Georgians Wary of Medvedev Overtures
Recent comments by Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev appear to extend an olive branch towards Georgia, while making clear that the central issue – the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – remains non-negotiable.
Tbilisi broke off diplomatic ties with Moscow after the 2008 war, when Russian troops prevented a Georgian attempt to gain control over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. Soon afterwards, Russia formally recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries.
“Despite the August war, the Georgian and Russian nations retain their mutual sympathy and there should be good relations between the two countries,” Medvedev said in an interview for Georgia’s Rustavi-2 TV station to mark the fifth anniversary of the conflict.
However, he stressed that there would be no change on the key issue of Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Both territories remain part of Georgia in the eyes of the international community, aside from Russia and a handful of states that recognised them.
As a result of recognition, Georgia’s aim of regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is diametrically opposed to Russia’s firm intention to support them with troops and economic aid.
In the interview, Medvedev also reiterated his country’s opposition to Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO. He suggested that Georgia might instead want to join the Eurasian Union, a proposed Russian-led bloc.
“Russia is a very big country with a huge nuclear arsenal, and if some other state is a member of a military-political alliance, we cannot ignore that,” he said. “It is [Georgia’s] choice, but I believe you need to think about it when you vote.”
The government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili which came to power in October 2012 made restoring ties with Russia one of its priorities, and made a number of conciliatory gestures. These included cancelling plans to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics, freeing Russian citizens who had been jailed on espionage charges, and appointing Zurab Abashidze as a special envoy to deal with Moscow.
Tbilisi also worked on restoring trade ties – a Russian import ban had badly affected Georgia’s wine and foodstuffs exports – and attempted to rein in the kind of inflammatory language associated with President Mikheil Saakashvili, who remains president until October but has seen his powers much reduced by Ivanishvili.
Following Medvedev’s interviews, officials in Georgia emphasised the positive elements of his comments.
“The very fact that in the course of a week the Russian prime minister gave two interviews on Georgia means something,” special envoy Abashidze said, citing Medvedev’s appearance on Russia Today TV as well as Rustavi-2. “I think this means that Russia is appreciative of the start of Russian-Georgian dialogue, and sees a purpose and future to it. Russia’s tone has changed for the better. Despite the difference in opinion on crucial issues, Russia is prepared to work with Georgia. And that’s a good thing in itself, because after 2008, relations were halted and we didn’t even talk.”
Giorgi Volsky, the head of the parliamentary committee for restoring territorial integrity, called for a pragmatic response.
“We must take the messages expressed by Medvedev and plan around them, without indulging in the kind of emotional statements that were previously made in Georgia,” he said.
Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was similarly matter-of-fact about the future of bilateral relations.
“I think that what could realistically follow this is the appointment of permanent envoys, then perhaps the simplification or cancellation of visa procedures,” he said. “Relations will be re-established, and we must achieve that. I will do all I can to restore relations with our big neighbour, and I think we will succeed.”
However, government critics say that the central issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain the focus of talks.
Elene Khoshtaria, head of the Georgian Reform Association, interpreted Medvedev’s comments as a sign that the Ivanishvili administration’s conciliatory approach had failed.
Medvedev’s message, she said, was that “Russia should be absolved of all responsibility for the 2008 war, that Georgia must accept the new realities; and that we must give up on joining NATO because of the direct threat from a big nuclear power, and that we must want to join the Eurasian Union because America is a long way away”.
She concluded, “This is clearly a response to the many months of efforts by Georgia’s new government to reorder the relationship.”
Khoshtaria warned that improved trade and visa arrangement would have only a limited impact if fundamental differences in outlook were not addressed.
“Whoever is in government, Russia does not acknowledge Georgia as a sovereign, democratic state,” she said. “It will be interesting to see what our response is – whether we’re prepared to pursue relations with Russia on these terms and give up on sovereignty, or whether we realise that the only way out is integration with the West.”
Koba Davitashvili, a member of parliament who is to leave Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in order to run in this October’s presidential election, called for a firmer approach to dealing with the Kremlin.
“When the restoration of trade was discussed at informal meetings, the Russians seemed to think that was all that we wanted,” he said. “Now they’re saying that in order to restore diplomatic relations, we have to have to surrender something – as if we’re asking them for something.”
Referring to the resumption of Russian imports of Georgian wine this summer, after a six-year ban, Davitashvili said, “If Russia tells us it doesn’t want us to join NATO, then we need to explain to them in clear times that the price for that is Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not some wine.”
Sopho Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist and works for Rustavi-2 TV in Georgia.