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Brinksmanship in the Caucasus: Russian-Georgian Uneasy Relations

Jakub Kulhánek Jakub Kulhánek / Ed. 21. 2. 2016

In the past, frictions have existed between Russia and Georgia. The end of 18th century saw Georgian rulers seek Russian protection from Turks followed by the country’s gradual incorporation into the Russian Empire. Ever since then, with a brief spell of independence between 1918-1921, Georgia had been an inseparable part of Russian or Soviet Empire.

As early as the mid 1980s, Georgian national aspirations began to reemerge. This happened mainly thanks to the ability of Georgians to retain their distinctive cultural identity which later served as a strong building block of the independence movement. In order to keep Georgian national aspirations in check, the Soviet leadership supported creation of titular nations in Georgia comprising members of unique ethnic communities, such as the South Ossetions, Adjarians, and Abkhazians.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, the Georgians started vigorously campaigning for their own independence. In fact, the Georgian national sentiments ran high at that time and the nationalists clearly dominated the political debate in the country. Strongly emphasizing Georgenes at the expense of ethnic minorities, the nationalists led by first Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia set out to carve the country out of the fledgling Soviet Union and forge the new Georgian statehood.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities expressed their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and increasingly resorted to assert their own independence. Georgia was about to burst in interethnic and power-struggle violence. As Gamsakhurdia tried to ruthlessly suppress his opponents, armed clashes erupted across Georgia. The disenfranchised and demoralized Soviet army openly or tacitly supported separatists in their struggle against Tbilisi. In fact, Gamsakhurdia’s virulent anti-Russian sentiment earned him few friends among emerging Russian leadership and the Russian dominated Soviet army. To a certain extent, the Russian army can thus be credited for supporting separatists in their struggle against Tbilisi. The civil war not only shattered any hopes of Georgian territorial consolidation but it also brought about immense strife for Georgians in terms of lost human lives and massive waves of refugees.

With a full scale civil war ranging on, Gamsakhurdia’s power base eroded and he was finally forced to flee the country. In 1992, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze became Georgia’s President with a clear goal in mind to stabilize the situation in the country. Shevardnadze’s more conciliatory policy, especially toward Moscow, brought an end to the hostilities but his critics assert that the cost was simply too high. Tbilisi had to accept the de facto independence of separatist regions (e.g. South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Adzharia) and Russian peacekeeping mission and military bases on its soil something strongly condemned by his critics. Furthermore, Georgia joined the Moscow sponsored Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

During the 1990s, Russian-Georgian relations remained relatively stable as both sides managed not to provoke outright confrontation and had more than their fare share of domestic problems to deal with, nevertheless, Shevardnadze from time to time sought to enlist the international community in limiting the Russian presence in his country but not to much avail. Above all, economic hardship and pervasive corruption penetrating all levels of the Georgian society brought about the regime change in 2004.

New President Mikhail Saakashvili promised to fight corruption and bring the country firmly within the Western community. In fact, Saakashvili’s government made accession to NATO and the EU its main foreign policy platform. The new government also moved quickly to strengthen its bilateral relations with the United States. Washington’s assistance has been aimed at intensifying economic and political reform. Along with NATO, the US has also begun training and equipping the Georgian armed forces. Under Saakashvili’s watch, the army has been undergoing major transformation with a major increase in the defense spending, from 79 million laris ($43 million) in 2004 to 317 million laris in 2005.(1) Reportedly, the Georgian army has recently acquired some purely offensive weapon systems contradicting Tbilisi’s statements that it has no aggressive intentions.(2) By and large the army reform is being justified on the basis of the country’s intention to join NATO.

Georgia’s drift toward the West is obviously seen with dismay in Moscow. Taking into account Moscow’s broader geopolitical consideration vis-à-vis the South Caucasus, Moscow has been traditionally trying to prevent any significant penetration by any foreign power and possibly build a belt of friendly states in the region regarded by Russia as its exclusive preserve. In this respect, Georgia stands out as an important transport route for the Russian military. Firstly, the Russian military wants to keep open a land passage through Georgia to supply its armed forces stationed in Armenia. Secondly, Russian military bases in Georgia act as the last tire of defense of Russia’s southern flank. It is, however, worth mentioning the generally poor quality of the Russian military stationed in Georgia and its questionable use in any combat situation.

