Georgia held presidential elections and, for the first time in the country’s political history, the state will hold the second tour. This may be easily considered as a huge blow for the ruling political force, Georgia Dream. Local political opposition united around Grigol Vashadze, presidential candidate of United National Movement. Some foreign and local experts/observers may think that fierce political rivalry between position and opposition is a sign of positive democratic changes; furthermore, that Vashadze’s victory will have positive effect. Contrary to this perception, Vashadze’s success won’t lead country to better future but rather to unfortunate past.
On October 29, 2018 Smirnov’s Museum in Tbilisi held event conducted by Yevgeny Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center dedicated to birthday of the prominent Russian politician and scholar. During the happening, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Systemic Political Research, Archil Sikharulidze gave short presentation on topic – Yevgeny Primakov: Russian Politician or Georgia’s Soft Power?
Additional information is available in Russian here.
On August 13, 2017 a prominent Russian scientist on post-Soviet issues, Sergey Markedonov participated in a radio show, Geopolitical Cuisine, with Igor Shatrov aired by MediaMetrics Radio, dealing with the August 2008 War. During the broadcast both, Shatrov and Markedonov raised some very interesting and significant issues that were presented in scopes of Russian political agenda. We will try to balance the analysis and offer a Georgian narrative.
Three topics can be identified: a) a debate on the possible transformation of Georgia’s political system into a federal or confederal model; b) allegations of treaty violations; and c) assumptions of unchanged Georgian society and unanimity regarding the August 2008 War in general.
Federalism and Confederation
Since the beginning of the conflicts, Russian diplomats actively promoted an idea of ‘Georgian Federation’ or a possible confederation that could have included Georgia, Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This approach was especially prevalent in the late 90s and early 2000. Even nowadays, Russian experts and scholars argue that Tbilisi should have chosen these options to deal with separatism. during the radio broadcast, Igor Shatrov argued that Georgia was historically a multi-national union and its government should have reflected this background in the country’s political architecture. Additionally, some comparisons were made between Russia and Georgia.
While these arguments may look attractive they do not show the whole picture. The topic of possible formation of federal or confederal union has two challenges.
The first of these challenges are the associated, security issues. As prominent Georgian expert, Mamuka Areshidze argues, Georgia might think about the confederal model but it is crucial to ensure that respective regulations are set in place to avoid unrecognized regions getting away from the metropolis with international approval. Moreover, there is a strong belief among various local actors that Kremlin’s final aspiration is to dominate over Georgia as a whole rather than its secessionist regions. So far, the federal or confederal models can be used by Moscow to undermine their neighbor’s sovereignty and influence Tbilisi via a pro-Russian agenda in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.
Secondly, Georgia was never a multi-national kingdom or state as, for example, Canada or even Russia itself was and still is. So far, a comparison between Russia’s federal political model and Tbilisi is probably a stretch. Undoubtedly, the state has a history of cohabitation of various ethnical groups. Even though Georgia is a home for approximately ten ethnic groups, they represent only 14% of the whole population. Moreover, while the case of Abkhazia is complicated and Mikhail Saakashvili, former president of Georgia (2004–2013), even offered to recognize Abkhazian as a second state language, the situation in so called South Ossetia is another case. Ossetians that are residents of Tskhinvali region settled there only in XIX–XX centuries and they arguably never reflected a multi-national nature of Georgia. Lastly, the comparison between Moscow and Tbilisi is a nonsensical due simply to the historical background.
Representatives of Georgia’s separatist regions and the Kremlin frequently blame Tbilisi for attempts to undermine the so-called Sochi Agreement, a ceasefire agreement that marked the end of Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. This document was signed in Sochi on June 24, 1992 between Georgia and Russia, the ceasefire with Abkhazia was marked on July 27, 1993.
