Rebalancing Georgian Foreign Policy

November 8, 2012 Topic: DemocracyGreat PowersSociety Region: Georgia

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.

Fears of such revenge have prompted a number of ministers from Saakashvili’s government to leave Georgia. Some of them, such as Defense Minister Dmitry Shashkin, fled while still on the job, as did former interior minister Bacho Akhalaya, Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili and Givi Targamadze, ex-chairman of Georgia’s parliamentary committee for defense and security. Senior members of the Georgian Dream coalition and their allies publicly pondered the possibility of investigating these and other senior officials from the previous government for various alleged crimes.

Example of Yanukovich’s Ukraine: from “Flirtation to Hardcore Porn”

While gauging the reactions to the changes in domestic and foreign policy that they desire to implement, Ivanishvili and his supporters would benefit from studying the experiences of Ukraine’s Viktor F. Yanukovich.

When running for president in 2009, Yanukovich vowed to both advance cooperation with European Union and mend fences with Russia, relations with which deteriorated under Ukraine’s then pro-Western leader Viktor Yushchenko. And Yanukovich did take a number of steps designed to accomodate Russia’s interests upon his inauguration in February 2010. These steps included cancellation of his predecessor’s campaign for recognition of the Holodomor, suspension of Ukraine’s drive for NATO membership and agreement to extend the stay of Russia’s Black Sea fleet until 2042.

And, yet, in spite of these steps the Ukrainian leader today finds himself in a situation where he is unable to pursue a balancing act between East and West, from which postcommunist Ukraine benefited during the rule of Yanukovich’s political teacher Leonid Kuchma.

Western leaders ignore Yanukovich, in part due to the ongoing prosecution of top officials from his predecessor’s government, including ex–prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, and in part due to doubts over fairness of the past parliamentary elections. As for Moscow, Yanukovich’s overtures to Russian leaders have achieved little, other than a one hundred dollar discount for every one thousand cubic meters of gas. Even discounted, the price for Russian gas remains a serious burden for Ukrainian economy and Moscow refuses to further lower prices on gas unless Kiev joins the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community or allows Gazprom to buy into the Ukrainian pipelines.

As Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Valery Khroshkovsky has recently observed in reference to dynamics in the Ukrainian-Russian relations since Yanukovich’s ascent to the presidency: “It all started as light flirtation, but ended in hardcore porn.”

Ivanishvili’s Policy: Adjustments, But No Witch-Hunts or 180 Degree Turns

The reaction of Ukraine’s foreign partners to Yanukovich’s domestic and foreign policies should be instructive for Ivanishvili.

If there is plausible evidence that any of past or present government officials have committed a crime, the new Georgian authorities should investigate in an orderly manner. However, a witch hunt should be avoided as it will create a vicious cycle in which the ruling elite will cling to power, fearing that its successors will prosecute them. It may also lead to isolation in the West, making Georgia more susceptible to pressure from its bigger neighbors.

Ivanishvili should also continue to try mending fences with Russia, as Georgia’s national interests require normalization of relations with its biggest neighbor. However, for a number of reasons, he will hardly want to reverse the country’s effort to seek deeper cooperation with Western powers.

Unlike Ukrainians, the majority of Georgians support the integration of Georgia into NATO. And even if Ivanishvili’s Georgia abandons its EU and NATO ambitions and enshrines neutrality in its constitution or even joins the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow still won’t “deliver” South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Tbilisi.

First of all, it is doubtful that Russia would want to make such a move at all. Russian leaders will probably think that a country that has changed its foreign-policy orientation in the past at least twice can do so again. Russian leaders also realize what impact a decision to abandon support for independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have on its allies.

It is also very doubtful that Russia can bring Abkhazia back into Georgia—even if it suddenly does decide to show the world that it is ready to sell some of its allies down the river in exchange for acquiring a new one. Abkhazia has become so independent that its voters have even rejected a presidential candidate ostensibly backed by Moscow even though that candidate was as much for Abkhazia’s independence as his more successful rival. Imagine the reaction of the Abkhaz people if they learned that Moscow had suddenly decided that it is a good idea to make Abkhazia part of Georgia.

Ultimately, if Georgia is to stand a better chance of surviving and developing as a viable independent state, it must do more than seek normal relations with great powers represented in the region. It should also accede to organizations where fair representation of smaller nations’ interests and defense of their sovereignty have been institutionalized. The European Union and NATO arguably are closest to being such organizations, although the former’s economic woes have cast doubt on future of European integration.