For the first time since it started the process of "sorting out" relations with Russia, the new Georgian government has received a clear message from Moscow that the Kremlin's hostile policy towards Georgia has not and will not change. Having declared the mending of fences with Russia as a priority, the Georgian government has avoided any steps that might irritate Russia and has even made some concessions.
In May, Russian military forces stationed along the occupational line with the Tskhinvali region started rearranging the "border" by installing barbed wire fences. Furthermore, in a number of places they moved the occupational line several tens of meters deeper into Georgian controlled territory and installed barbed wire in the territory of the Georgian villages of Ditsi and Dvani so that both arable lands and houses now fall on the other side of the "border."
The Deputy Secretary of Russia's Security Council Rashid Nurgaliyev unveiled a plan for erecting new buildings right along this "border" on the newly-seized territories.
According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Georgia, the 20-25 km-long demarcation line was moved into Georgian controlled territory by between 50 to 300 meters.
Initially, Tbilisi's protest was not clear. The State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, explained the move as an attempt of Russia to engage Tbilisi in negotiations on the demarcation of the border "by moving meters into Georgian controlled territory and thus legalizing [the occupied] kilometers." According to Zakareishvili, Georgia cannot "declare war" against Russia for just 300 meters.
On 31 May, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said that this looked more like a "misunderstanding than the Kremlin-led policy." "I still think that it is a misunderstanding because I see perfectly well, I have the ability to make a good analysis – though I often repeat this, I am not bragging about that – that this is not now in the interests of Russia," Ivanishvili said. He also expressed doubts that there are "some forces in Russia who dislike the process of sorting out relations."
In fact, the prime minister's explanation of events was characteristic of Eduard Shevardnadze – that the top leadership in Russia was not aware of what the military and individual public officials did in the territory of Georgia and that these actions infringing Georgia's sovereignty were undertaken by "separate forces" and not by the Russian government. However, the events that have subsequently developed clearly reveal the error of the new prime minister's attitude.
Soon after making these statements, Bidzina Ivanishvili had no other option but to admit that Russia's steps came as surprise to him and that his "ability to analyze" had been found wanting. He is confused and does not know how to counteract these actions from Moscow. "Frankly speaking, what is happening is unclear; this does not fit into the analysis I have made. This does not coincide with my vision and is out of touch with the model I visualize; I could not have even imagined such a complication of the situation," said the prime minister in an interview with Prime Time newspaper on 3 June.
In yet another interview, on 5 June, Ivanishvili noted: "I do not think and cannot believe that Russia's strategy is the invasion and occupation of the territories of neighboring countries. I do not believe that."
Ivanishvili made this statement after the deputy foreign minister of Russia, Grigory Karasin, explained that the Russian military performed the "border demarcation" work upon the instructions of Russia's top leadership.
After meeting the prime minister's special representative for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, in Prague on 6 June, Karasin voiced another message that must have come as a surprise to the government busy "sorting out" relations with Russia. In particular, Karasin declared that the Georgian Law on Occupied Territories, a softened version of which was being debated in parliament and has already been approved in its first reading, must be annulled altogether as that "would be the best solution." The amended law, which replaces the criminal prosecution of foreign citizens for illegally entering Abkhazia or the Tskhinvali region for the first time with a fine alone, proved insufficient for Moscow.
Despite his indignation and disappointment about Russia's actions, the prime minister still considered it unnecessary to attend a National Security Council meeting on 5 June dedicated to the situation on the occupational line, because, as he said, nothing out of ordinary had happened in the country over the past two days.
The leader of the Georgian Dream made a pledge to "sort out" relations with Russia upon his entry into politics. He actually laid the entire responsibility for the conflict with Russia on the former government whilst declaring that he would not annoy the West with calls for support against the occupation and that, through a softening of the rhetoric towards Russia, he would achieve those results that the former government failed to achieve.
Bilateral negotiations between Abashidze and Karasin were mainly focused on trade, economic and cultural relations. After several visits of Russian sanitary inspectors to examine the quality of Georgian products, Georgian mineral waters were allowed back into the Russian market; moreover, several wine brands have been registered pending the permission for their re-entry into the market being granted by the Russian sanitary agency in the near future.
However, as Moscow's most recent steps reveal, the new government has failed not only to make some headway in the political settlement of the conflict, but also to stop Russia from taking further aggressive steps. The Russian side advised Tbilisi, via Karasin, to start negotiations on the demarcation of the border with the "independent state" of South Ossetia, whilst the chief ideologist and leader of the Eurasian Union, Aleksandr Dugin, declared that Georgia, together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will join the Eurasian Union.
Dugin and other Russian experts have positively assessed the change of power in Georgia. However, some of them are disappointed that Ivanishvili's government has not taken enough steps to improve relations with Russia.
