Author: Amb. Valeri Chechelashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On 8 January 2017, commenting on the US intelligence community’s (Central Intelligence Agency – CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI and the National Security Agency – NSA) joint report Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections during one of his last TV interviews as the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama pointed out: ”Part of the reason that I ordered this report was not simply to re-litigate what happened over the last several months, but rather to make sure that we understand this is something that Putin has been doing for quite some time in Europe. Initially, in the former satellite states where there are a lot of Russian speakers but increasingly in western democracies…”
This marks the admission of reality and waking up from the slumber; however, it only describes the tip of the iceberg. The main condition here is that, in principle, given its nature and the state philosophy, Russia is outside the confines of the world political mainstream. More accurately, it is opposed to the mainstream. This is well documented in the conclusion of the aforementioned report.
As it turns out, the fact, which the Georgian diplomats have been trying to explain to our partners for the past several years, is already well understood, at least in the United States. The main idea goes like this: Russia’s occupation policy towards its neighbors is not a mere exception to the rule but rather a more extreme manifestation of its general political nature in the given conditions.
In addition to this, the norms and principles of the international law, laid down in multilateral and bilateral documents are quite easily disregarded by Russia. There are a lot of examples for this, including practically throwing the documents, ratified by the Russian State Duma, into the garbage can without even denouncing them first.
Georgia – 2008, Ukraine – 2014. Who is going to be next? This question becomes very important and not only for the immediate neighborhood of the Russian Federation.
The situation at hand poses a major challenge to the Georgian diplomacy and there are, in principle, three main approaches for tackling this challenge:
- Exercise policy under the Russian umbrella, opposing the main Western political mainstream (example – Armenia, with certain reservations);
- Become an organic part of the general political mainstream, exercising principled policies towards Russia, which will have certain costs for us, for example joining the sanctions against Russia (example – Ukraine, with certain reservations);
- A middle foreign policy vector, which can be called “burning neither the meat, nor the skewer,” when the course of approximation with the West is compatible with the attempts of establishing more cooperative relations with Russia.
Today we are exercising the third option of the foreign policy vectors listed above. After the Georgian Dream coalition’s victory in the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Georgia, this was definitely a rational approach. However, today, after five years, we can already draw some conclusions and learn some lessons as well.
Here we shall draw the attention to two specific results. First, when the Western leaders talk about the sanctions against Russia today, only the context of Ukraine is visible in the discourse. This means that if we theoretically imagine that Russia stops its military operations in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and returns Crimea to Ukraine, it will once again become a full-fledged member of the international community, even with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region being occupied by its forces. Nobody will impose sanctions on Russia because of this, especially when Georgia itself is not currently participating in the sanctions.
On the other hand, what have been the results of our new policy towards Russia? The tensions in bilateral relations have been lowered, exports of our wine and mineral water have increased; however, imports from Russia have increased as well (negative trade balance with Russia reached USD 468.7 million in 2016 (USD 674.9 million – USD 206.2 million)) as opposed to USD 430 million in 2012 (USD 476.8 million – USD 46.8 million), increasing by USD 38.7 million. Russia has regained its place among the top three trade partners for Georgia. Whether this is a good thing, given the political problems in our bilateral relations, is very hard to say and there can be no simple answer to this question.
As for Russia’s attitude towards Georgia, it has not changed for the past couple of years, even becoming more extreme in certain components – wire fences on the dividing lines, kidnappings or murder of Georgian citizens, pressuring the Georgian language, closing down Georgian schools, destroying Georgian churches and so on.
The comparison of the two Foreign Policy Concepts of the Russian Federation (those of 12 February 2013 and 30 November 2016) reveals that Russia’s attitude to Georgia has not changed even slightly. It is absolutely identical.
The 12 February 2013 document, page 20, point 52: Россия заинтересована в нормализации отношений с Грузией в тех сферах, в которых к этому готова грузинская сторона, при учете политических реалий, сложившихся в Закавказье.
The 30 November 2016 document, page 19, point 59: Россия заинтересована в нормализации отношений с Грузией в тех сферах, в которых к этому готова Грузинская Сторона, при учете политических реалий, сложившихся в Закавказье.
The translation reads: Russia is interested in normalizing relations with Georgia in the spheres where the Georgian side is ready to do so, taking into account the political realities which have been established in Transcaucasia.
We should not focus on the utilization of politically and geographically incorrect term – Transcaucasia as the attempts of establishing Soviet terminology in the official Russian documents are not new. The only change that can be found is that in the new document the words “the Georgian side” have been honored with capital letters. Russian diplomats also did not bother to note the existence of the new Abashidze-Karasin cooperation format and the advances achieved in the fields of economy and culture, through this format. There are no new messages, given the new foreign policy approaches exercised by Georgia – nothing at all. The obvious message from this, however, is that Russia does not consider the steps taken by Georgia towards cooperation with Russia to be worthy of note.
It is already clear that Georgia cannot normalize its relations with Russia without making concessions on principal issues. The cost of these concessions is either forgetting the issue of territorial integrity altogether, or accepting the principle of limited sovereignty. No government will be able to do this, even if it has a constitutional majority in the Parliament. The Russian government understands this rather well and formulates its policies not only towards Georgia but other neighbors as well based on this understanding. The philosophy is simple – the more complicated the situation in the neighboring countries, the easier it is for Russia to implement its agenda in the resulting murky waters.
We have failed to prove a simple truth to Russia – that European and democratic Georgia is not a threat to its interests. Perhaps, this is even impossible. Otherwise we would have seen some kind of positive changes in this regard after five years of consistent attempts to do so.
We cannot forcefully place the glasses on Russia’s nose in order to make it see the objective reality; however, we can do what we consider needs to be done.