And while this is factually accurate, we should bear in mind that political realities have changed and they must be reflected; the principle that Kremlin is promoting globally. For example, Vladimir Putin frequently argues that the current political order does not represent the redistribution of powers in global politics. Particularly, it is outdated due to the fact that America is still seen as an undisputed political force while the highly increasing role of such countries as Russian Federation, China, India and Brazil is simply overseen. Furthermore, Moscow has already re-negotiated more or less every significant document that was signed during Boris Yeltsin’s governance when the country was politically and economically non-competitive. The same story is applicable to Georgia. The Sochi Agreement was negotiated and signed when Tbilisi was unable not only to handle the separatist regions but even such simple and fundamental tasks such as budget management. However, since then, Tbilisi has made a giant step toward political, economic and social stability and prosperity. Hence, it is logical and is totally suitable to the framework offered by Moscow that Georgia was and is determined to re-settle some aspects of the agreement and balance it according to national interests.
All in all, Russian scholars and experts should decide whether their ‘reality-match’ approach to legal documents is universal, generalizable, or unique, meaning that it is only applicable to big countries, and small states must get used to doing what they can.
2008 August War
One more issue was raised during the broadcasting. Igor Shatrov argued that after the events of the 90s, the residents of the so-called South Ossetia thought that Georgia had changed as a result of democratic reforms. But, the August 2008 War led to a dramatic disillusionment when they realized that Georgian society remained the same.
This assumption is most likely inaccurate due to two facts: a) Georgian society tends to openly recognize its misdeeds; and b) the latest military confrontation was probably more avoidable than that of the 90s.
Of course, Georgia is far away from the Western style democracy but local society is slowly changing and clearly moving forward. As opposite to residents of the separatist regions Georgian society came to a state of condition in which it is capable of re-assessing political decisions and recognizing its share of blame in the conflicts. It has just realized that in order to clap you need two hands; a harsh reality that people in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are unwilling to take into account.
Secondly, the August 2008 War was probably more predictable and avoidable than those of the 90s. It is rarely mentioned that after political unrests in November 2007 and a questionable outcome of early presidential elections of January 2008, Georgian opposition openly warned about possible military campaign that Saakashvili’s government could have conducted to consolidate political power and increase electoral support. The same statement was made by former ambassador of Georgia to Russian Federation, Erosi Kitsmarishvili. in his memoirs, he stated that Saakashvili had aspiration to solve the Abkhazian issue with a military blitzkrieg (something, that Saakashvili and members of his government called a complete lie). Unfortunately, Matthew Bryza, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, assured the George W. Bush administration that these allegations were unfounded. Consequently, the state’s strategic partners that were capable of restraining Saakashvili and making some serious preventive steps were surprised when military confrontation unfolded (it should be mentioned that some Georgian and Russian experts argue that Bush’s administration was aware of Saakashvili’s plans and even supported him). At this point, there was no unanimity between the government and Georgian society that, we may argue, was in place during 90s.
By and large, Russian experts and scholars frequently blame the West for not taking into account Russia’s national interests. They argue that both, US and EU, must realize that Kremlin has its own political agenda and that Vladimir Putin’s government will follow and protect it by all means. Unfortunately, the same people rarely apply the same standards to Georgia and its national interests. And as soon as this is done, Georgian and Russian officials will undoubtedly find a common ground for mutually beneficial political agreements.
On March 9, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on the Russian Federation to initiate constructive dialogue. Moreover, he expressed readiness to start direct talks with representatives of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This initiative was a response of the local government to an incident involving Georgian citizen and former military staff member Archil Tatunashvili, who was arrested on February 22 by so-called South Ossetian KGB agents and transferred to Tskhinvali. He later died in the city hospital in dubious circumstances, supposedly “from a heart attack.”
Kvirikashvili’s statement had a double-effect. On the one hand, some praised it as a politically balanced and well-thought out decision while others, including the country’s leading oppositional forces, considered the call a total capitulation to the separatist forces and the Kremlin. Some even argued that the government is pursuing more of a retreat-approach than a cooperation-policy. Finally, there were allegations that direct talks with the separatist regions may lead to their international recognition and legitimization.
It is doubtless complicated to foresee the implications of the initiative in general, but the critical reactions from various actors once more prove that some members of local political, civil society and academic elites are unaware of the situation on the ground in terms of the Georgian-Russian confrontation. The critiques seem to be more political-ideological than a result of serious political analysis.
