Since gaining independence, Georgian foreign and security policy has made two separate U-turns from "radicalism" to "pragmatism." I deliberately put both terms in quotation marks as they are more reflective of the clichés about the politics of our country than the real content of policy.
The 1990s began with the attempt of the government of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia to gain independence – a step viewed as extremely radical, not only by Moscow and the West, but by a segment of Georgian society too. However, as soon became apparent, the Soviet Union fell victim not to Georgian radicals, but to the chronic ailments of the Soviet economic and political systems themselves.
Nevertheless, the new "democratic" government of Russia inherited an especially rigid attitude towards Georgia and largely contributed to the toppling of its national government. The problem should have logically ended there – Shevardnadze's government "changed the rhetoric" (does that ring any bells?), appointed people loyal to Moscow to the top positions of law enforcement agencies and even – in a step that would have been unimaginable before – had Georgia join the Commonwealth of Independent States (something that Boris Yeltsin had demanded from Gamsakhurdia as an ultimatum). In other words, Georgia's radicalism changed into pragmatism. This newly-established "pragmatism" legalized the military and political clout of Russia and granted it the international status of "mediator" and "peacekeeper" in conflicts that Russia had itself provoked.Logically, one might have thought that Georgia yielding a significant part of its sovereignty to Moscow, and redirecting its foreign policy vector towards Russia, would have been followed by a fundamental change in Russia's attitude towards Georgia and the welfare of the country. In reality, however, the first half of the 1990s proved to be one of the darkest periods in the history of Georgia – economic hardship and the wantonness of criminals reached an unprecedented scale.
It became apparent for the Shevardnadze government that without establishing order and launching reforms the country (and accordingly, its government) would soon cease to exist. At that time, Russia must have shared the same goal. It was engaged in a war in Chechnya and instability in Georgia only complicated the fight against Chechen insurgents. It should thus seem paradoxical that Russia took the process of political stabilization in Georgia, which started in 1995 (with the elimination of illegal armed formations, the adoption of a new constitution, et cetera), as a threat. In August of that year they tried to assassinate Eduard Shevardnadze with the help of the very person whom Moscow had appointed to Georgia as the security minister. Regardless of this, Shevardnadze did not turn away from the "pragmatic" course. He refrained from taking any directly confrontational step against Russia, despite continuing to care about strengthening his government.
The next attack on Shevardnadze was staged two and a half years later, in February 1998. Shevardnadze was again lucky to escape death. Between these two assassination attempts his government achieved a certain degree of progress in terms of strengthening state institutions and economic recovery (as measured against the early 1990s). That was also the period when the construction of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline was underway and negotiations on the major Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project had entered their active phase. Unfortunately, the second terrorist attack on Shevardnadze was not without consequences – the next few years were marked by economic stagnation and an unprecedented increase in the scale of corruption.
In other words, despite the Georgian government's reconciliatory rhetoric and the concessions it made to Russia, Moscow always, without exception, applied hard power to prevent even the slightest enhancement of our statehood.
In 2004, Georgia began processes that were far more alarming for Russia. Even the critics of Saakashvili's government must admit that after his coming to power, Georgia – which up until then was increasingly often called a failed state – started to consolidate state institutions, recovered control over the regions of Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti and began to reanimate the economy.
It must be noted here that despite Saakashvili's radicalism, the first step he undertook was to attempt to settle relations with Russia. This attempt, however, was doomed to failure from the outset: had Saakashvili allowed those law enforcement ministers with close ties to Moscow to remain in their posts, just as his predecessor had done, the reaction of Putin, in the event of Georgia implementing successful economic and political processes, would have been exactly the same.
For those who still doubt that our recent history provides a convincing answer to the question as to what aims drive Russia – and for those who may think that Georgia failed to establish normal relations with its gigantic northern neighbor in those difficult historical times only because of its own failings – I will cite the experience of our neighbors. Among them, the example of Ukraine offers perhaps the most obvious answer. At first glance, until the autumn of 2013, Ukraine had everything in place for an ideal relationship with Russia: leaving aside the fact that one can hardly find any other example of two nations being so ethnically and culturally close (although this closeness must be history as a result of the ongoing conflict), for the past few years Ukraine was led by a pro-Russian president who had unseated Viktor Yushchenko, a figure very much hated by Moscow, through elections, turned his back on the country's NATO aspirations and engaged in comprehensive cooperation with Putin.
After all this, even in his worst nightmares Viktor Yanukovych would never have dreamt that Putin would have treated him so ruthlessly just because he tried to sign the agreement on association and free trade with the European Union; especially as Russia had never spoken out against such cooperation and, logically, there should have been nothing unacceptable for Russia in a friendly neighboring country becoming politically more stable and economically more successful. However, as it turned out, Russia viewed this as a crime similar to that of the radicalism of disobedient Georgians.
The fact is that just days before the Vilnius Summit, Putin summoned Yanukovych to appear before him and virtually prohibited him from signing the already finalized agreement. A little earlier, Armenia's association agreement had come to share the same lot. The only difference between the two was that the Armenians, who see no prospects for survival without Russia, put up with their fate more or less obediently; whereas Ukraine, a direct neighbor of the EU, first staged peaceful countrywide protest rallies and then responded to Kremlin-inspired bloody repressions with a successful revolt. Let me remind everyone that the conflict in Ukraine broke out not because of the revolt of the Banderovci, but because of the unexpected thwarting of the agreement with the EU – something that Russia had been standing behind.
