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Opinion: Georgia's success threatens Moscow's narrative
15 August 2017

By progressing on the path to becoming a truly European country Georgia is challenging Russia's narrative, and this may result in the Russian people questioning their own governance model, argues George Mchedlishvili in this op-ed.

Background: a Rocky Start

Relations between Russia and Georgia started to sour even before the formal disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991. The reasons were Georgia's declared goal of independence from the Soviet Union, its reluctance to join the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the quick pace in launching and deepening relations with western countries after Eduard Shevardnadze took the helm of the country in 1992. These developments endeared Tbilisi to Western capitals, but also made the country the permanent target of Moscow's wrath.

Despite dabbling with democracy and liberal market reforms domestically during Yeltsin's first term in office, Russia's foreign posture with regard to the former Soviet republics remained fundamentally imperialistic. Condescending remarks about the independence of these states were commonly heard even from relatively liberal politicians. This attitude had very concrete policy implications resulting in attempts to weaken any country that was unwilling to toe Moscow's line by fanning the flames of separatism. For purely pragmatic reasons the approach to the Baltic states was somewhat more nuanced.

When it comes to Georgia however, this modus operandi has been pursued from the early 1990s, and further intensified in the mid-2000s as it became clear that the reforms initiated by President Mikheil Saakashvili and his team were bearing fruit, and levitating the country from the corruption and inefficiency of the late Shevardnadze era.    

Why Did the Guns of August Fire?

Therefore, the reasons behind the August 2008 war are unmistakably traced to Georgia's staunchly pro-western choice and   desire to join European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. Tbilisi views the integration into the western bodies as the gateway to political and economic progress, and a guarantee to the country's long-term security. Although Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's president at the time, and other representatives of the Russian leadership were proclaiming they had been defending "sleeping Tskhinval" from the barbaric assault of the blood-thirsty Saakashvili and his Western enablers,  a few years later he all but admitted the  real reason behind Russian aggression, saying  in one interview: "Had we blinked then in 2008, we would have a completely different geopolitical landscape, and a number of important countries, which the [North Atlantic] Alliance tried to drag into its ranks a few years ago, would have already been there".

As a result of the five-day war, Moscow occupied the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and recognized them as independent states. In response, Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia, also leaving Moscow-led CIS, along the way. The only format of interaction became the Geneva International Discussions - the OSCE, EU and UN co-chaired talks on the consequences of the 2008 war .

As Russia's economic fortunes steeply improved in the 2000s on the crest of high hydrocarbon prices, it's policies of reestablishing its sphere of influence grew more assertive, culminating in the idea of the Eurasian Economic Union as a counterweight to the European Union. Russia's grand plans fall short of a political restoration of the Soviet Union, if only because the upkeep of such a political union will be very costly. The goals are limited to wielding influence in the post-Soviet neighborhood, whereby countries don't conduct a foreign policy without heeding   Moscow's interests first.

Under these circumstances, the relations between Moscow and Tbilisi are destined to remain tense for as long as Georgia remains pro-western.

One Russia, Two Approaches

The dynamic of the relations between the two countries after the 2008 war is a case in point. Before 2012, under the leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili and his "United National Movement", the already bad relations were exacerbated by inflammatory rhetoric of the Georgian leadership which excluded the possibility of any contacts. Even cultural ties were often frowned upon as collaborationism. In the latter years of Saakashvili's period of governance, when authoritarian tendencies became more pronounced, Russia was increasingly used as a tool to drum up support for the leadership.   

One of the electoral pledges of the current "Georgian Dream" government, in power since the surprise victory in the 2012 parliamentary election, was the normalization of ties with Russia. The rhetoric was toned down, and a direct channel of communication established between the special envoy of Georgia's Prime Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation. The rationale of the Georgian Dream leadership is that a less assertive approach to Russia avoids a fierce backlash , which could range from another military intervention to pressure on ethnic Georgians living in Moscow.

Russia itself might also have a stake in having better relations with Tbilisi. Strong as the desire to punish Georgia for its pro-western quest is, Russia also has to care about its international image, particularly among the post-Soviet states it wants to 'reclaim'. The image of a bully that will go to any length to prevent a country from charting its own foreign policy is not exactly the image Moscow wants to cultivate these days. Rather, it tries to appeal to the hearts and minds of the population of the post-Soviet countries, presenting itself as a senior partner that will respect traditions and cultural identity - a sensitive issue for many.

The "thaw" resulted in the restoration of cultural and trade ties between the two countries. Very importantly and symbolically, Russia resumed imports of Georgian wine it had discontinued in 2006 for purely political reasons.   

But neither the less incendiary rhetoric on the part of the Georgian leadership, nor the attempts by Russia to employ 'carrots' and not only 'sticks', goes far enough to change the underlying dynamics. The differences remain irreconcilable - be it the status of the occupied territories whose recognition Russia's current leadership is very unlikely to reverse, or  Georgia's process of integration into EU and NATO, which Russia will always view as a major threat.

For this reason, Russia has been putting pressure on Georgia in several ways. Russian troops have been engaged in the periodic process of "borderization" by placing demarcation signposts along the occupation line, sometimes engaging into an additional "land grab" by adding several hundred meters of Tbilisi-controlled territory into the occupation zone. Additionally, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been making the lives of ethnic Georgians who live in the areas they control more unbearable by the day through very discriminatory citizenship regulations and language programs in the schools . In late July, the pro-Kremlin leaders in the occupied South Ossetia region announced they would shut down the remaining Georgian-language schools. The same policy has been in place in the Georgia-populated Gali district of Abkhazia since 2015. All these policies are highly annoying for the Georgian authorities, as they demonstrate Moscow's heavy-handed approach vis-à-vis Tbilisi.   

One other fact illustrates Russian hard-line approach very eloquently - the continued insurgency in the North Caucasus, -  the southern region of the Russian Federation that borders Georgia - which  involves  elements of Al-Qaeda and, since late 2014, those of the Islamic State (or Daesh). In the North Caucasus the insurgency could be fought much more efficiently if there was cross-border cooperation between Russia and Georgia. But Russia prefers to undermine Georgia, even to the detriment of Russia's own security.

 The reasons for Russian obsessions

The reasons Russia is so fixated on retaining its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space are primarily domestic. The stability of Putin's kleptocratic regime is predicated on the ideological confrontation with the West, which is underpinned by the narrative of "uniqueness" of Orthodox civilization. This policy is best evidenced by the "Russkiy Mir" ("Russian World") paradigm that tries to enfold all post-Soviet countries by stating that Western 'decadent', secular (read 'lacking spirituality) cultural traditions are pernicious for 'our civilization'. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, by virtue of the Orthodox Christian denomination they share with Russia, are certainly viewed as belonging to the "Russian World". And, according to the narrative, by westernizing, these countries can only lose.

Therefore, if any one of these countries choses the western path of political and economic transformation and succeeds, this entire narrative unravels. This is what the Russian regime truly fears, that the success of these countries might prompt the Russian population to question the merits of their own governance model.  This is the reason Russia is so hell-bent on derailing the westernizing countries from becoming truly European states. Since Georgia has progressed the most in this direction, Russian backlash is inevitable.   

George Mchedlishvili is Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the International Black Sea University in Tbilisi. He contributed this op-ed to commonspace.eu

photo: Russian troops near the Georgian town of Gori in 2008 (picture courtesy of BBC)

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