Roses for the Bear

Roses for the Bear

Kosovo’s independence could unleash a storm of instability in the neighborhood. That’s why Russia and Georgia need to start ironing out their differences.

This article is not about Kosovo's independence. I clearly understand that it was a product of different history and has occurred under different circumstances. Instead, I would like to focus on the "Kosovo Precedent"-as a pattern which has already affected the post-Soviet states and the wider Black Sea area. Indeed, this precedent may just destroy stability in those lands altogether, specifically in my own country, Georgia.

The rush by some states to recognize Kosovo's independence has divided the West, gives Russia an unwarranted political and economic reason to bash its neighbors, and creates unintended consequences for Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, all of which have secessionist regions. Other countries with huge minority enclaves, like Kazakhstan or Ukraine, may be eventually at risk too.

What is so unique about Kosovo that makes it different from a score of other separatist entities across the board? Why not grant independence to all those "unrecognized" enclaves across the former Soviet Union (FSU), including in Russia? How do you make this point to some of the Russian leaders, who are busy pulling the strings of separatism in all these neighboring conflicts, while playing the role of "unbiased" peacekeeper?

I don't see principles here-just expediency. The United States and some major European countries support enclaves in the Balkans, now including Kosovo, while opposing Abkhazian or South Ossetian separatism. We Georgians naturally support that Western position. Russia supports all these breakaway entities within the FSU (formally recognizing Georgia's and other former Soviet republics' territorial integrity) while opposing Kosovo. What makes the Kosovo precedent surrealistic is that we Georgians have to support Russia's position and go against the West, doing so while lobbying vigorously for NATO membership! We clearly understand that the Western policy aims to avoid a failed state in Kosovo, but we also presume that it's a calculated risk. Quite possibly the pattern may result in greater rather than lesser danger.

The main consequence of the Kosovo precedent, for the time being, is to further complicate the conflict-resolution process within the FSU, and specifically in Georgia, even though the Western community keeps saying that Kosovo is unique. Notwithstanding all the lip service that Russia gives, for example, to Georgia's territorial integrity, Moscow has already turned up the heat by terminating the more-than-feeble sanctions on Abkhazia, and is even introducing a dangerous model of some "suspended independence."

Some in Georgia admit that in retaliation for Tbilisi's position on Kosovo, NATO may backpedal on Georgia's long-coveted membership-though there are additional reasons why some European capitals resist Georgia‘s inclusion in the organization. Georgia, some Western experts say, may not expect the Membership Action Plan (MAP) to be offered at the Bucharest NATO summit because Georgia isn't ready to meet NATO standards yet. Trying to say that message is "not if, but when" in terms of a MAP for Georgia does not look convincing.

This could be the case, but-more importantly-we understand that some EU members do not want to jeopardize their political-economic interests (i.e., energy dependence on Russia) over what is perceived as just a "peripheral Georgian issue." However, Georgia's NATO aspirations are based not only on a quest for credible security guarantees, but also on a willingness to seize the opportunity to become a truly democratic, stable and sovereign state. A stable and democratic Georgia would benefit mainly its immediate neighbors, and concretely its northern and biggest one. Ironically, it is exactly Russia which could have guaranteed Georgia that kind of development.

Why do I say that the "Kosovo precedent" may destroy stability in our area? Because the wider Black Sea region-and specifically the South Caucasus-is a space where a lot of history, traditions and habits as well as prejudices, psychologies, perceptions and misperceptions are interconnected and intertwined with each other. Security as well as stability and sovereignty there are indivisible and all-inclusive. So if something happens within that broader area (Serbia happens to be a member of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, meaning it formally belongs to the wider Black Sea area) or even beyond it, it may affect in a negative way any entity inside that equation. That's why the "Kosovo precedent" may matter to us!

I know that our Russian friends display a certain irritation with Georgia's NATO and EU aspirations. They may have their own reasons for that, though I cannot comprehend them fully. Let's call a spade a bloody shovel and ask some questions in this regard! What can Russia offer as an alternative? What is the substance of Russia's "Good Neighborhood Policy," if it exists at all, beyond some formal statements of support regarding Georgia's territorial integrity? What are Russia's strategic interests in Abkhazia, for example? Access to the Black Sea shoreline, some energy or real estate and other private property assets? Stability in the Northern Caucasus, where Russia itself is not fully immune to the implications for its own restive areas of any moves it makes regarding Abkhazia or South Ossetia? All of the above?

