Russia’s Georgia Policy Problem

by Nathan Hamm on 8/4/2006 · 1 comment

Russia Profile carries an article by Georgy Bovt outlining Russia’s Georgia policy problems.

It would seem that those who take aim at Georgia have little idea of the concrete goals they hope to achieve by these provocations. For example, what is the point of the “wine wars,” which have included prominent displays on state television of bulldozers destroying “low-quality” wines from Georgia (and Moldova) while depriving Russian consumers of Georgian spirits and mineral water? To exert economic pressure on Georgia? Possibly. In which case, to what end? What aims will be realized by exerting this economic pressure? To prevent Georgia from joining NATO? Surely the Russian government is not so na?ve that it fails to understand that such tactics will only push Georgia, if not into NATO’s arms, then onto a pro-Western diplomatic course. If Russia had serious political problems with Georgia and feared their move toward NATO, the obvious solution would be to boot Georgia out of the CIS. Although Russian politicians have not encouraged this action, they are apparently not picking up on hasty declarations by Georgian politicians that the country will leave the organization of its own accord. Where is the logic in all of this?

He goes on to argue that Georgia will not feel much economic impact from as it is already enjoying high growth rates and actively working to limit Russia’s ability to impact Georgia through economic means.

These are all good questions. Russia’s policy may be and arguably is to maintain the status quo in the Caucasus, which greatly consists of, as Sean-Paul recently argued, being the dominant player. This is quite understandable as it has found itself in a fairly good position at least in regards to the other sovereign states in Transcaucasia. But, nothing remains static, and Russia looks to be dealing with change by sowing instability, an example of maintaining the status quo by any means necessary rather than rolling with change. Since Russian political thinking seems to tend towards the zero-sum variety, I suppose this is no surprise. But since Russia is bereft of methods for changing Georgia’s direction under current circumstances, it seems that it would have had much more opportunity to influence Georgia in recent years by pursuing a policy of constructive engagement.

In another Russia Profile article, Sergei Markedonov describes Georgia’s foreign policy goals behind its decisions to raise tensions with Russia and its clients in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Tbilisi’s Kodori operation is essentially an effort to achieve radical change in the political situation within “rebellious” Abkhazia, while also creating a precedent for more serious transformations in “frozen conflict” zones across the post-Soviet space.

Georgian statehood was born out of the struggle to retain Abkhazia. The existence of Georgia as a nation is not defined by democracy, but rather by the urge to hold on to Georgia’s Soviet borders while shedding Moscow’s control and party apparatus.

Therefore, the motives for the Kodori operation are not simply military. Unlike the tensions with South Ossetia, the Georgian foray into Abkhazia is a political maneuver, and concerns a fundamental change in the status of the “Abkhaz government in exile.”

Markedonov notes that the de jure Abkhaz government in Tbilisi is little more than a functionless “Abkhaz Ministry” of the national government that has continued to exist for little more than to give Tbilisi something to point to to bolster its claims to the territory. By moving onto Abkhaz territory, this public relations body, which he says takes advantage of Western ignorance of the differences between Georgians and the Abkhaz (all but one member of the government are Georgian), will have a stronger claim to being Abkhazia’s legitimate government, bolstering Tbilisi’s position in the conflict. (It will have a slightly stronger anyway, but one could certainly argue that Abkhazia’s de facto government is something of a puppet for others.)

Markedonov says that Georgia is essentially turning the tables. Instead of being the targets of destabilization efforts, Saakashvili is destabilizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tbilisi will now have the ability to create the impression of a struggle within Abkhazia by demanding that negotiations be between Kodori and Sukhumi rather than Tbilisi and Sukhumi. This will further destabilize the Abkhaz government in Sukhumi. Georgia will also have the opportunity to announce it will work with the “constructive” government of Abkhazia rather than the “aggressive” one.

He closes by again underlining the importance of public relations in the international arena to this conflict. This point seems to be lost on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which fail to effectively portray themselves as victims of Georgian revanchist aggression. Russia makes the point for them, but that only creates the impression that the conflict is actually between a big, bad, scary, revanchist Russia and poor, weak, little Georgia. Markedenov says that Abkhazia has an opportunity to use Georgia’s recent behavior to portray itself as a victim, but the safe bet is on it continuing to go through Russia.

Georgia enjoys having a fairly clear goal compared to Russia’s in this conflict. How will Russia react? Provocation stands to do nothing but move things back to square one, but that may be the order of the day as bowing to the demands of reality is rarely a major determinant of Russian foreign policy.

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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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{ 1 comment }

Levan August 5, 2006 at 8:13 am

I think Russia’s policy towards Georgia is very simpe and silly. Russian Pro-imperialist politicians want to have weak Georgia. Mr. Markedonovs statement that: ,,georgian statehood was born out of the struggle to retain Abkhazia,, is so ridiculoes, that some other pragmatic arguments and ideas are left overshadowed.

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