The Georgian-Russian Confrontation
First, we need to bear in mind that there is no Georgian-Russian confrontation. Mikhail Saakashvili’s grand goal was to involve the West in these inter-state relations, it being a significant political, economic and military power, in order to counter Moscow. He managed to do so and it is no secret that the so-called August 2008 War was and is still considered by Georgia’s strategic allies and the Kremlin as a confrontation between the West and the Russian Federation. Nowadays, Georgian-Russian relations are no longer considered only in the scopes of West-Russia affairs; but issues dealing with separatist regions and the unilateral recognition of statehoods of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia still fall under the West-Russia confrontation paradigm. This paradigm restrains Georgia as a political player, and its capabilities are miserable; pressed from all sides by actors whose ambitions and interests go far beyond Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Russian confrontation issues.
As yet, it is pretty questionable as to whether we can demand from Kvirikashvili’s government a “proper” reaction to the significant misdeeds done by representatives of the separatist regions and/or Moscow; questionable because Georgian officials are put simply, strangled on the ground to such extent they can be considered more as observers than members of a fully-recognized political actor. We can argue that the negative assessment of the initiative from the main local political opposition forces is merely a PR campaign, but what seems most disturbing is the inadequate reaction from civil society and academic staff members, who called for the taking of “respective measures;” this being more a reflection of lack of awareness and, of course, a perfect example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.
Modern Georgia does not possess the respective political, economic or military mechanisms to influence either the West nor the East (Russian Federation) or even the separatist regions. Generally, the game is on totally another level and the only thing that local government can do is to try and keep the existing status-quo.
The West-East Confrontation
Political processes that are in place in the separatist regions of Georgia and Ukraine (including military confrontation in the Eastern part) are crucial for the West, especially for the American establishment. This importance is due to the effect they have on the existing global political order; the fate of the international system depends on the outcomes of these processes.
It is no secret that the global world order established after the Cold War by the West is under serious assault. The Russian Federation, China, India, Brazil are countries already making significant steps to put forward their own national interests that erode the post-Cold War system and threaten its integrity and stability; furthermore, the states are working hard to finally balance America’s political, economic and military power on an international level. Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia as independent states, as well as the annexation of Crimea, are important parts of this erosion process. Moscow is trying to break crucial laws of the system established by the West and prove that it can unilaterally decide and handle global political tasks itself. In Georgia’s case, these topics deal with such fundamental principles as sovereignty and territorial integrity.
One of the main pillars of the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the undisputed nature of member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. An exception can be made if there is a consolidated decision inside a society supported by international law and with approval from the West. The Kremlin broke this sacred formula and without “approval,” crafted two new “sovereign” subjects of the international system. For the US and its allies, this is very dangerous precedent that may firmly lead to the rise of a new wave of separatism in general. But, most significant, this is an open appraisal against the system and the rules set by the West, and if Russia succeeds, the global world order’s stability and integrity will be broken and will start to unravel. Ultimately, the West will lose its privileged position and US its status of the world’s “sheriff.” The American political establishment is aware of the apocalyptic picture and will do its best to avoid this undesirable scenario.
Hence, Kvirikashvili’s initiate to start direct talks with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia will definitely not lead to recognition of the unrecognized regimes by the West and international society as a whole. This is simply impossible because the issue is not about Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity anymore; it is already about the stability of the system. And Georgia’s strategic partners will not provide us with respective triggers to make decisions that may somehow initiate dramatic developments. The West will not recognize either Abkhazia, or the so-called South Ossetia while the processes on the ground are kept out of the scopes of international law; something that will never be good for the Kremlin. At present, it matters not whether the Georgian government will have a direct or indirect dialogue with Sukhumi and/or Tskhinvali. This is another example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.
The Kvirikashvili Initiative
Basing on the judgements given above, it is questionable whether we can accuse Giorgi Kvirikashvili of treason and/or concessions. We may argue that the Georgian government is using all accessible means to handle the conflict. Moreover, it once more proclaimed readiness for open dialogue and, according to the same Western standards, showed political maturity. Kvirikashvili has opted for a pragmatic and balanced policy based on careful analysis of the power balance on the ground. By making a reserved statement, despite the painful incident with Archil Tatunashili’s death, Georgia gained the so-called ‘moral superiority’ over governments of the separatist regions and Moscow, too. Tbilisi proved that it is still the only constructive political actor in the conflict.