From the economic perspective, Georgia is an important access point to Asia. President Saakashvili speaks of reviving old Silk Road and sees the Georgian economy benefiting as a facilitator of trade between Europe and Asia. The idea, even supported by some Western countries, however, presents Russia with a threat of losing a more or less monopoly in this domain. Russian controlled oil and gas pipelines are important leverage over its neighbors, which could be compromised with the construction of alternative export routes bypassing Russia – a good case in point is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Yet again, promising though the prospect of Georgia as a gateway to Asia might seem, it nevertheless fails to answer financial feasibility of such a venture and its attractiveness for foreign investors.

The arrest of four Russian intelligence officers in Tbilisi on charges of espionage and their rather theatrical release is just another challenge for Russian-Georgian relations. An exchange of accusations was followed by Moscow imposition of de facto trade and land blockade of Georgia.

It might have been that Saakashvili simply overreacted, emboldened by perceiving the West and especially the US standing firmly behind him. However, it seems highly unlikely that Washington would risk antagonizing Russia over Georgia since it needs Moscow’s support in tackling more daunting challenges other than Georgia like the Iranian nuclear program or proliferation of WMD. Speculating further, the occurrence of important elections to local assemblies in Georgia could also help explain Saakashvili’s heavy handed approach to impress his domestic audience.

Meanwhile, the Russian government sees the increasingly defiant and assertive small Caucasian republic as if it bit more than it could chew and deserves to be taught a lesson. Following this line of reasoning, Moscow decided to close all transport and postal communications to Georgia severely hitting the Georgian economy. Energy supplies are still exported to Georgia so it is pretty much in the realm of speculation how much the Russian government wants to make Georgia feel the pain. In fact, Russia has means at its disposal to make life for many Georgians far more unbearable.

Furthermore, Russian officials, President Putin notwithstanding, have on many occasions accused unnamed foreign governments of meddling in Georgia’s affairs. “These people [Georgians] think that under the protection of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure,” intoned Russian President Vladimir Putin the other day in televised remarks. “Is it really so?”(3) A snub clearly aimed at the United States and its support for Georgian pro-Western foreign policy. Arguably, this can be as well about Russia’s eagerness to once again reiterate its dismay with the foreign presence in Georgia perhaps even in the broader context of post-Soviet space. Again as might be the case with Georgia, the Russian approach can be understood in the light of next year’s Duma elections and 2008 presidential elections.

However, it remains to be seen what the latest row between Russia and Georgia will mean for each country and their bilateral relations. Stakes are relatively high. Russia obviously runs the risk of reinforcing its image of emerging as a neo-imperial bully not shy to use what ever means available to bring its small neighbor into utter subjugation. If this is to be the case, Russia will probably have to put on much more effort and stay the course for quite a long time. Still the author of this paper believes this to be a very unlikely scenario. Similarly, prospects of an armed confrontation can be for now ruled out. So far it seems that for the Russian armed forces to become directly involved, it would have to take a direct military attack by the Georgian army against Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

On the other hand, Georgia and Saakashvili in particular risk alienating his Western friends if Georgian policy is seen as dangerously hazardous and audacious. For Shakasvili to press this matter any farther thus makes no sense as the West would not support Georgia’s more confrontational policy.

To a large extent it will depend on the ability of both protagonists to present their respective sides of the story to the outside world. Put it simply, it is going to be a sort of strange political blink game: the one perceived as aggressor will be the one to lose. As for now, the most likely scenario seems to be that both sides will eventually balk down. Georgia will for its part refrain from further provocations even though it might still continue attacking Russia verbally on the international scene with much less ferocity, though. Russia will gradually ease its punitive sanctions on Georgia so as not to lose its face. Current heightened tensions will however tend to come back with perhaps greater intensity.

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References:

(1) Georgia Army, Globalsecurity.orghttp://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/georgia/army.htm(accessed 13.10.06)

(2) Georgia Army, Globalsecurity.orghttp://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/georgia/army.htm (accessed 13.10.06)

(3) ZARAKHOVICH, YURI, ‘Why the Russia-Georgia Spat Could Become a U.S. Headache‘ , Time http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1542107,00.html (accessed 13.10.06)

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