Going regional, without changing direction

Going regional, without changing direction

Tedo Japaridze
Since October 2012, some in Georgia, especially among the opposition and elsewhere have suggested that Tbilisi is now following a pro-Russian trajectory, given the willingness of the new government to engage Russia. But those who do so appear to have forgotten that the call for a “reset” in relations with Moscow didn’t originate in the Georgian capital. Instead, it comes from the countries and organizations on which Georgia most relies: the United States and the EU. I would add to that list first of all Turkey (the best source and benefactor of “soft power” in our region), Iran and Russia, our most powerful neighbors and, naturally, Azerbaijan and Armenia. These changes reflect Tbilisi’s desire to focus on regional issues in the first instance. 

As everyone recognizes, Russia dominates the international context within which the Caucasus exists, but it does not dominate the region as such. Instead, there are a variety of power centers and structures that need to be considered each in its own way. Russia is capable of preventing its geopolitical opponents from establishing their rule in the Caucasus even as it is incapable of establishing its own.  Nonetheless, for Moscow today, control over this “international context” remains a central idea, in terms of outside denial of influence, even though it entails serious opportunity costs.

On the one hand, the political cost of using oil and gas as a form of “soft power” is enormous, given how much Moscow is spending and how little it is getting in return.  And on the other, the direct costs of ensuring imperial authority through subsidies are very high and likely to increase. The reaction of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic countries to Russian use of the gas weapon is instructive, and the demands of the Abkhazians and South Ossetians equally so in this regard.

Georgia does not want confrontation with Russia. A weakening economic outlook, obvious pressure from Germany following the persecution of NGOs in Russia, mass demonstrations and increasingly vocal domestic descent, murky frictions with oligarchic interests, frictions even within the executive branch all weaken Moscow’s position. But, pressing upon Moscow these sore points, when both Europe and the USA find themselves in an economic crisis, would backfire. On the contrary, compartmentalized cooperation between Georgia and Russia, could in fact serve Tbilisi, Moscow, Washington and Brussels. If Russia does face dilemmas, then this is the time to step up efforts for cooperation and engagement, not to embark in a rhetorical and inconsequential competition in bravado.  

That is because weaknesses in both east and west increase the value of a reset rather than support the logic of confrontation.

Times are changing. As the opportunity cost of energy revenue for political ends becomes greater, Moscow cannot indefinitely use increasingly finite resources to sustain dead-end conflicts. Ultimately, linking the North of Caucasus to the global economy maybe the only prospective program for the North Caucasus. Moreover, if Moscow is to adopt a more positive attitude of engagement with the South Caucasus, the Kremlin needs to be provided with “golden bridges” rather than presented with triumphalist rhetoric of the zero-sum kind. 

There is certainly room for at least three initiatives towards a rapprochement between Moscow and Tbilisi that may be timely, effective and serve a broader agenda. 

First, given the risk of a spillover of conflicts from the North to the South of Georgia should be proactively engaging in micro-security cooperation with Russia in order to reduce security threats to its own territory. Second, there are opportunities for each country in the market of the other and in its cooperation with international economic institutions. Georgia can and should play not a leading but a bridging role between Russia and NATO in general and Russia and Turkey in particular. And third, given that Georgia like Russia and Armenia is a bastion of Christianity, it can help protect that faith from Islamist attacks, yet another area where Moscow and Tbilisi have much to talk about.

Bottom line: Georgia will never give up its claim to the occupied territories. To do so would be politically suicidal for any administration, or to use a Russian favorite analogy, it would be like Belgrade surrendering Kosovo. Beyond the political impossibility, there is, alas, a moral impossibility. Prior to dismissing morality as a “western notion” irrelevant to international relations, Russia must take into account that the international community does not ignore norms that it is likely to need in the future. This is realism. And the fact underpinning this reality is that there are tens of thousands of IDPs, who want, need and should have access to their homes. No government anywhere in the world will have the political, legal or moral mandate to negotiate on this point. Mass displacement is in-itself a crime against humanity, irrespectively of Russia’s position on Georgian sovereignty.  

Alas, when it comes to the issue of sovereignty per se, as much as Moscow is prone to make parallels between Kosovo and non-state regimes of its own creation in the Caucasus, one thing that is clearly undesirable for the Kremlin is the wider recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow does not want a “Kosovo situation.” Unlike Kosovo, as Paul Goble has argued, this would run counter to the desires of the Kremlin as the exclusive sponsor of these regimes. In sum, the message to Moscow should be clear: “be careful of what you wish for!” for if Georgia did not exist, it would have to be invented for the sake of Russian and, perhaps, global security. 

Tedo Japaridze is Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee of Georgian Parliament, former Minster of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, former Secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia