April 21, 2017

Pragmatic Approach Towards Russia – Option or Illusion?

A warning sign is pictured behind a wire barricade erected by Russian and Ossetian troops along Georgia's de-facto border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia in the village of Khurvaleti.
A warning sign is pictured behind a wire barricade erected by Russian and Ossetian troops along Georgia's de-facto border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia in the village of Khurvaleti.

The issue of developing and implementing national policy towards Russia has always been a pertinent subject for post-Soviet states as they have sought to ensure their own security. Governments have tried a number of different approaches, among which is the so-called “pragmatic approach.” Its most vivid embodiment is the policy of the current Georgian government with regards to Russia. Notably, it should be mentioned that almost all political forces that have come to power in Georgia have attempted to improve or at least normalize relations with Russia. However, each of these attempts was followed by disappointment.

The current ruling party claims to be strongly committed to the so-called “pragmatic approach.” Even before coming to power, the Georgian Dream coalition’s leaders affirmed that they would be able to handle relations with Russia in a pragmatic and constructive manner. While staying the course on Euro-Atlantic integration, the government pledged at the same time to repair Georgia’s ties with Russia by “changing the rhetoric.” This implied that problems in bilateral relations had been caused by the “aggressive tone” of Georgian Dream’s predecessors. In the view of the new government, all it had to do was “change the rhetoric,” and Putin would become nicer towards Georgia.

The rhetoric really has changed – to that extent that it has even been said that Georgia was to blame for the August 2008 war. Although the authorities specifically mentioned Saakashvili personally as well as his government, they perhaps knew (or at least should have known) that blaming it on the former president meant blaming it on the country). Moreover, then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told BBC World News that his government had managed to achieve considerable progress in relations with Russia, assuring the audience that Russia had no intention of annexing Abkhazia or South Ossetia as it did Crimea. All this largely contributed to the disappearance of the issue of Georgia’s occupied territories from the top of the international agenda. The Georgian problem has not been coupled with the Ukrainian one, even though they are of the same nature and origin. In fact, the Georgian issue has been almost withdrawn from the range of contentious matters affecting the relationship between the West and Russia. Moreover, while Georgian authorities did ban imports from Crimea and Sevastopol after the annexation, they refused to join in trade and economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West over Ukraine. Georgia in fact maintained trade and economic cooperation with Russia, and has pushed to expand exports. Nevertheless, judging by the results, this has not been enough for the Kremlin. Progress has been made in some areas: agricultural products, wine and mineral water are all allowed on the Russian market—but it should not be also forgotten that Russia’s WTO membership obliges it to open its market to these goods.
At the same time, despite the changed rhetoric and pragmatic policies on the part of Georgian authorities, Russian occupation forces continue the installation of border signs and barbed wire fences around villages in the Gori municipality of central Georgia that are de facto part of the separatist Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) region. The fences prevent local inhabitants from cultivating their lands. Moreover, Russian forces continually move the so-called border deeper into Georgian-controlled territory. Russia has also met Georgia’s pragmatism by concluding and ratifying the so-called “treaty” on alliance and integration with occupied Tskhinvali, an agreement that envisages the forming of a unified defense and security, freedom of movement, and integrated customs bodies. Moreover, Russia has concluded and ratified a deal with Abkhazia on the creation of a joint military force.

It should be also emphasized that gross violations of human rights, including inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, kidnappings, restriction of freedom of movement, mass infringement of property rights, and denial of the right to receive an education in one’s native language continue to be reported from the occupied territories. The Russian-backed breakaway Tskhinvali region calls the occupation line separating it from the rest of Georgia a “state border” and defines cases of its crossing by locals as cases of “illegal border crossing.” The illegal detention of Georgian citizens by Russian guards is a common issue near the ABL. Detainees are usually released once their family pays a fine for their release. Georgian citizens are subject to constant detention by Russian guards for allegedly crossing the occupation line. Furthermore, on March 14 of this year, Vladimir Putin issued an order authorizing his government to conclude an agreement facilitating the integration of the Tskhinvali region’s forces into the Russian military command structure.

In other words, despite the Georgian government’s softened rhetoric and concessions to Russia, Moscow has continued to use brutal force without exception in order to prevent the consolidation of Georgian statehood. Despite unilateral concessions on the part of Georgia, including Tbilisi’s attempts to sweeten its diplomatic language, the fundamentals of Russian policy toward Georgia have not changed. Russia continues its occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s territory and spares no effort to derail Georgia’s moves towards the West, as well as any internal progress. It does not matter whether Georgia softens, sweetens, or toughens its tone and rhetoric with regards to Russia; the latter has its own plan and follows it regardless of the rhetoric—or opinion—of the Georgian authorities. Russia not only does not perceive its former colonies as independent states, but actively seeks to undermine their independence—and Georgia is no exception in this regard.

Russia’s ambition is to be one of the poles of the international system. And in order to do so, it is vitally important that it gain influence at least in its own neighborhood. The main problem for Georgia in terms of Russia’s attitude is that, in the view of the Russian political elite as well as a large part of the country’s population, Georgian statehood is illegitimate; accordingly, from this perspective, Georgia should form part of the Russian empire or, at least, of its sphere of influence.

Once and for all it should be understood that regardless of the tone of Georgian rhetoric, Russia’s objective for Georgia as well as the other Eastern Partnership countries has remained the same since the collapse of the USSR: to restore control over the lost parts of its empire. To achieve this, it seeks to turn its neighbors into failed states. In other words, if a corrupt pro-Russian authoritarian regime flourishes in the neighboring state, Russia has no concerns, but once a state embarks on real reforms and political/economic transformations, it immediately becomes an enemy. Moreover, the regime in Moscow views the genuine independence and economic success of its neighbors as a deadly threat to itself. Russia has not and will not stop the war against Georgia until the independent statehood of Georgia becomes a mere fiction or until Georgia fulfills its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and becomes member of the EU, and most importantly, joins NATO—and the same applies to Ukraine.