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.