With regards to statements made by the United National Movement and Movement for Liberty, we should keep in mind that these oppositional parties are built around the Russian narrative. Radical opposition to Moscow is the only thing that makes them different from other pro-Western groups. Thus, they cannot go beyond this ideological platform, beyond the “Russian framework”.
Georgia’s political, economic and military powers are miserable. Nowadays, Tbilisi lacks the mechanisms to influence processes in the conflicting regions at all. Moreover, the zone of Georgian-Russian confrontation is, in practice, a field of West vs Russia rivalry where the fate of the existing political order is being handled. So far, Georgia is more an observer than an actual political power. The only thing that local government should do is to cooperate with strategic partners, remind them about its national interests and hope for a better future; and, of course, to try to maintain the status-quo on the ground. The Kvirikashvili initiative perfectly reflects these realities and is an attempt to use all accessible means to bring stability and peace to civilians.
Year of 2017 has come to its logical conlusion. Below there is a list of the most important and popular articles that have been published. Please have a look and we are looking for reasonable and well arguemented feedbacks/comments:
…if he is removed from the political rivalry, this will mark the end of the Georgian political influence on the Ukrainian policymaking…Yes, Saakashvili contributed a lot to the post-Soviet space, but many stakeholders are tired with him and want his show to come to an end…
…Russia is a political, economic, and military guarantor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence and statehood. But these Georgian lands are not ‘without a people’. There are also a variety of other ethnic groups living in the disputed regions, and their…
Rustavi 2 Case: “Georgian Dream’s” Sword of Damocles (RIAC), November 23:
…Рустави 2 – это один из сильнейших и влиятельных частных телеканалов страны. На протяжении двух десятков лет он влиял на политические события. Именно благодаря этому каналу революционное…
…на фоне отсутствия дипломатических отношений российская сторона активно продвигает идею публичной дипломатии. За годы работы сформировались разные научные, экспертные и молодёжные платформы сотрудничества…
…представители подрастающего политического и академического классов всё больше и больше задаются вопросом о надобности нахождения Грузинского контингента на Ближнем Востоке, если…
Georgia has a long history of “breakthrough” celebrations following various political decisions announced by the government as a great victory. Lately, to the dissatisfaction of local society, it has become politically motivated exaggeration and/or an attempt to overshadow the incapability or…
The King is Law: Georgia’s Never Ending “Perestroika” (GeorgiaToday), September 11:
…the current government’s constitutional reform is highly criticized by various actors for being a unilateral decision not backed by society and lacking a common agreement among political actors. Some say it may even trigger the worsening of domestic processes, though, generally, this is a false statement. In fact, the reform is a continuation of Georgia’s never ending “perestroika” and will not significantly change the environment…
…Georgia’s political and other elites must stop using the ‘Russian framework’ to turn a blind eye to the challenges that such marches raise; they should work hard to start open debates to show their readiness for dialogue and awareness of the existing political, social and economic challenges…
…this event, just like the 2008 August War, the recent clashes during an anti-homophobia rally and various other events, reflects the existence of two parallel Georgias: Georgia as a political brand, created by the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, and Georgia as a political actor of international relations which has to maneuver in the global and regional political environment…
…the present research aims at examining issues related to the integration of Muslim communities, raising awareness of the wider public on these issues, and developing recommendations for respective stakeholders…
…restoration of Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations is not a grand question of ‘to be or not to be’ as it is represented by some, including in the Georgian media. It is an issue of necessity; whether Georgia needs it at all? From a practical point of view: barely is the answer….
…the West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests…
Co-founder of the Center for Systemic Political Research (CSPR)
Editor of Georgian Journal of Systemic Politics (GJSP)
For the majority of Georgians, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are only about Russia. The only way out of this stalemate is to start paying attention to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian experience.
On 27 September, Tbilisi and Sokhumi marked the 24th anniversary of an event with two contradictory interpretations. Tbilisi marked the anniversary of the ‘fall of Sokhumi’ and the end of the war in Abkhazia, while Sokhumi celebrated the anniversary of the ‘liberation of Sukhum’ and its independence from Georgia.
