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.

Thus, Georgian-Russian relations influence both the U.S.-Russian and Russo-European dialogue. I am not so naive to insist that Georgian-Russian relations are or ever will be some determining factor in either of these dialogues. However, they inject some tiny negative charge into the discourse between the U.S. government and Russia, as well as between Russia and Europe, thus narrowing the possibilities for Georgia's Western partners to exert a positive influence on distorted and damaged Russo-Georgian ties.

I'm concerned that after the presidential elections in Russia, the struggle for such so-called vital interests-readjustment within the ruling elite or the power structure of political and financial circles tends to be tough and even rough, and that may have some dramatic or even negative impact on Russia's immediate neighborhood. And in that struggle for those "vital interests," some may look for the weakest link within Russia's "near abroad," and we all know that even among Russian liberals this "near abroad" still brings out a certain nostalgia and overwhelming emotions.

Back to the "Kosovo precedent." So what next? That precedent has already had an effect within the FSU and specifically in Georgia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have already declared their intentions to use Kosovo as a pattern for their own independence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and some other U.S. officials announced that the West will never recognize any of the FSU secessionist entities, while Moscow pursues a policy of creeping recognition and Russia's State Duma adopted a resolution on March 21 calling on the Kremlin to recognize Georgia's two Moscow-backed separatist regions if Georgia joins NATO. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's incoming president, has warned in an interview with the Financial Times that granting NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia could threaten European security, as well as Russia's relations with the West.

This creates more potential for U.S.- Russian disputes over Georgia though, as I admitted above, I too recognize that this issue is not top priority for both countries. There are some forces in Tbilisi and Moscow (or maybe some in Washington circles and in certain European capitals as well-at least some "hotheads" in Georgia believe this) that may welcome such a dire prospect.

Traditionally, the better American-Russian relations are, the easier it always has been for countries like Georgia to inject their problematic issues into that dialogue. But not this time: Georgia has become a tiny negative charge in this already tense, complex and diverse relationship. The Western world-and the United States in particular-has an immense stake in the relationship between Russia and Georgia. At a time when the United States needs Russia's engagement with North Korea, Iran and the larger issue of the Middle East, disagreements and concerns between the two over Russia's relationship with Georgia could supersede and distract the two powers from larger issues in desperate need of international cooperation. Russia the nominal partner would quickly turn into Russia the big problem.

But just to be realistic and clear-cut, if out of the blue and purely hypothetically (which I hope will never happen!) Russia recognizes Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence, what will be the Western reaction? Again some strong statement? What else?

I know that some of my Russian and even Western friends would also have a few pointed questions to ask regarding some of the statements they hear from time to time from Tbilisi. I would like to bluntly address them as well. Even assuming that Georgia gets the MAP, what does Georgia really want? A NATO membership without the lost territories or some mystical assumption that with a MAP in its hands, Georgia automatically integrates within the NATO security network, its conflict zones included? Does Tbilisi really expect NATO to fight to recover the secessionist regions for Georgia?

I think that we, the citizens of Georgia, need to reinvigorate the reintegration process of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by making Georgia a functioning democratic, economically viable and attractive state. The issue here is not only the reintegration of those lost territories but also reabsorbing Abkhazians and South Ossetians as citizens of a multicultural, democratic and economically diverse Georgian state. This may again take some time as well as patience.

To reverse these negative trends, Russia and Georgia must stop demonizing one another and return to statesmanship. This requires both countries end the ugly campaigns of suspicion and hate and rediscover the vast positive heritage of Georgian-Russian relations; not out of nostalgia, but hardheaded pragmatism. For its part, Georgia needs to realize that good relations with Russia have value and that domestic reform and economic development should take precedence over its plans to regain control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other hand, the Russian elite needs to look in their history books and rediscover what was known to their leaders centuries ago: a stable Georgia is the guarantor of Russia's stability and security in the Northern Caucasus.

By the way, one personal piece of advice: Georgian leaders also would do well to permanently show some dignified deference to their Russian peers. People in the streets, as well as in politics, have long memories and these perceived slights always ricochet back in the form of negative political decisions, with dire consequences for the other side. The so-called personal factor matters much in high-level politics and the negative sentiments on that level die hard, if ever.

So let's go back to where we began. The West's recognition of Kosovo has left Georgia without any strong bargaining chips vis-à-vis Russia. Meaningful Western championing of Georgian interests must go beyond strong statements of support and reassurances about territorial integrity. But Georgia too needs to prove convincingly why it is in NATO's interest to expand toward Georgia. It does not always happen, as I heard many times from some of my Western colleagues.

A majority of Georgians still hope that at the Bucharest Summit Georgia will receive a MAP. But regardless of whether the decision is positive or negative (by the way, Georgians need to know that a MAP does not signify full NATO membership, but instead the most important and complex leg on that thorny road, which usually takes years, toward accession), the unresolved conflicts will still be there. It is obvious that existing conflict-resolution templates are completely outdated and ineffective. What is needed now is to go beyond the "friendly persuasion" paradigm and to move toward de-monopolizing and internationalizing the conflict-resolution process, adding (maybe alongside the Russian peacekeeping units) EU or NATO peacekeeping forces. More than that, I think that, at this moment, Georgia's road to NATO depends on the quality of its democracy, including the fairness of upcoming parliamentary elections, rather than simply upgrading its military power.

It is time for Georgia to be more predictable and convincing, and it is time for Russia and the West to be clear about their intentions and be more principled in their actions.

I acknowledge that I have raised more questions than answers in this article-which some might characterize as the product of a "Georgian bleeding heart"-but that's the situation on the ground and these are commonly held sentiments. Things are complex and complicated, sometimes seeming to lack focus. But hopefully this can all begin a discussion.

 

Ambassador Tedo Japaridze is a former national security advisor and foreign minister of Georgia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily correspond to those of the Georgian government.