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Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych

Viktor Fedorovych YanukovychYanukovych

The end of the era Saakashvili

On October 27, presidential elections were held in Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili had to leave his post. The candidate of the ruling party Georgian Dream moves into the presidential palace. What impact does the end of the Saakashvili era have on the relations with Russia? A background article by Liana Fix

The candidate of Saakashvili’s party, David Bakradze, suffered a dramatic defeat with only 21 percent of the votes, while the candidate supported by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Giorgi Margvelashvili, won 62 percent. On the government’s side, great expectations for further improvement of relations with Russia are connected with the new president. Especially in the area of visa facilitation, the hope prevails that the Russian leadership will be open to further concessions.

The desire to improve relations with Russia is guided by several motives. On the one hand, it is about the country’s security, especially against the powerful neighbor Russia: President Saakashvili focused on military buildup and close cooperation with the USA and NATO to guarantee Georgia's security. The new government considers an improvement of relations with Russia as a more appropriate means because a NATO membership is still far away. On the other hand, economic considerations play a role. Before the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Russia was the most important market for Georgia's few export products; now the trade between the two countries slowly intensifies. For the new government, this is essential since it has started an ambitious social reform with yet unclear reciprocal financing. Additional revenues would well be welcomed.

Rapprochement with Russia but integration into the West?

In contrast to President Saakashvili, who harbored an intimate enmity with the Russian President Vladimir Putin after the war 2008, Prime Minister Ivanishvili maintains good relations with Moscow - where he earned his fortune as a successful businessman. After his election victory, Ivanishvili therefore pursued a course of cautious rapprochement with Russia without wanting to give up or slow down the integration course of the country in Euro-Atlantic structures, i.e. the European Union and NATO.

President Saakashvili tried best to undermine this process of rapprochement and always warned that Georgia would be a vassal of Russia under Ivanishvili. However, this concern seems unfounded: The new government continues negotiations on an association agreement with the European Union with great commitment. At the same time, positive results are visible in the relations with Russia: Georgian wine, water and fruit are being exported to Russia again; the resumption of regular flights shall follow.

No role for the President

President Margvelashvili

Against all hopes of the newly elected president, however, he will hardly be able to contribute to further significant progress in Georgian-Russian relations. First of all, this is due to the fact that the President, after a constitutional amendment, is subordinate to the head of government in executive matters and now fulfills mainly representative functions. Margvelashvili will thus not be able to achieve more than an atmospheric improvement of the conversation climate. Secondly, security during the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi 2014 is a much more important issue for Moscow than who the Georgian president is. If the cooperation with Georgia in terms of security will appear to be successful, the Russian leadership could show more political flexibility in the future – especially concerning the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So far, the thorny issue of the breakaway regions has been excluded from the bilateral talks. However, it must be kept in mind that the crucial question in Georgian-Russian relations will remain the one of Moscow’s stance towards with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The "Geneva talks", a dialogue format between Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia under international mediation, have long been blocked and promise no solution. Georgia and Russia both have their "red lines" in the field: Russia calls for the recognition of the territories’ independence; Georgia, respect for its territorial integrity. Recently, however, Prime Minister Ivanishvili brought things into motion. For the fifth anniversary of the war, on August 8, 2013, he surprisingly announced that the Georgian government is willing to have direct talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A new strategy of engagement


This move gives the Georgian government the necessary flexibility to achieve progress in the relations to the breakaway regions even without Moscow. Tbilisi needs to develop a strategy of engagement with the secession areas that goes beyond well-known demands for territorial integrity, and accepts Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent actors. Only when Abkhazia and South Ossetia have regained confidence in their Georgian neighbors, it is to even think about a pull-out of the so-called Russian "peacekeepers" in the secession areas.

A major obstacle to dialogue with the secession areas, however, is the fact that South Ossetia’s border is being fortified by Russian troops massively since February 2013. For the Georgian government, this is unacceptable - not only because it does not recognize an official border on principle, but also because the newly installed fences and surveillance cameras extend deep into territory controlled by Tbilisi. The process is limited to South Ossetia since Abkhazia has a natural dividing line with Georgia. The Georgian special representative for relations with Russia interprets this with a view to the Olympic Games: Moscow has a great need for security and equips itself everywhere. Whether the border installations are to be dismantled after the Olympics, however, can be doubted.

Georgia must work on two fronts simultaneously

Therefore, Russia must be taken into account. The new Georgian government must hence work simultaneously on two fronts: build trust with the breakaway regions, while securing the benevolence of Moscow so that the process is not hindered by the Russian side. Russia is not interested in a quick resolution of the conflict as it can exert the most influence in the current situation. Therefore, it is important to synchronize the policy on Russia with a new strategy of engagement towards the secessionist territories.

The West should encourage Georgia to pursue a synchronized strategic policy towards the secessionist territories and Russia simultaneously. The reactions to the improvement of relations with Russia have thus far been non-committal, especially in Europe. Too big is the fear of a repetition of the Ukraine scenario: Georgia could slip back into the "Russian orbit" again. But Europe should be honest enough to admit that without a solution to its territorial conflicts, Georgia‘s membership of the EU / NATO is unthinkable. Direct talks not only with Russia, but also with the secessionist regions are the first step there.