No matter how often Russia repeats that it has sorted out its problems with Georgia, it will still be unable to ignore three key factors. The first is Russia’s military presence in Georgia’s regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, which is regarded as illegitimate by almost everyone in the world and is labeled as an occupation by the most important actors. The second is the humiliating collapse of its efforts to have these regions recognized as independent states, despite the huge amount of financial, political and diplomatic resources Russia has spent. The third is that Georgia, slowly but consistently, is getting closer to the North Atlantic Alliance that Russia perceives as its geopolitical enemy.
On the other hand, no matter how much Georgian wine or how many tangerines are sold to Russia, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government will still be unable to ignore the key promise of the Georgian Dream’s election campaign: that the “territorial integrity of Georgia will be recovered through normalizing relations with Russia.”
Consequently, Russia should draw up and persuade Georgia to agree to a plan that will legitimize its occupation of Georgia’s regions – resulting in a de jure fragmentation of Georgia – whilst, at the same time, give the Georgian population the illusion that relations have been “sorted out” and the country’s territorial integrity restored.
This article will highlight some elements of Russia’s possible plan. Each of these elements has, at various times and in various forms, been seen in Russia’s proposals regarding the “settlement” of those conflicts on the post-Soviet territory that Russia itself provoked. These will be discussed more extensively below.
The aim of this article is to inform society of a possible threat and to outline the prerequisites and circumstances conducive to the materialization of this threat. For, as is widely known, the risk of misleading an informed society is far lower than that of an uninformed society.
Key elements of Russia’s possible plan:
• Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as three equal members, establish a confederation. This may be named the “confederation of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” or may be given a shorter name – the “Transcaucasian Federation.”
• Russia is the guarantor of the constitutional arrangement of the confederation.
• The members of the confederation are subject to international law – they can establish bilateral diplomatic and consular relations with foreign states. Representative offices of international organizations – the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the World Bank and others – belong to the confederation.
• Any member has the right to withdraw from the confederation.
• The confederation is a demilitarized neutral state, neither the individual members nor the confederation as a whole has military forces – they only have police and emergency forces.
• By constitution, the confederation cannot become a member of the North Atlantic Alliance or any other military and political alliance. However, the constitution deems it acceptable for the confederation to join a non-military union of states. For such membership, the consent of all three members is required.
• Russia is allowed to establish naval bases in the confederation’s ports of Batumi and Poti.
• Russia’s military and naval bases stationed on the territory of the confederation automatically acquire legal status. After the initial term of the deployment of such military bases has expired, the arrangement can be extended upon the decision of the member(s) upon whose territory the bases are stationed in. In the case of naval bases, the decision is taken by the confederation as a whole.
• Both the Russian ruble and confederation’s lari are in free circulation in the confederation.
• Parts of the confederation’s powers are delegated to the individual members in the following spheres: energy, postal services and road infrastructure.
• The parliament of the confederation elects a president from among the members of the confederation for a term of two years by rotation.
• Members of the confederation have their own citizenships; in parallel with that, a citizenship of the confederation also exists.
• Free movement of citizens, goods and services is allowed within the confederation unless otherwise specified in the legislation of its members.
• The members of the confederation independently deal with the issues of permanent residence and ownership rights of citizens in their respective territories.
By implementing this or a similar plan, Russia will achieve its strategic goals: legitimizing its military and naval bases, legitimizing the fragmentation of Georgia by international law, and scrapping any prospect of Georgia’s integration into NATO. In Russia’s view, this game plan will also enable the government of the Georgian Dream to “save face:” the “outer” borders of the confederation will coincide with the internationally recognized borders of Georgia; citizens will move freely across the confederation, including in the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region (with restrictions on residence and ownership rights); the lari will be one of two means of payment within the confederation, et cetera.
How high is the likelihood that this or a similar anti-utopian plan exists, and what are the mechanisms to prevent it from being implemented?
Over the past 22 years Russian officials and government-affiliated “experts” have repeatedly made proposals that, in their view, would help “settle” conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia-Azerbaijan. These proposals, known under the name of a “common,” “joint” or “united” state, have several common characteristics: 1. the declaration that the state is now being created upon an agreement between a specific region and the rest of the country (“Transnistria and Moldova,” “Crimea and Ukraine,” “Abkhazia and Georgia,” “Karabakh and Azerbaijan”); 2. the withdrawal of a region from the “new” state is decided by the region itself; 3. the political “neutrality” of the “new” state; 4. the legitimization of Russian military and naval bases.
These proposals took their most concentrated form in the so-called Kozak Plan of 2003. This plan, attributed to the then-deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitry Kozak, was designed to prepare, on the premise of conflict settlement in Moldova, the ground for the separation of Transnistria from the rest of the country. This plan resulted in mass protests in Moldova and was ultimately rejected by then-President Vladimir Voronin.
Russia is likely waiting for a favorable moment and the fulfillment of certain conditions before proposing the creation of the Transcaucasian Federation or another similar plan.
The slowdown in the economic growth of Georgia; the increased dependence on the Russian market; the deliberate efforts to weaken the political opposition; Georgia’s energy independence being undermined; and the damage sustained to the country’s international image are developments which may all prove to be conducive to creating that favorable moment.
As regards the prerequisites for the implementation of such a plan, these may be: the abolition or weakening of the Georgian Law on Occupied Territories; the recognition of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions as parties to the conflicts; the withdrawal of the UN General Assembly resolution on refugees; and the reopening of railway traffic across Abkhazia. The “carrots” to be used for persuasion will probably be a simplified visa regime and access to the Russian market for Georgian products.
Patriotic politicians and the entire Georgian society need to exercise vigilance, show foresight and remain active in order to avoid such events developing. The most probable venue for this or any similar proposal to be made are the negotiations occurring between Bidzina Ivanishvili’s special representative for relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin. The reasons for this are evident: a) Abashidze’s mandate is unclear for society; b) these negotiations take place in a bilateral format without the involvement of an impartial mediator; and c) society (including Georgia’s diplomatic circles) is unaware of the content of the negotiations.
Society must demand the following: that the content of the “humanitarian-cultural” meetings be published in full; that the official mandate of Mr. Abashidze be made known; that Switzerland, as an official mediator between Russia and Georgia, be asked to get involved in the negotiations, and that full transparency be observed in future meetings.