players involved with occupied territories.
In addition, many Georgian analysts note that the move in South Ossetia was intended to undermine the confidence of both the Georgian public and Georgia’s Western partners in the Ivanishvili government’s new approach.
IMPLICATIONS: In this context, Ivanshivili’s tendency to use appeasement tactics as a mechanism for recovering the occupied territories and rebuilding ties to Russia is quite concerning. Against the backdrop of the fence building incursions, Putin made an overture to the Georgian government in a June 11 televised interview. During the course of this interview, Putin proposed a “full scale restoration of Russia-Georgia relations” that would begin with mediated cooperation between the respective law enforcement and security agencies.
Through this interview, Putin intended to communicate to Ivanishvili’s government that he seeks to control, or at some level direct, the actions of the Georgian security forces in exchange for “normalization” of relations between the two countries. In response, on June 13 the Georgian Interior Ministry claimed its officers had “foiled a terrorist plot” and arrested two Dagestani suspects, both of whom were wanted by Russian security forces. These arrests indicate Ivanishvili’s willingness to allow Russia to set internal Georgian security priorities, and this attitude has broad implications for Georgian policies as regards the occupied territories.
The June 13 arrests indicate the Georgian government’s willingness to allow Putin to establish the terms for a “normalized relationship” despite Russia’s on-going violations of Georgia’s territorial integrity. This state of affairs has dangerous implications for Georgia’s ability to support the Geneva process and not allow conflict related issues to become part of the bilateral forum.
Currently, the resolution of all issues regarding the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, such as internally displaced persons’ right of return, falls within the confines of the Geneva process. While the stated purpose of the bilateral forum is to improve trade relations between Georgia and Russia and discuss the Sochi Olympics, Ivanishvili risks giving Putin another venue for manipulating Georgian foreign policy.
While Ivanishvili’s government has steadfastly adhered to the principle of Georgian territorial integrity, it has also displayed a dangerous tendency to appease, and most probably underestimate, Russia. Russia may try to dominate the Abashidze-Karasin meetings by invoking a sense of “normalcy” into this forum in order to bring up issues related to the occupied territories and the conflict. As such, any discussion of the conflict by Abashidze and Karasin would undermine the Geneva process while obfuscating any clear international decision making processes.
Moreover, while the Geneva process has stagnated and is not trusted by most of the involved parties, the bilateral forum is still viewed as an effective dialogue mechanism. Given its high political profile, the Russian government may try to manipulate the content of the bilateral forum’s discussions to its benefit.
In addition, international observers have noted the Georgian government’s lack of attention to strategically integrating the various institutions involved in the bilateral forum, the MRA and the Geneva process. These representatives question the current lack of clarity in the Georgian government’s communication and decision making structures. Critically, international representatives feel disengaged from the Georgian government’s policy-making processes and critique its strategy, or lack thereof, for not clarifying its positions to its international interlocutors.
In the current pre-election period for the October 27 Georgian presidential elections, it is critical for the government to strongly illustrate their policies in order to solidify both domestic and international confidence. Ivanshivili’s government should work to make its decision-making mechanisms more transparent and engage the international community and its representatives in its foreign policy initiatives. If Ivanishvili cannot garner international buy-in for his policies, or worse feels such support is superfluous, Georgia may start to find its actions viewed with skepticism and distance by the international community.
CONCLUSIONS: The recent fence building activities demonstrate that Russia does not consider Georgian territorial integrity to be a priority and will seek to set the terms for a “normalized” Georgia-Russia relationship. While foreign actors rebuked these actions, the relatively small size of these incursions did not warrant serious involvement on the part of the international community. In addition, as the EUMM’s mandate only allows it to observe and report on developments along the Administrative Boundary Line, a geopolitical reality is being created that allows Russia to continue its calculated small acts of aggression.
At the same time, Ivanishvili’s policies regarding the occupied territories and Russia seem to favor appeasement rather than strategic negotiation and compromise. Even though the Georgian Foreign Ministry condemned Russia’s actions, Ivanishvili issued a restrained statement and suggested that the government “not go into hysteria” as Georgia has an “obligation and must mend [ties with Russia] through diplomatic efforts”.
Given Ivanishvili’s perspective, Abashidze and the bilateral discussions will command political clout, and could undermine both the Geneva process and the MRA’s engagement activities. The Georgian government should be careful not to appease Russia and allow the bilateral talks to become a forum for conflict related issues, thereby undermining the Geneva process. To ensure that its policies towards the occupied territories and Russia are effective and sustainable, the Georgian government should also engage the international community in its policy making processes while working to better coordinate its own internal agencies.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Ariela Shapiro is an international development professional who has been living and working in the South Caucasus since 2010. She has worked and consulted for International Crisis Group, the International Republican Institute, Deloitte Overseas Consulting and UNDP.