Resume: The change of power in Tbilisi offers a good opportunity to assess Moscow’s policy toward Georgia and other post-Soviet states. Russia should start pursuing a friendly and indulgent policy toward Georgia, a policy befitting a strong state. Otherwise, the Tbilisi scenario may be repeated in Chisinau, Kiev or Minsk.
The overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze and the victory of Mikhail Saakashvili at the recent presidential election in Georgia have marked a new stage in the country’s history. This offers a good opportunity to look on Georgia’s future prospects and also assess Moscow’s policy toward Tbilisi.
Twelve years after it has gained independence, Georgia now ranks among the ‘failed’ states, although in Soviet times its per capita gross domestic product made it equal to a modest European country. Tbilisi has actually lost control over a large part of Georgia. Two autonomous regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have declared themselves outside Tbilisi’s jurisdiction, while Tbilisi’s rule over another autonomous region, Adzharia, is purely formal. It would be very difficult – if not altogether impossible – for Tbilisi to regain control over these regions, especially over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia’s statehood (or rather its semblance) is maintained by foreign financial injections, without which there would have been no national budget at all. The United States alone has given Tbilisi over U.S. $1 billion; substantial aid has also been provided by the European Union. The foreign aid has done much to foster a sponging attitude in society and amongst the national elite. People began to entertain high hopes (persistently reinforced by the Shevardnadze regime) that Georgia’s economic problems could be miraculously solved by its ‘transit status.’ This would transpire when Georgia is crossed by a half-mythical ‘new Silk Road,’ or after oil and gas pipelines start pumping Caspian hydrocarbons to the Mediterranean at full capacity. Meanwhile, according to the most optimistic, yet real, estimates, Georgia will not earn much money from these plans. And most importantly, an economy cannot be built with money received from such resources; it will result in the absence of a viable economic policy and in the continued degradation of the country.
Georgia’s production facilities are decaying, and there are few natural resources in the country. Its main potential sources of income – subtropical agriculture, once capable of meeting the demand of the northern market, and resorts with recreational facilities – have been greatly depreciated by foreign competition and the backward infrastructure. Besides, such assets are practically out of use due to the instability in the country and broken economic and political ties with Russia.
Also, Georgia has a slim possibility for developing its human capital. According to various estimates, 20 to 25 percent of Georgians – the most competitive and effective part of the population – have left the country. Money transfers coming from these people to their relatives and friends remaining in the country help many families to survive but they are unable to boost the national economy.
The dimensions of corruption in Georgia under the Shevardnadze regime were the highest even among post-Soviet states, most of which top international corruption rating lists. The leaders of the ‘revolution of roses’ are simply the flesh of the flesh of the former state functionaries. So it is most unlikely that they will be able to fundamentally reform the country, although Russia hopes for that and wishes the new leaders every success in their efforts. Georgia simply has no other elite. Few experts believe the new leadership will last for long – most of them fear that more social upheavals may follow. The experience of many countries has shown that, once started, a revolution, even a ‘revolution of flowers,’ is difficult to stop, especially if problems that have brought about the cataclysm are not being addressed or cannot be solved at all.
Tbilisi has repeatedly laid the blame for its problems on the doorstep of other countries – above all Russia. Tbilisi has accused Russia of ignoring it (which was true), not helping it (largely true) and rousing separatist sentiments (which was true before but is not the case now). However, shifting the blame for its problems onto others only prevents Tbilisi from facing reality: the bulk of Georgia’s problems were brought about by its own elite. It was the Georgian elite that recklessly helped their first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, come to power, after which he provoked the country’s disintegration and tore it away from valuable Russian markets. Actually, Georgia’s elite have done nothing for the people.
The situation has been aggravated by a large number of refugees from Abkhazia. The Shevardnadze regime made no efforts to help them with their settlement and assimilation. Instead, it used these desperate and destitute people to gain its own political ends, manipulating the issue to justify the poverty of the entire population.
