Moscow and Tbilisi: Beginning Anew
№1 2004 January/February
Sergei Karaganov

Doctor of History, is Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University–Higher School of Economics (NRU–HSE), and Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.