Rebalancing Georgian Foreign Policy

Georgia's new prime minister might seek an opening with Russia, but he will only go so far.

Flickr: ritingon.Last month’s defeat of Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili at hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili is bound to lead to changes in the country’s foreign policy. But any U-turns on great power relationships are unlikely since no overtures to Russia will result in integration of separatist provinces.

The Triumph of Georgian Dream

Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition won the October elections to the 150-seat national parliament, gaining eighty-five seats compared to the sixty-five won by Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and putting the Georgian president into a situation where he had little choice but to fire his own cabinet, nominate his rival as the next premier and let him form a new cabinet.

Ivanishvili, a rather eccentric billionaire, claims that he will quit politics in April 2014. Until then, however, Ivanishvili—whom the national parliament approved as the country’ new premier on October 25—will exercise enormous influence on Georgia’s policies. His influence will grow further in October 2013 when Saakashvili’s final presidential term expires and when the amendments to Georgia’s constitution come into force to transfer the bulk of powers from the president to the prime minister.

Signs of Change in Georgia’s Foreign Policy

Ivanishvili has repeatedly claimed before and after the elections that he will keep Georgia on the course towards NATO membership and integration with EU while also continuing efforts to integrate the self-styled republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Ivanishvili’s pick for foreign minister, Maia Panjikidze, also vowed that “the course of the last government will be continued in the foreign policy of our country.” She also asserted that Georgia will continue to refrain from formal diplomatic relations with Moscow until Russia ends its “occupation” of Georgia’s separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, there are already clear signs that Ivanishvili and his government will try to pursue a policy different from the U.S.-educated Saakashvili.

The biggest change should be expected in Georgia’s policy towards its largest neighbor, relations with which have remained frozen since the August 2008 war that resulted in Georgia’s defeat and the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia.

As someone who has lived in Russia, made his fortune in Russia and even had Russian citizenship, Ivanishvili realizes the economic and other benefits of normalization of relations with Russia. Moreover, he claimed on October 24 that the establishment of relations with Russia may facilitate the integration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia: “We have no concrete plan when these relations will be established, but using our diplomacy and by our correct actions we will be able to establish relations and return our territories if our interests coincide with Russia's interests.” Several days later, however, Ivanishvili sought to dispel impressions that he may establish relations with Russia either before or simultaneously with progress towards integration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "As far diplomatic [relations] are concerned, it can't happen quickly," he said. Restoring trade and cultural links with Russia was a "more realistic" goal, he said.

The new prime minister has already made a number of overtures towards Moscow, including a promise that Georgia should “definitely” compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which Saakashvili has previously vowed to boycott. More importantly, in comments made on October 24, Ivanishvili has supported the findings of a 2009 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, which stated that it was Georgia that began “open hostilities” during the 2008 war with Russia. Most recently, Ivanishvili placed Georgia's former ambassador to Moscow Zurab Abashidze in a new post, Special Representative for Relations with Russia.

There are also signs that the new Georgian government may tone down or even slow down Georgia’s vocal drive for membership in NATO in an effort to normalize relations with Russia. The Georgian parliament’s new speaker David Usupashvili, for instance, said that Georgia should continue to make efforts to enter NATO and the European Union, but “this should not be done in way that would make it look like we are defeating Russia.”

Temptations of Revenge At Home

While promising continuity in Georgia’s policy vis-à-vis the West, the winners of Georgia’s parliamentary elections vow drastic changes at home. And it should come as no surprise, given that the Georgian Dream has campaigned on promise of social change, but what’s alarming are calls by some Georgian Dream supporters to prosecute members of Saakashvili’s team.