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Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010

There can be few next-door neighbours who loathe each other as much as Russia and Georgia. Relations between the former Soviet ruler and its pro-Western former satellite had been poisonous ever since 2003 Rose Revolution. The August War of 2008 did not emerge out of nowhere – it was the perhaps inevitable result of years of mutual hostility, economic skirmishing and sporadic violence.

The war marked the nadir in the Moscow-Tbilisi relationship. Vladimir Putin’s infamous remark just after the war that he would like to “hang Saakashvili by the balls” sums up the tone. However, recent events suggest that ties between the two could be moving towards a surprising thaw.

Small steps have been taken over the last few months, in the economic sphere at least. In March, the Upper Lars border crossing – the only land link that does not run through the breakaway Russian protectorates of Abkhazia or South Ossetia – re-opened; direct flights resumed two months later (BBC, May 24). However relations between the two states’ political establishments have been cold, with Moscow accusing Tbilisi of involvement in the North Caucasus insurgency (Eurasianet, March 30); President Saakashvili’s government, for its part, has accused Russia of funding the political opposition (Civil.ge, March 20 2009).

The rhetoric seems to be cooling down on both sides. In early July Russia’s hawkish Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted that Moscow would be willing to negotiate with Tbilisi (Messenger, July 12). It was hardly an olive branch, and used a standard tactic – addressing the Georgian people rather than the Georgian government – but it nonetheless marks a significant shift in tone. Mr Lavrov’s comments followed remarks by President Medvedev in late June in which he expressed hopes for a better relationship: “as soon as Georgia has a new leadership” (Messenger, June 25).

Unsurprisingly, Tbilisi bristled at Russia’s dismissal of its political leadership. However shortly after Mr Medvedev’s statements, President Saakashvili reiterated his willingness to “hold comprehensive talks with Russia without any pre-conditions on normalization of relations” (Civil.ge, June 29).

What is behind this gradual rapprochement? Arguably, it marks a qualified success for the US ‘reset’ policy towards Russia. The atmosphere of mistrust and recrimination which poisoned US-Russian relations in 2008 – over the financial crisis, missile defence, Iran, and Georgia itself – has been replaced with cordiality or, at the least, pragmatism.

Although there is still a clear danger for Tbilisi that Washington will sacrifice it as part of a new relationship with Moscow, the other scenario is that better ties between the old Cold War foes will take the sting out of Russia’s attitude towards Georgia. As long as the Kremlin can be sure that NATO membership is off the cards, and that the US will not indulge President Saakashvili’s ambitions, it can afford to warm ties a little. The Georgian government has certainly learnt that military force is not an option – its new Action Plan for Engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia takes an exceptionally conciliatory and technocratic tone (Civil.ge, July 7).

Another interpretation would be that this assessment gives too much weight to the Obama Administration’s reset policy and too little to President Saakashvili’s powers of political survival. He has faced down street protests and defeated the opposition in the Tbilisi mayoral elections, widely seen as the first barometer of public opinion after the war (Reuters, May 31). This is not to assume that Russia accepts or respects his democratic credentials; simply to judge that Moscow has given up on its wish to see him ousted before the end of his term.

For even without the more positive atmosphere brought about by the reset policy, most of Moscow’s key objectives have long since been achieved. NATO membership is impossible to envisage; Russian troops sit within an hour’s drive of Tbilisi; Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost certainly lost to the Georgian government.

President Saakashvili may still be persona non grata for Moscow, but Georgia’s healthy economy is an attractive proposition. Many Russian companies continue to invest in Georgia, and informal economic links remain strong, partly due to the large Georgian diaspora in Russia. Rebuilding economic ties is a worthwhile prize for Moscow. Indeed, a leaked strategy paper by the Russian Foreign Ministry in May emphasised the need for a foreign policy based on economic imperatives. Georgia may be an economic minnow, but in the current financial climate Russia needs all the trading partners it can muster.



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