Reading historical documents one may get impression that nothing changes in terms of content aside from the dates.
“At the end of the 18th century, the Georgian nation, weakened by the wars against external enemies, voluntarily asked Russia, a confessor of the same faith, for protection hoping that this protection would help to preserve her national and political existence. These motifs are clearly brought forward by the 1783 agreement between the Georgian King Irakli and the Russian Empress Catherine.
“However, unfortunately the hopes of our motherland came to disillusionment, and for 117 years she was a victim of fierce despotism and unbearable oppression by the Russian state.
“This is why in 1917, following the crumbling of the artificial unity of the Russian Empire, the Georgian people declared its independence and immediately started rebuilding its political, national, and spiritual life.
“Despite the fact that both external and internal enemies presented it with great obstacles, the Georgian nation has demonstrated its creative capabilities, and as an acknowledgment of her efforts, after three years, the civilized Europe recognized, and included her among the free and sovereign states.
“Clearly, Russia, a former master of Georgia and an oppressor of smaller nations, could not tolerate this.
“She [Russia] sent troops to the Georgian borders that invaded her territory to annex it – and on 25 February 1921, once again a denigrating yoke of slavery was imposed upon the small and injured Georgia, the worst ever experienced throughout her many centuries old history.
“It is true that the aggressors are trying to demonstrate to all, both domestically and abroad that they have liberated and benefited the Georgian nation. However, as her spiritual father and the sole true shepherd, in whose hands gather the most gentle cords of her national aspirations, and to whom all her cries and complains directly reach, I know how ‘happy’ she is… and therefore, we are asking:
“1. That the armed forces of Russia that have annexed Georgia leave the territory of Georgia without delay, and that Georgian property be protected from all kinds of violence, forced audits, and embezzlement by foreigners.
“2. That the Georgian nation is given an opportunity to freely organize its life, and pursue it, as she decides to be appropriate, and to strengthen those forms of political and social life that fit best to her spirit, her aspirations, her customs, and her national culture.
“We harbor strong hopes that the esteemed Conference, determined to address greatest problems of humanity, and to restore justice and freedom in this world, will not reject essential petitions by the small Georgia outlined above, and will liberate her from the denigrating yoke of slavery and domination by force, a victim of which she currently remains.”
This is an excerpt from the appeal made by the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ambrosi Khelaia, to the Genoa Conference held in Italy from 10 April to 19 May 1922. It clearly shows that Georgia’s problems with Russia did not start during Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, Eduard Shevardnadze’s government or any of our previous governments. These problems are centuries old and are rather consistent in nature.
1. “However, unfortunately the hopes of our motherland came to disillusionment…” – the Treaty of Georgievsk concluded between Russia and Georgia in 1783, the recognition of the independence of Georgia by Europe in 1920, the role of mediator in the conflict with Abkhazia being entrusted to Russia in 1993, or the accession to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1994 – are all developments which prove that for Russia “agreement” means nothing. Every instance of Georgia trusting Russia results in tragedy.
2. “Russia, a former master of Georgia and an oppressor of smaller nations…” – Russia is distinguished for its imperial treatment not only of Georgia but of all smaller nations in general. It seeks strength by oppressing those smaller nations that exist around it. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova have all failed to settle relations with Russia. Manipulating economic and energy levers, diasporas or conflict, Russia has tried to retain influence over all these states. Even declaring itself a neutral state to appease Russia has not helped Moldova settle its Transnistria conflict, gain stable access to the Russian market or advance with European integration.
3. “[T]he esteemed Conference, determined to address greatest problems of humanity, and to restore justice and freedom in this world…” – Georgia historically strived towards closer relations with the western world. The West not only symbolized the values of justice and freedom, but would also serve as a means of ensuring Georgia’s security. In contrast to the countries mentioned above, security guarantees and the irreversible development of democratic institutions has only been achieved by those former Soviet countries that managed to integrate into the West – the European Union and NATO. Namely, the Baltic States.
With the issue of settling relations with Russia again featuring high on Georgia’s political agenda, these historical lessons hold a special resonance today. Talks about rapprochement with Russia, about the importance of the Russian market for the Georgian economy and about our cultural and historical ties have all intensified within society. When discussing these topics we must remember the lessons of history. We must recall that it was under occupation by Russia – “a confessor of the same faith” - that the Georgian Church lost its autocephaly (in 1815) and the Georgian clergy were persecuted, to say nothing about the damage to the Church that was inflicted during the Soviet period. Let’s look at our recent past and analyze how Russia will use its market as a tool of political influence.
To say that Georgia’s aspirations towards NATO integration created problems with Russia distorts the relationship between cause-and-effect. It is not NATO integration that has created problems in our relations with Russia, but it is Russia that for centuries has createdproblems any time we have tried to strengthen our freedom, independence and security. Was there a NATO when Ambrosi Khelaia appealed to the Genoa conference?
This does not at all mean that we should not try to sort out our relations with Russia – such a desire is healthy and absolutely logical. The key, however, is to fully understand the essence of the problem and to realize what type of state we are dealing with when trying to conduct the process of rapprochement. Only after we have done that should we determine our strategy.
What is our strategy? What does settling relations with Russia entail? What is the final outcome that is desired, necessary and achievable for Georgia in the current situation? What is the threat of a relationship with Russia leading to tragic results once again?
The only outcome that meets Georgia’s interests and upon achieving which we may say that relations are settled with Russia, is a unified sovereign Georgia from which Russian occupational forces are pulled out; a Georgia which has the freedom to choose its own foreign policy and, at the same time, enjoys healthy political, economic and cultural relations with Russia. That is how the Georgian government formulated its position before starting negotiations with Russia. In so doing, it identified the restoration of the territorial integrity of Georgia and its integration into NATO and the European Union as lines that cannot be transgressed.
For Russia, however, settling relations with Georgia means quite the opposite. It has clearly declared its position: Russia does not intend to revisit its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to de-occupy these territories or to allow Georgia’s integration into NATO and the EU. Such actions would be perceived as a loss of influence. Given this reality, one cannot help but ask: what will force Russia to change its centuries-long attitude in the process of bilateral negotiations? I have heard several opinions in this regard.
The first opinion is that through negotiations we will first restore trust and then attempt to settle our problems. Let’s once again recall the lessons of the past and contemplate whether the problem stems from a lack of trust or from Russian interests to retain influence over Georgia - the same aim that Russian politics has steadily pursued for centuries?!
Another opinion is that we will persuade the “Russians.” I do not have the slightest idea what methods of persuasion and influence are implied by this, but in any negotiation certain arguments are needed in order to effectively persuade the other side. When Russia’s key interests in any relationship with us are considered, however, it is difficult to contemplate what such arguments might be.
Consequently, for me, the question concerning what may motivate Russia to change its stance on issues vitally important for Georgia remains unanswered.
According to the statements of the Georgian government, the number one objective is to restore trade ties with Russia. Restoring trade relations and gaining access to the Russian market is indeed important for our economy. But again, the point here is that the interests ofGeorgia in restoring trade ties are stronger than those of Russia – a point that the President of Russia himself noted in the context of settling our relationship. Russia’s motivation to open up its market for Georgia could thus be: 1) to regain a leverage over Georgia by means of a well-tested method, as previously used in relations with Georgia and other countries of the region, which implies first allowing and then banning access to its market. We must carefully weigh up whether it is in our interests to enter a market that Russia can close at any point; an action which would be painless for their economy but damaging to our own. 2) To drag us further into the process of negotiations, where it will try to achieve an advantageous settlement.
Even though I have no doubt about our government’s desire to defend Georgia’s interests, I can see quite vividly how our position might be damaged.
Weakening the Geneva Format
The threat of this has already outlined. In negotiations between a weak and a strong party it is in the interests of the weak party to have a neutral referee overseeing the process, this is especially true when the strong party can easily violate agreements and the rules of the game. It is the existence of such a neutral arbiter in the Geneva talks that makes Russia uncomfortable.
The assignment of the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Grigory Karasin – who is also the Russian representative in the Geneva talks – for the bilateral talks with the Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, serves the very aim of weakening the Geneva format. Given that the representative from Georgia was appointed unilaterally, without having a mandate agreed upon by both parties, there is no guarantee that the issues discussed within the Geneva format will not spill over into the Karasin-Abashidze dialogue. Furthermore, it is logical for Karasin, who has a portfolio in the Geneva talks, to try to move his agenda into the more desirable format lacking a neutral mediator.
Lifting the Status of Occupier
The status of Russia as “occupier” is both politically and legally important for the future settlement of conflict. Politically, this status increases the pressure on Russia in the international arena, whilst legally, it makes Russia responsible for the situation in the occupied territories. Naturally, Russia will try to leverage Georgia’s desire to settle relations, restore trust and melt relations to either lift or weaken its status of occupier.
As the Georgia-Russia dialogue goes on, it is important that the Georgian government does not tone down its rhetoric on occupation. However, it will be rather difficult to restore trust and warm relations whilst simultaneously continuing with the policy of actively encouraging as many countries and organizations as possible to recognize the term “occupation” in their formal documents. Against this backdrop, the statement made by Abashidze when summing up his first meeting with Karasin in December about a possible amendment to the Georgian Law on Occupied Territories is ambiguous. Even disregarding the threat that amending that law poses, making such a statement after the meeting with Karasin indicates just how the nature of these negotiations may push Georgia towards ceding its principled positions.
Continuation of the Non-recognition Policy
Russia spends significant political and financial resources in an effort to make various countries recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two factors that deter these efforts are Georgia’s establishment or strengthening of relations with such countries that may potentially yield to Russian pressure, and the non-recognition policy followed by our strategic partners who counteract Russia’s pressure with their own levers. The desire to create a positive atmosphere for the settlement of relations with Russia may jeopardize the effective and active implementation of the non-recognition policy.
Given all of the above, I think that the current government’s attempt to settle relations with Russia is an unrealistic objective. What is more, very serious threats are associated with this process and the government’s key objective must be to neutralize these threats. The only means of doing so is to further intensify our integration into the West. Aside from being of value itself, this will send a strong message to Russia that the principal lines we have drawn can by no means be transgressed.
The only realistic and result-oriented process for ensuring Georgia’s development and security is integration into NATO and the European Union. Only under the conditions of security and irreversible democracy as offered by this integration will it be possible to think about settling our relations with Russia. The accession to the club of 28 strong states (where an attack against one is considered an attack against all) will force Russia to accept the reality of having a small but democratic and strong state in its neighborhood and will motivate it to seek a new form of relationship with Georgia. This proved to be true in the case of our Baltic friends and was the goal which our ancestors had striven towards for centuries.