Ghia Nodia, professor of politics, Ilia Chavchavadze State University.
Ghia Nodia is professor of politics and director of the International School of Caucasus Studies in Ilia Chavchavadze State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is also a founder of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD), an independent public policy think tank in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) defines itself as opposite to its predecessor, the United National Movement (UNM), in almost everything. When it came to power in 2012, it promised to change policies with regards to Georgia’s separatist conflicts as well. GD denounced Mikheil Saakashvili’s allegedly provocative and rigid policies blaming it both for the 2008 war (at least, in part), and for the lack of dialogue with de facto entities. In both of these areas, new approaches were promised.
Five years later, the most striking is how little has changed. As in many other areas of GD policy, there is a sharp contrast between demonizing the predecessor rhetorically while following the main tenets of its policies in practice.
The most important change concerns relations with Russia – something that cannot be separated from Georgia’s territorial issues. There is a new format of direct communication, Karasin-Abashidze meetings. Georgian products can now be exported to the Russian market, and general atmosphere of tension between the two countries has somewhat subsided. However, there is hardly any change in substance. Ambassador Abashidze is only mandated to discuss economic and cultural cooperation with his Russian counterpart, not the issues of hard security. Georgia still officially considers twenty percent of its territory to be occupied by Russia, though uses the “o-word” somewhat less frequently. Restoration of diplomatic relations is not in sight. Initially, there were some rumors of possible restoration of the railway link through Abkhazia, but they have also died down.
With regards to the occupied territories per se, the policy still rests on the two pillars developed by the UNM: engagement and non-recognition. If the GD government wants to show some achievements in this area, it follows the same template. No new countries have recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 2012. Moreover, recently the U.S. Congress decided to sanction the countries who do – GD can claim credit for that as well. On the engagement side, GD government encourages residents of the occupied territories to take advantage of free social services to which they are eligible in the rest of Georgia. Indeed, quite a few people come to Georgia proper to have medical treatment – just as it was in Saakashvili times.
The most genuine and important promised change was to have direct contacts with de facto Sukhumi and Tskhinvali governments. Following the 2008 war, UNM people called them Russia’s puppets and did not see any use in talking to them. Paata Zakareishvili, the most prominent veteran of civil society dialogue with the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, was appointed the state minister on issues of reintegration; later he insisted on renaming his own position into that of “reconciliation and civic equity,” hoping that the removal of the hated word - ‘reintegration’ - would make the Abkhaz and Ossetian representatives more willing to talk to him. After Mr Zakareishvili’s Republican Party left the GD coalition as well as its ministerial positions, his deputy and successor, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, continues the same policy.
This, however, ended in a total failure. It turned out that Sukhumi and Tskhinvali authorities have no interest in contacts with official Tbilisi. This is understandable: under the circumstances, what exactly would they gain through such contacts? What specific issues are there to be solved? Security of both de facto entities is ensured by Russia. Georgia, on the other hand, is not going to recognize their independence or take a first step in that direction, like signing bilateral treaties on non-use of force. So, why bother?
There is, of course, the so-called second track diplomacy. It started more than twenty years ago and continued during UNM rule as well, but at some point UNM officials refused to have anything to do with such meetings. Now, GD officials willingly take part, though in a personal capacity. This is some difference, and hypothetically it may bring some results in the long run. But so far, no policy-relevant consequences are visible.
Some GD MPs have proposed to soften some provisions of the Law on the Occupied Territories, like decriminalizing unauthorized visits there for the third country representatives. But in the end the government refrained from following through, fearing for its patriotic credentials with the public.
GD can claim credit for no longer giving false promises like “celebrating next New Year’s Eve in Tskhinvali,” as former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili did in 2006?. Fair enough, but UNM had also stopped such nonsense after the 2008 war. So, nothing new here either.
So, what can we conclude? Contrary to what GD would like to admit, the policy designed by UNM after the 2008 war might still be the most appropriate one under the circumstances. It is based on a combination of “strategic patience” and not giving ground on any issue of principle. What else can Georgia do?
One big game-changer may be that the Georgian society reconciles to the loss of the twenty percent of its territory and decides to start from the clear slate. Hypothetically, this is possible, but only hypothetically. Even a hint from the government that it is prepared to move, however slightly, in that direction, might spell its political suicide. Why take such risks? But if reintegration of the lost territories remains the ultimate objective (whatever the name of the relevant state agency), there is no substantive common ground to discuss with authorities in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.
Another hypothetical game-changer might be a dramatic U-turn of Russia’s position. Pro-Russian parties in Georgia like the Alliance of Patriots hint at this possibility when they contest Georgia’s pro-western policies in Parliament or travel to Russia to talk to their counterparts. The imagined (though never really spelt out) deal is that Georgia gives up its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and gets two lost regions back. Such ideas, however, constitute a tool of seduction rather than a feasible plan. And giving up the most stable and strategic feature of Georgia’s policy, that of European integration, for the mirage of Russia’s goodwill, would be deeply destabilizing for the country.
Saying what I said does not imply actual criticism of GD government – save for exposing the pretense that it is doing something qualitatively new. GD did not change anything because it could not. Something really dramatic has to occur in Georgia or the region for the real opportunities for progress to emerge. Until then, we live in the state of “strategic patience.”
This article was prepared for Civil.ge with funding from COBERM. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Civil.ge or COBERM.