Unfortunately, with regard to Georgian-Abkhazian relations, the new leaders of Georgia remain hostages to the blunders of the previous regime. Occasionally, they hint at the possibility of using force against the breakaway regions. One should hope this is simply part of their populist rhetoric. The solution for returning refugees home – even on a limited scale – will require a long process of rapprochement between Abkhazia and Georgia, as well as Georgia’s transformation into a ‘soft power’ federation.
Of course, ethnic purges, like those which occurred in Abkhazia, cannot be justified, but, unfortunately, history knows dozens and, perhaps, even hundreds of similar situations. Most of these events were of an irreversible nature, and attempts to ‘restore justice’ almost always provoked wars, new suffering, and often retaliatory ethnic repression.
However difficult it may be, the new Georgian leaders must admit that a majority of the refugees from Abkhazia, which they rightfully consider their homeland, will never be able to return home. Despite the difficulties, the new Georgian government must start settling refugees, and the international community must assist them in these efforts. Continuing the current situation would be not only inhumane but also dangerous for the country: it runs the risk of plunging into a crisis that may be even more serious than the Palestinian conflict. This is a delayed-action landmine policy.
The new Georgian leaders have inherited from the previous regime yet another largely erroneous policy, that is, its blatantly pro-Western orientation. This may cause complications for both Georgia and Russia. Such an orientation may have delivered dividends under Shevardnadze, who alone weighed more in world politics than the whole of Georgia. But with Shevardnadze gone, the West will most likely get tired of keeping watch over developments in Georgia; it may give up on it altogether, especially after it views the situation without the rose-colored glasses provided by the ex-president.
It was Shevardnadze who imparted outward legitimacy to the policy of financing the failing country, although Russian officials repeatedly warned their partners in the West that Shevardnadze was leading Georgia into an abyss. Western proponents of aid to Georgia argued that the country was of strategic importance, although this importance is rather reserved to the West. Of course, the new Georgian president will enjoy support during the initial period of his presidency, and the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to Tbilisi to attend his inauguration was an eloquent gesture. But neither more aid, nor even the Praetorian Guard (no matter who might train it – the CIA, the GRU or even both the agencies) could save the regime which is unable to pursue a coherent state policy. And if the newly elected Georgian leader fails to quickly stabilize the situation in the country, the West will change its attitude to it.
Russia may toughen its policy toward Georgia if the regime in Tbilisi is transformed into an externally-controlled one. This move by Russia is even more likely considering the growing overconfidence and nationalist sentiments on the part of the Russian elite, which manifested themselves during the election campaign prior to the December 2003 parliamentary election. Many observers may say: Shevardnadze is gone, but his anti-Russian policy has remained. And it is such people who are capable of securing a policy that will be highly unfavorable for Tbilisi. This would reduce the chances for improving Russian-Georgian relations, which is vital for Georgia and advantageous for Russia.
Georgia’s policy remains unpredictable. However, as seen from the rich history of international experience, crises in countries like Georgia usually develop according to similar scenarios. Revolutionaries coming to power bear the traits of the former regime. Yes, they will try to combat corruption, carry out reforms, enhance the effectiveness of the state apparatus, and search for development resources inside the country. All those measures will require courage and great political will. Unfortunately, it remains uncertain that the new Georgian leaders are able to display such qualities. But even if they are (which is to be desired for the sake of Georgia), there are no guarantees that they will succeed. The resistance will be very fierce.
The situation would develop much easier if the Georgian leadership relinquished its unconstructive anti-Russian rhetoric. It is in Georgia’s interests to conduct a loyal policy toward Russia, while preserving, of course, a Western foreign-policy vector, as well. In the future, rapprochement with its northern neighbor would help Georgia solve the problem of its territorial integrity – naturally, if Moscow gives Tbilisi the chance for implementing a new approach.
Russia’s first steps were largely unproductive (except for Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s visit to Tbilisi on the day Shevardnadze resigned). The demonstrative meetings with the leaders of Georgia’s breakaway regions have narrowed the maneuvering room for those Georgian policymakers who are ready to orient themselves to Moscow. Furthermore, they strengthened the positions of the anti-Russian political forces in the West. Russia can and must negotiate with the leaders of Georgia’s autonomous regions, since it is impossible to say how things will develop in Georgia. But this should not be carried out in such a demonstrative manner; nor should the meetings take place in Moscow. In other aspects, Russia’s policy was rather correct, although reserved. Mass media publications, which reported on the Georgian developments, revealed a malicious satisfaction and general ill-will. The attitude toward Shevardnadze was automatically transferred to his successors.
When the new Georgian leaders meet with difficulties, they may choose to follow a well-trodden path to resolve them. In his first statements following the election, and specially prepared for the Western mass media, Mikhail Saakashvili voiced the old familiar agenda: the demand for an early withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia, together with accusations against Russia on the Abkhazian issue. But if the situation continues to develop in such a manner, the degradation of Georgia will only continue. Russia will most likely abide by its former policy, or even toughen it. So Tbilisi’s repetitive anti-Russian rhetoric, and attempts to please someone in the West at the expense of Russia’s interests, will send a clear signal to Russia: it will strongly suggest that the Georgian regime does not want, or is unable, to reform the country but, instead, has chosen to follow a vicious path, playing an anti-Russian card in order to receive handouts. But without Shevardnadze, this will be more difficult to do. And should Tbilisi attempt to use the ex-president as an applicant for aid, the signal of distress and hopelessness will grow much louder.
Apart from the minuses, Georgia’s assets also include some pluses. It is still a democratic country with a relatively high (by the region’s standards) level of the freedom of speech. It seems to be working toward the development of a civil society. Georgia does play a certain strategic role as a transit state (but, of course, not a large-scale role, as claimed by Shevardnadze). No one – and foremost Russia – is interested in Georgia’s decline and breakup. No one would like Georgia to become a region of six, seven or eight failed states instead of just one problem state. Georgia’s ‘Balkanization’ would create one more powerful source of instability and a terrorist nest in the Caucasus.
The new situation requires that Moscow revise its policy toward Georgia. Russians were insulted when Georgia elected Zviad Gamsakhurdia. And they were not enthusiastic about his successor Shevardnadze, either. The reasons are multiple. Some did not like Shevardnadze due to his active role in the Soviet Union’s breakup, others for his failure to save Georgia and for his “successes” in facilitating its disintegration and plunging into an abyss of corruption. Finally, he is criticized for his anti-Russian statements and pro-Western orientation.
These people do not realize, however, that Moscow has not given Georgia a chance to reorient itself to Russia. Some political forces in Russia actively supported Abkhazia in its war against Tbilisi. Russia did not open its markets for Georgian goods. Later, it introduced a visa regime and threatened to bomb Georgian territory. It was not clear, though, what Moscow thought it would achieve with such a bombing. Moscow’s threats only gave Americans more arguments for supporting the Tbilisi regime, and alienated even the most ardent supporters of a pro-Moscow policy in Georgia.
Almost no one tried to win over the Georgian elite, which could have been done by simply displaying respect for it. For Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze, Russia punished the Georgian people, thus promoting its degradation and alienation from Russia. Moscow was annoyed by Tbilisi’s requests for Western aid, yet never offered any serious aid proposals to Georgia. And even when Russia did provide aid – with energy and electricity supplies on credit – instead of publicizing these action, it habitually surrendered the information field to its opponents. This approach has created a paradoxical situation when Russian energy supplies are viewed in Georgia not as support (which is absolutely true, considering Russia’s relatively low – by world standards – prices and Russia’s lenient position concerning Georgian debts), but as an instrument of pressure (which, most often, is not so).