Does Russia really want to assist in resolving those "Georgian" conflicts or to keep them in suspended animation in order to preserve, as some in Moscow wishfully believe, its own control in the area? Has anybody in Moscow ever tried to engage positively and affect or reverse, for example, certain pro-NATO sentiments in Georgia instead of manipulating the dilemma of "legitimate interests" versus "influence"? Or just ask, why does Georgia tilt toward the Euro-Atlantic community instead of remaining closer to a country with which it has had for centuries economic, cultural, religious and, I would say, emotional bonds?

And one purely hypothetical or even surrealistic question: if Georgia were ever to apply to join the Russian Federation as an old imperial guberinia-as a province, as it used to be before the October Revolution of 1917-will Russia be ready to resolve those conflicts? Or does Russia even have the capacity, as some naively expect in Georgia, to "put those territories back into Georgia's pocket?" These are questions that the Georgian people need to clearly ask Presidents Putin and Medvedev.

By the way, I asked that question some time ago on the highest political level in Moscow and received an absolutely appalling answer: "No, Russia does not currently have the capacity to do that! Georgia needs to talk to the Abkhaz side and we can only assist in this regard." Was it a strategic message or a bluff? Maybe yes and maybe no; I do not know as I'm an outsider without access to some details and nuances. What the price required for that "assistance" was, I do not know either. What I know is that one always needs to pay for any "assistance" or decline it straightforward-stay strong on the identified positions but be ready to pay for the consequence. That's how it works in ordinary life as well as in high politics. As it happens, that "strategic price" one needs to pay to bring any situation to "normalcy" happens to be much higher today than it could have been even yesterday, and traditionally the weaker side in that bargaining process has to pay much more to seal the deal.

But whatever I may speculate, I'm more than confident of a simple and pragmatic reality: nothing is equal to Georgia's territorial integrity, including the MAP or the full NATO membership!

It appears to an outsider that the two countries now talk to each other. Commercial planes may fly soon between Tbilisi and Moscow; postal service and other means of communication could be restored soon; maybe even some Georgian mineral water or wine may reach Russian customers. One may admit sarcastically that "it's not a big deal," but that's unfortunately the current quality and level of our relations-a bottle of Borjomi, Kindzmarauli or Stolichnaya may impact negatively or positively the quality of foreign- policy discourse. But these are still positive developments; it's always easier to destroy than rebuild, especially in bilateral political relations. It usually takes a certain amount of time and patience to repair strained ties.

We all heard that the Russian and Georgian presidents met recently in Moscow at an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS has always been more of an excuse for the occasional gathering rather than a real regional organization. But this informal bilateral rendezvous presented an opportunity to Messrs. Putin and Saakashvili to reverse the current trend in relations between their two countries, which had reached a dangerously low point. Unfortunately, it would seem that the two leaders did not seize this opportunity to clarify some "big issues."

After the Moscow meeting, President Saakashvili headed straight to Warsaw and Brussels to reaffirm Georgia's burning desire to join NATO. Moscow immediately retaliated by announcing closer ties with the separatist leaders in Georgia's conflict zones. Once again Georgian-Russian relations are stuck where they have been during recent years: below freezing point.

The strategic core of Georgian-Russian relations has either been severely damaged or disappeared altogether. The discourse in the media in the two countries is full of mutual hatred, while mutual interests are disregarded. Instead, a strategic vacuum threatens both countries. If in fact there are any pegs at all for this relationship, they are of a purely negative character: the above-mentioned frozen conflicts, Russia's own interpretation of the concept of energy security, and of course, the "human factor" on both sides of the deeply strained personal relations at the highest levels. Because of this we constantly hear talk of the two sides' "unpredictability" or "unwillingness" or the absence of "trustworthiness" in dialogue. In addition, this, as we noted above, is usually accompanied by outlandish or even hysterical claims and counterclaims.