Georgia has most likely entered the final stage of its political transformation. The next few weeks will show whether President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose term ends in October, is prepared to fight the government of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The October parliamentary elections resulted in a state with two centers of power. The president still has broad powers, including the right to dismiss the government and call early parliamentary elections. But under the Georgian Constitution, he cannot do so six months before or after elections, which leaves Saakashvili a window of opportunity of just several days in April.
If Saakashvili calls for early elections, conventional wisdom is that his party will lose seats in parliament. Since the president cannot keep the same government during the transition period, like in most countries, but must appoint a new cabinet, he may use this opportunity to try to sway public opinion in his favor.
To prevent this from happening, the prime minister plans to amend the Constitution. This explains the recent escalation in tensions. Opposition protests will be staged, but the target audience will be the West, where Saakashvili has many supporters, not Georgia. Claims that the prime minister and his coalition are abandoning the Euro-Atlantic path in favor of closer relations with Russia may prove a difficult argument to refute.
Still, the optimism inspired by the Georgian Dream party’s victory in the parliamentary elections of October 2012 has not vanished. People are still relieved that Saakashvili’s party was defeated.
The majority of Georgians did not support the bold and rather harsh experiment that Saakashvili and his team of young reformers launched in 2003 to alter the national consciousness. Some see Saakashvili’s attempt to demolish stereotypes as a positive step on the path to modernization. But, as history has shown repeatedly, you can’t make people happy against their will.
One of the reasons behind Saakashvili’s defeat is his team’s inability to build any kind of relationship with Russia. Some people voted for Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream primarily because he promised to break the deadlock with Moscow.
Bilateral relations have indeed warmed since the prime minister’s election, though, to be fair, relations could not have gotten much worse. The new team’s efforts to strengthen its standing by dismantling the system Saakashvili created are a step toward improving relations with Russia, as the previous model was based on political and ideological opposition to Moscow.
The wait-and-see period has also ended in Moscow. The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry see that Ivanishvili is not a minion whom Saakashvili will replace when he does his bit.
Russia has made a number of telling gestures, such as a meeting between the Georgian prime minister’s special envoy and a state secretary of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Next the Russian and Georgian prime ministers shook hands in Davos, the Georgian Patriarch met with the Russian president in Moscow, and talks were launched to reopen the Russian market to Georgian wine and mineral water.
These steps have sparked civil and academic initiatives, including meetings between journalists and experts. Last week, experts from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations presented a report on ways out of the political stalemate in Tbilisi to a packed audience hall. Of course, the report was criticized and some Georgians even protested outside. But everyone agreed that it was Moscow’s first attempt to offer a positive agenda in a long time.
Georgia is hungry for friendly gestures from Moscow. The history of bilateral relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been an endless chain of conflicts, with both sides’ missteps fuelling tension.
Normalizing relations with Georgia is simple for Russia, which only has to ease entry and import restrictions and to show that it is open to cooperation. But the next stage will be much more difficult. Russia must seize this opportunity, but also show restraint so as not to scare Georgia off.
Russia, the largest and most powerful former Soviet republic, often forgets that a careless word can provoke an outcry lasting for weeks and even months. The possibility of Georgia returning to the CIS, recently broached by Russia, led to public protests and was used as a weapon against the Georgian government. There are red lines in Georgian politics that cannot be crossed, no matter how green the grass on the other side. Recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations is one such red line. Another is Georgia’s “European choice.”
No progress can be expected on Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the foreseeable future. Conflicts that involve questions of sovereignty tend to be the most intractable. Russia will not withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia either, as this would do irreparable harm to Russia’s prestige and disrupt the situation in the North Caucasus.
Georgia’s “European choice,” though mostly symbolic, is very important to the country. Although Georgia identifies itself as a European country, most sensible people in Tbilisi understand that it has no prospect of joining NATO or the EU. But Georgia would be lost without its dream of European integration. It has no trust in Russia or enthusiasm for its ideas. And unfortunately, Russia has nothing comparable to the European idea to offer, at least while it’s busy searching for its own new identity.
Georgia clearly overestimates its importance to Russia. Many politicians and ordinary people in Russia wonder why they should try to restore relations with Georgia at all. NATO is no longer a problem, the new Georgian government is unlikely to continue the hostile North Caucasus policy of its predecessor, and Tbilisi no longer controls its former autonomous regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For these reasons and more, a close Russian-Georgian alliance is not a possibility. There are no interests important enough to justify the enormous effort it would take to forge such an alliance.
This may be true if we look at the world from a purely mercantile standpoint. But no matter what happens in their relations, Georgia and Russia will always share a common culture and history. Such assets are not to be discarded in this globalized world, where superficial unity masks a deepening abyss of alienation. History does not stop with any leader’s departure, and no one has a clear sense of what the future holds.