Russia has been conducting a ‘stick and no carrot’ policy. However, this policy has won nothing for Moscow – it only aggravated the hurt pride of more than one Russian politicians. Russia is much stronger, yet it has been unable to use its strength for its own – and Georgia’s – benefit. Russia simply did not have a well thought-out policy toward Georgia. It almost completely ignored that country and its own interests at both the domestic and regional levels, which was most graphically manifest in the 1990s. It was not a great-power policy but rather a parody of it.
Russia, which ritually proclaims the former Soviet republics as a priority of state policy, still suffers from its failure to formulate a prudent strategy toward them. This is why, instead of adopting a wise pragmatic policy, it has only made sporadic and irrational moves, largely inspired by the emotions of individual groups in the Russian Establishment. Taking avail of Russia’s failure to clearly formulate its interests and position, other former Soviet republics – with much less potential than Russia – often outplayed Moscow. Third countries took advantage of that situation as well. By employing insignificant resources, or serving the interests of not-very-influential groups in the leadership of their countries, they imposed on newly independent states in the former Soviet Union a policy disadvantageous not only to Russia, but also to those states themselves.
Instead of accusing ‘external forces’ of contributing to Shevardnadze’s resignation, we must ask ourselves: Why did Russia not assist the revolutionaries with the removal of the corrupt politician who maintained an unfriendly stance toward Russia? Why are the people who have replaced Shevardnadze and come to power on a wave of the people’s indignation, not people supportive of Moscow? Why did the Kremlin do nothing to form and support its cohort in Tbilisi, although it has had very many prerequisites and possibilities? Georgia is of little strategic importance to Russia. But what would be Russia’s reaction if – or when – the Tbilisi scenario is repeated in Chisinau, Kiev or Minsk?
Anyway, if the new Georgian leaders are not downright insane – and I am almost confident of their good sense – they must be given a chance; we must open for them a road to the north, to Russia. To this end, it is necessary that we first start pursuing a friendly and indulgent policy toward Georgia, a policy befitting a strong state such as Russia. It is necessary that we offer Georgia the carrot (the stick will always be with us, and there is no need to display it, since everyone knows that it is there). It is important that Russia refrain from insulting the Georgian leadership in public and concentrating on former resentments and blunders. It is important that Russia start moving and looking forward. Presently, however, the Russian leadership, as is the case with the Georgian leadership, look almost exclusively backwards.
Our countries must say, at the very least, that a repeal of the visa regime is within our powers. Russia must consider how it can best support Georgia – not in word but in deed – and be a guarantor of not only its territorial integrity, but also of the rights of its ethnic minorities. Possibly, this would include the return of its refugee population. We must convince our friends and neighbors in Georgia, as well as our other partners, that the full revival of Georgia’s statehood will remain impossible as long as Tbilisi insists that its refugees return home en masse. This is why the establishment of an international program is urgently required for assimilating as many refugees as possible, and Russia must be among the initiators for such a program.
Perhaps, even before the Abkhazian problem is solved, we should start the restoration of the railway system connecting Tbilisi with Russia and provide financial assistance for this program. A respectful and broad dialog with the current and future Georgian elites, with the young people, next-generation leaders, and representatives of influential nongovernmental organizations is imperative. We must tap the potential of the Russian intelligentsia and non-state organizations. Russian businesses should be prompted to establish a foundation to promote cooperation between Russian nongovernmental organizations and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States – not only Georgia. We are interested in having as many Georgian students studying at Moscow universities and colleges as possible. Russia must start inviting them, while assisting them with their tuitions. Furthermore, it would be advisable to broaden our military-technical cooperation and offer to Georgia our assistance in training its armed forces.
Such a policy would create a new political reality for Georgia’s leadership – for the one presently in power or any other, irrespective of their political views. An anti-Russian policy is obviously less advantageous than a pro-Russian one.