"Bidzina Ivanishvili named the improvement of the Russia-Georgia relationship as a top priority of his government. Now, however, after six months have passed, one can say for sure that nothing will actually change in Russia-Georgia relations," Russian politologist Yana Amelina contends. According to her, the main problem in the relationship of the two countries remains Georgia's desire to restore its territorial integrity and join NATO. That, she continues, runs counter to Russia's interests. "Ivanishvili's government does not intend to change the country's strategic course, whereas those two segments (NATO integration and the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are principled issues for Russia and any concession on them is excluded," Amelina says.
Andrey Sushentsov, a researcher from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, who last year participated in drafting a report on the prospects of settling relations between Russia and Georgia, also rules out any concession from Moscow on principled issues. When visiting Tbilisi he talked to Georgian experts who, in his opinion, "entertained exaggerated expectations."
"They ask: 'what can Russia give Georgia?' For my part, I ask them: 'why do you think we will give or offer you something now?'" According to Sushentsov: "one also heard ideas such as: 'if Georgia says no to NATO maybe you will return something to us or do something else for us.' I think that such an approach is very primitive and absolutely unviable. It is not how things happen in international relations."
Expectations in Moscow that Tbilisi would become much more acquiescent after the change in power were also partially fed by the separate messages coming from the government and from the prime minister personally. While on a visit to Armenia in January, Bidzina Ivanishvili hailed Armenia's relations with Russia and the West as exemplary for Georgia. Later, the prime minister and the foreign affairs ministry explained that that statement did not imply any possibility of changing the foreign course of the country.
Ivanishvili also supported Georgia's participation in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He also expressed his consent to the resumption of a railway link via Abkhazia. His statement about launching an inquiry into the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, and doing so in such a context that implied placing the blame on the former government, was yet another pleasing signal for Moscow that the new Georgian government may help it shift the entire blame for the August war onto Tbilisi.
Moreover, Bidzina Ivanishvili refrains from any criticism of the Russian government, even on such issues that the entire developed world shares a common position. For example, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Ivanishvili refrained from answering a question about his stance on the Magnitsky case. Instead, the prime minister said that given the human rights abuses of the former Georgian government, he would abstain from assessing similar crimes committed in other countries.
It seems that Ivanishvili thought that the appointment of a special representative for relations with Russia, the softening of rhetoric, and the offering of concessions on such issues as the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Law on Occupied Territories and other matters, would be enough for Russia to take reciprocal steps, or, at the very least, discontinue its aggressive behavior. However, Ivanishvili has been struck dumb by the opposite result.
It is incomprehensible why the prime minister expected concessions and reciprocity from the current Russian regime in return for his goodwill; that does not fit into the politics and logic of Putin's actions at all. "We revealed weakness. The weak are beaten" – this statement was made by the Russian president after the Beslan tragedy of 2004. Indeed, the stance Putin has taken towards other countries proves that he does not miss any chance to beat those who show weakness.
Vladimir Putin does not perceive any of the post-Soviet countries, including those with regimes loyal to Russia, as equal partners; consequently, he believes that Russia has the right to demand unilateral concessions from them without any reciprocity. In 2010, Ukraine said no to NATO integration and extended the term of stay of Russian naval forces in its country, yet it never got the reciprocal concession of decreased natural gas prices from Russia. Quite the contrary, Putin put forward a new demand to Yanukovich – the handover of gas pipelines to Gazprom and accession to the customs union, a move which would render the country's integration into the European Union impossible.
Before that, upon Russia's demands, Moldova adopted a law on its neutrality, but never achieved a reciprocal settlement of the Transnistria conflict or the restoration of its territorial integrity.
Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian political writer and analyst, calls the mentality of Vladimir Putin and his milieu the "St. Petersburg gang" psychology, which gets manifested in both domestic and foreign politics.
Moscow's policies towards Georgia and its other neighbors clearly indicate that the Kremlin perceives the existence of a successful country on its borders as a threat; this especially holds true for Georgia.
egardless of who is in power, a successful, reformed, modernized and democratic Georgia would be a "very bad" example for Russia, and for the North Caucasus region in particular. Georgia turning its back on NATO integration would be desirable, but as the example of Ukraine has shown, this step would not alone be sufficient for the Kremlin. The Kremlin does not merely want a friendly or loyal government in Georgia; it wants one that is totally obedient – like that in any other neighboring country that Moscow can still influence.
Therefore, one of main threats facing Georgia is to disregard these facts and continue its infantile politics towards Russia, giving unjustified concessions based on naïve expectations – a clear example of which is the prime minister's admission that his "analysis" proved wrong.
As has been revealed once again, reconciliatory rhetoric and concessions are viewed by the Kremlin as the success of its pressure and the retreat of Tbilisi. If Georgia blames itself for the start of the August war; happily conducts concerts in the Kremlin; participates in the Sochi Winter Olympics; apologizes to the Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia, Gennadiy Onyshchenko, who constantly makes offensive statements about Georgia; and tries its best not to irritate Moscow – then that means that the pressure, the embargos, the deportations and the aggression of 2008 all bore fruit. Russia must now reinforce this victory in order to force Georgia to concede something that it now does not want to concede. No one turns their back on policies that bring victory and success.
The barbed wire fences may, therefore, prove to be only the beginning of such increased pressure.