For years, both sides of the conflict have demonstrated entirely different perceptions of the dramatic events of early 1990s. And even though on an official level, Georgia has always pointed to Russia’s role in the conflict, there has been a consensus in Georgian society that the reasons behind the bloody confrontation lay in the miscalculations of both Georgians and Abkhazians, radicalism, and an unwillingness to find common ground.
Over the last decade we have witnessed a nationwide shift away from this narrative, to instead stress the role of Russia in the conflict. Increasing numbers of Georgia’s civil society, political elites, and media have began presenting the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts as political tools created by Moscow. A new concept of ‘Georgian lands without a people’ has gained prominence, according to which the disputed territories are waiting for their real owners to return. In this fantasy, it’s only the Russian Federation preventing the dream from coming true for more than 230,000 internally displaced persons in the country.
Russia’s ‘hidden hand’
Over the past few years, it has become a widespread trend in Georgia to openly analyse the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts mainly through the prism of Georgian–Russian relations, completely forgetting the importance of inter-ethnic relations.
This shift started around the mid-2000s during former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule. The government attempted to distance itself from Moscow and to integrate the country into Western institutions. Georgia’s drive to join NATO especially put Tbilisi and the Kremlin on a road to a direct political, economic, and military confrontation.
Significant internal pressure in combination with external challenges radicalised local political elites at the time. This process was accelerated by the increasing role of Russia’s ‘hidden hand’ in Georgia’s domestic political affairs. Russia was frequently used as a scapegoat. The legacy of this tendency is still alive today, continuing to affect the perception of the conflicts.
Mutual misunderstandings and serious historical grievances as triggering factors for armed conflict were placed on the fringes of the public discourse, while Moscow’s intervention has come to the debate’s forefront. Downplaying the importance of inter-ethnic relations has resulted in the assumption that these are Georgian lands without a people, which are occupied by the Kremlin. According to this thinking, the removal of Russia from the geopolitical chessboard will by default lead to conflict’s resolution.
The concept echoes a phrase associated with the early Zionist movement — ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ — calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In both cases, in Palestine and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the lands have never been uninhabited. Just as an Arab population has lived in Palestine for over 1,000 years, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia there are non-Russian populations whose interests should also be taken into account.
A reality check
Georgian political elites are so obsessed with Russia and its ‘phantom menace’ that they forget or are turning a blind eye to many important aspects of the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian confrontations.
Probably the most prominent manifestation is the radical Georgian nationalism that flourished at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his followers were calling to ‘expel’ from the country various ethnic groups that have been considered as ‘unnecessary elements’.
At the time, there was already serious dissatisfaction among ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetians with their status and rights in as part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Georgian archives, one can find open letters to the central committee of the Soviet Union from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, calling for their autonomy, the population’s safety, ethnic minority rights, and their cultural identity all to be protected.
The same archival materials prove that there were instances of Georgian oppression of Abkhaz people during the Stalin–Beria period. Even though we may argue that the crimes took place under Soviet dictatorship, the majority of Abkhaz possess a strong historical memory and point out that both Stalin and Lavrenti Beria (the head of the Soviet secret police) were ethnic Georgians.
This history, together with other factors — such as Russian interests in the region — triggered conflicts that affected people on both sides. The Abkhazians and South Ossetians who fought against Georgian ‘aggressors’ haven’t suddenly disappeared amidst the Georgian–Russian confrontation. They live in the disputed regions and we may easily assume that these people have different stories to tell than the Georgian leadership.
Russia is a political, economic, and military guarantor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence and statehood. But these Georgian lands are not ‘without a people’. There are also a variety of other ethnic groups living in the disputed regions, and their ancestors and relatives took part in the ‘freedom fight’ against Tbilisi.
With or without the Kremlin, these people may have ideas about their future which differs from the Georgian one. These are informed by their history, and have not been artificially constructed by Moscow.
Going forward, it would be more rational for Georgia to rethink its mainstream narratives and pay attention to the complexity of the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts. We need a narrative that goes beyond the Georgia–Russia framework.