If there is anyone in Russia who still cherishes hopes for the implementation in Georgia of a theory of controlled conflicts, they must abandon these ideas as soon as possible. Given our resources and the present political situation, this game would only end in a scoreless draw – and both sides stand to lose in it.
There is no sense wasting efforts on negotiations for a ‘major treaty:’ the time for such symbolic documents has passed. Such negotiations would inevitably turn into a source of constant friction and discord, which would be fanned by the mass media. This would only create a negative atmosphere. Moreover, this friction and discord would be used by opponents of Russian-Georgian rapprochement both in Moscow and Tbilisi, as well as in the capitals of third countries. It is important for Russia to coordinate its Georgian policy, wherever possible, with other major actors – in Europe and the U.S. We have many common interests. These are, first of all, the prevention of the Balkanization of Georgia and the whole of the Caucasus, which would be a problem that no one, including Russia, would like – and be able – to address. It would bring suffering not only to people in the region but also to many Russians.
In the world and, especially, in America (including the official circles) there are forces that have a pathological dislike for Russia, and they will automatically be opposed to this new policy. But then they revile any policy that comes out of Russia. The former tactics, which opened up opportunities for them, must have been more to their liking.
The Russian leadership should clearly formulate its interests with regard to Georgia and make them transparent for its Georgian partners. In my view, these interests are as follows:
First, preventing political instability in Georgia, further breakup and Balkanization of the country which could spread to the entire region.
Second, seeking to make Georgia a friendly state that would respect Moscow’s interests and not build its policy on demonstrative confrontation with Russia.
Third, keeping Georgia within the sphere of the Russian language and Russian culture.
Fourth, reviving the economy as a foundation of stability and mutually advantageous rapprochement.
Moscow must preserve the levers of influence in case it fails to avoid an unfavorable scenario, i.e. Georgia’s disintegration. This is why Russia is not interested in a withdrawal of its military bases or peacekeeping forces, which continue to be guarantors of stability in several regions, neutralization of possible bloody conflicts, and prevention of further collapse. We will not require military bases only after the situation has changed for the better, and after Georgia has embarked on the road of revival and stabilization – but not earlier.
The preservation of the military bases may not suit part of the Georgian elite. But if it places this problem into the focus of overall Russian-Georgian relations, it will be interpreted – with all of the ensuing consequences – as an unwillingness to achieve real rapprochement.
Of course, we would need enough time for the withdrawal of troops and armaments, when and if an agreement to that effect is reached. And Russia would hardly welcome the emergence of other foreign troops in Georgia in place of the Russian bases.
Moscow’s assistance may be ignored if some of the Georgian leaders make reckless moves or if the leadership simply fails to keep the situation under control. But Russia will still have an opportunity – and the need – to interact with the breakaway provinces. Contacts with the younger generation will be valuable as well.
In any case, friendly assistance to the Georgian people will be more advantageous in the long term than semi-hostile disregard. The latter never produces any growth. The former will yield fruit, even though it requires some time and patience.
Some points and conclusions of this article were presented by the author in Rossiiskaya Gazeta (Dec. 3, 2003). This article is also based on discussions in a SVOP working group in December 2003-January 2004. Some of the ideas were derived from speeches by Georgia’s acting president Nino Burdzhanadze and Foreign Minister Tedo Dzhaparidze to SVOP members (Dec. 25, 2003) and from subsequent discussions.
The author expresses his special thanks to the following members of the SVOP working group: Vladimir Averchev, Vagif Guseinov, Yuri Kobaladze, Fyodor Lukyanov, Artem Malgin, Lev Mironov, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Alexander Skakov, Felix Stanevsky, Andrei Fyodorov, as well as to representatives of executive bodies and journalists who participated in the discussion. The sole responsibility for this text rests with the author.
Last updated 17 february 2004, 20:35
The Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in the debate in the U.S. policy-making community over whether the nuclear war was winnable.
The U.S. faces an increasingly complex international environment, and the candidates do voters a disservice by failing to articulate their foreign policy visions.