Shifting Gears

by Nathan Hamm on 4/7/2004 · 1 comment

My posts seem to have two gears: Georgia and Uzbekistan. Keeping with that, let me for a moment shift over into the Georgia gear.

I’ve mentioned quite often lately in my Georgia posts that I believe Russia is the dominant external actor in the Caucasus, but for one reason or another, doesn’t exercise its power to the fullest. EurasiaNet has an interesting article arguing that Saakashvili’s surprising strength may prompt Russia to being more supportive of the Tbilisi government and more willing to work with it, rather than against it to maintain stability and further Russian interests in the Caucasus.

In the past, Russia has often taken a tough line with Georgia, frequently employing bellicose rhetoric. Confronted with Saakashvili’s virtually unassailable authority at home, however, the Kremlin should now adopt a more accommodating posture towards Tbilisi, many in Moscow policy-making circles are saying. “Both Russia and Georgia will have to radically change the rules of their game,” the political analyst Valeria Sycheva wrote in a recent op-ed published in the Russian journal Itogi. “Moscow will have to stop backing [Georgia’s] ‘rebellious provinces’ and Tbilisi will have to recognize Russia’s natural interests in the region.”

I’ve personally been very impressed with Saakashvili’s diplomatic and political skills. He talks tough on reforms at home, assures the West of his commitment to democracy, and has still managed to make Russia feel that he is not out to undermine their interests. This has been accomplished by encouraging partnerships and cooperation while keeping touchy issues quiet–in other words, Georgia has shown it wants to focus on the positive.

A military-technical assistance deal announced on April 3 could serve as a harbinger of a Georgian-Russian entente. Under the terms of the agreement, Georgia will resume sending military officers to Russia for free training each year. Russian arms exports, their quantity as yet unspecified, would also make up the deal, according to the Interfax news agency.

While in Moscow on March 30-31 to discuss the agreement, Georgian Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili stayed clear of what he termed “irritating issues” such as the closure of Russia’s two military bases in Georgia. Instead, expressions of bilateral solidarity in combating international terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration and weapons smuggling prevailed. Russia welcomed the overture: “With [the] coming of the new leadership of Georgia, definite developments have already been observed,” the Civil Georgia web site reported Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying about prospects for closing the military bases. “I think you will soon witness [progress] in this regard.”

It’s interesting that EurasiaNet also says that Putin and Saakashvili’s shared style of strong presidential leadership may fuel cooperation.

This isn’t to say that it’s all smooth sailing from here on out. There are still plenty in Russia who are skeptical of any neighbor building strong ties with the US, but the improvements in Georgia-Russia relations are certainly some good news for a change.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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