What's Next for Georgia?

The newly elected opposition bloc could change the course of Georgian policy.

Soldiers in South Ossetia, 2008.Results of the parliamentary elections in Georgia have become a central theme in the Eurasian media in recent weeks. The success of the opposition bloc Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the first electoral defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in ten years have prompted discussion about changes to the domestic and foreign policies of Georgia.

Within Ivanishvili’s own coalition there are politicians and public figures who have consistently rejected confrontation with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, favoring more flexible approaches. Can we expect a fundamental change in the official policy of Tbilisi toward these regions?

Shattered Hopes

In the history of post-Soviet Georgia there has been a sad tradition of ethno-political conflicts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, every single Georgian leader has faced some form of ethno-political crisis. The short term of the first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was marked by the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. Eduard Shevardnadze, his successor, tried to address the issues of legitimacy and unification facing his government and the nation through a conflict with Abkhazia. As a result, both problems were left unresolved and territorial integrity of Georgia was not achieved.

From 2003–2004, it appeared that a new government, under the leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili, potentially could resolve the conflicts. Saakashvili had not been associated with the military clashes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s, and the first steps taken by his government brought hope for the peace process. He reformed pro-Georgian structures that had pretended to represent “Abkhazia in exile,” and his government stopped supporting the activities of paramilitary groups such as the Forest Brothers or the White Legion in the eastern part of Abkhazia. But the momentum achieved through this promising start was immediately dashed by irresponsible political rhetoric from the Georgian leadership.

The new president made the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity the central idea of his domestic and foreign policy. He tried to demonstrate his pledge to overcome the legacy of Eduard Shevardnadze, saying in May 2004: “We will return Abkhazia within my presidential term.” Subsequently the Georgian authorities began destroying the existing political, legal and military status quo in South Ossetia, violating the 1992 Dagomys Agreement that ostensibly had marked the end of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. For the first time since that cease-fire, military clashes and bloodshed devastated the breakaway region. All hopes that a new generation of Georgian politicians could put forward peaceful approaches to the settlement of these protracted conflicts were shattered. Instead, these policies led to the unfreezing of the conflict, the five-day war of 2008 and the recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence by Moscow.

For the last four years, the official policy of Tbilisi toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been consistent and predictable. These de facto republics were declared, in accordance with Georgian legislation, “occupied territories.” Georgian diplomats began actively lobbying for recognition of this “occupied” status as an alternative to their recognition as former autonomous entities of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Everything But Recognition

In 2012, Saakashvili suffered his biggest defeat after the “Rose Revolution.” It is not an accident that after the revolution the Georgian Dream proposed a new concept for relations with the breakaway regions called “everything but recognition.” According to Paata Zakareishvili, a contender for the post of minister for reintegration, the objective of this policy is to pursue “non-aggressive behavior” and avoid the use of the residents of the Gali district of the Abkhazia and Akhalgori district of South Ossetia, which are populated by ethnic Georgians, as a counterweight to Abkhaz and South Ossetian interests.

This new policy is in its first draft. Even so, its main features already can be identified. First, representatives of the Georgian Dream coalition will, for the first time after the “hot August” of 2008, pursue direct negotiations with those who previously were treated as “aggressive separatists” and “puppets of the Kremlin.” Second, the policy would move forward discussions of both security issues and non-use of force agreements (in the format of the Geneva talks). Third, the new governing coalition would welcome the revival of economic and trade ties with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Fourth, it promises to investigate a number of incidents related to the detention of people in the border areas. Fifth, the Georgian Dream would reconsider the legislation concerning the “occupied territories,” not seeking its complete elimination but rather pursuing revisions to it, especially on the issue of legal prosecution for traveling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia without Georgian approval. But the new government, just like the previous one, will not discuss recognition of the two breakaway regions.

These ideas look very different from the policies of Saakashvili’s team. Many figures within the Georgian Dream coalition opposed the previous policies of the Saakashvili government, making risky public statements that were critical of the official policy. Despite all this, they have not been able to overcome a few myths that have accompanied the process of conflict resolution for many years.