In Georgia, the advent of the Georgian Dream coalition reinstated the term "pragmatism" in the political vernacular. Even before coming to power, leaders of the coalition claimed that they would be able to sort out relations with Russia. In their opinion, it would be sufficient to just "change the rhetoric" to win Putin's heart. The rhetoric has indeed changed: they repeatedly said that Georgia was to be blamed for the August 2008 war (although they referred to Saakashvili and his government, they must have understood that in reality it was Georgia that they were blaming) and even sent the Erisioni dance company to perform at the Kremlin. However, judging by the results, that proved insufficient for Russia. There has been some progress made in certain spheres – Georgian wine and mineral waters were allowed to enter the Russian market and now the list of exports has been extended to include some other agricultural produce. But let us not forget that Russia, as a WTO member, was obliged to do that in any case.
One should also mention here that deepening trade relations with Russia could pose a serious threat – until recently, the advantage we had over our neighbors was that Russia no longer had economic levers of influence over us; however, during the past year and a half Russia has advanced to the position of our third largest trade partner. We should not have any doubts that sooner or later the Kremlin will apply this lever.
At the same time, against the backdrop of changed rhetoric and new pragmatic politics, we have all witnessed the installment of barbed wire fences along the occupational line, regular abductions of Georgian citizens living in the conflict zone and, just recently, the preparations for ethnic cleansing by Kremlin-backed forces in Abkhazia. Nor is the situation promising in the Tskhinvali region – the recent de facto elections there were won by the Yedinaya Ossetia Party (a subsidiary of the current ruling party in Russia, Yedinaya Rossiya, i.e. United Russia), which built its election campaign on the promise to join Russia.
The current Georgian government's strategy was most clearly articulated in a recent interview Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili gave to the BBC World Service. He said that Russia is not a threat to Georgia (that it does not intend to annex the occupied regions of Georgia); he called the occupied territories "de facto states;" and claimed that he has found a magic formula by which he has already improved relations with Russia and will simultaneously continue the integration of Georgia into the EU and NATO. Even more, he confirmed to a surprised BBC journalist that other neighbors of Russia should follow in our footsteps. I will not go into the details of the interview, but it can be said that his interview sent two main messages. The first was addressed to the West, telling it to take the Russia-Georgia conflict off their agenda because we are successfully settling relations with Russia ourselves (but in a manner in which we cannot recover even an inch of occupied land and no internally displaced person will be able to return to their homes). The second message from Garibashvili was directed towards his key addressee – Russia. He said that the relationship with Russia is improving because we have changed our attitudes (in other words, everything was the former government's fault); he was careful not to use any term that might displease Russia (for example, "occupied regions," "occupational line," et cetera) and did not mention internally displaced persons or any other problematic issue. He explained the annexation of Crimea in terms of the will of the local population. This, in his opinion, makes it different from the "de facto states" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose population, according to him, favor independence with Russia not even considering annexation.One should assume that, as a result of this interview, Prime Minister Garibashvili expects a thawing of relations with Russia. After all, how could Moscow not appreciate such a pragmatic course from the Georgian government? Unfortunately, I think that Moscow's response will soon become known and it will not please Mr. Garibashvili. Unless, of course, he deems the exchange of his country's sovereignty, a large part of its territories and the fate of internally displaced persons an acceptable trade for an increase in exports of wine and herbs to Russia.
We must understand once and for all that if our history and the history of our neighbors teaches us anything, it is that regardless of the tone of our rhetoric, Russia's strategy towards Georgia and other former Soviet republics has remained unchanged since the breakup of the Soviet Empire. Russia has not come to terms with the disintegration of the Soviet Union (and the communist bloc). It spends much more energy on restoring its influence over its neighbors with the use of hard power than it does on its own country's political and economic reformation – ignoring the fact that the success of the latter would have attracted the former satellites towards Russia without any need for coercion.
Thus, the answer to the question of what Russia wants is clear-cut, especially in light of the events unfolding in Ukraine: Russia's aim is to recover its control over parts of its lost empire. To achieve this goal, Russia uses the tactics of transforming its neighbors into failed states – when a pro-Russian, authoritarian and corrupt regime is present in a country, Russia does not touch you, but as soon as you start rising to your feet, it becomes your enemy. Russia views the real independence and economic success of Georgia and its neighbors as a mortal threat. This brings to my mind a scene from the ridiculous Hollywood movie "Independence Day" in which aliens invade Earth. In that film, the US President tries to negotiate with a captured alien, asking it: "Can we negotiate a truce? What do you want us to do?" The alien responds hissing: "Die!!!"
Of course, this is not a serious comparison and I believe that Putin does not wish for the Georgian people to be entirely exterminated (after all, we sing and dance well and can cook shashlik). Nevertheless, his attitude towards our statehood is perhaps quite close to the scene described above. Putin's Russia wants to be surrounded by poor, failed states which will never be interesting for the West. How rational such an aspiration is remains a separate issue, especially considering that Russia has itself already experienced backlash from the destabilization of neighboring countries (for example, its efforts in Abkhazia spilling over into Chechnya).
Apart from geopolitical and security issues, the creation of the customs union by Russia is devoid of economic reason. Because of its high tariffs and other artificial barriers this will isolate its members from Europe and the rest of the world.
What shall we do then? Naturally, I am not calling on the government to take any overtly defiant steps, but we should well understand that Russia cannot be deceived by either our illusory pragmatism or sweetened messages. It will continue its subversive aactivity against our independence in any case. It is also a mistake to think that not much depends on our actions, that our fate will be decided by whatever Russia and the West negotiate. A struggle always makes sense in a situation whereby the refusal to fight would doom all of us – both the "radicals" and "pragmatists" – to failure.
There is only one way out – to actively continue building our state, to work with our Western partners and, what's more important, to spare no efforts to attain the consolidation of our divided, conflicted society.
One of the reasons why Russia will not leave us alone is the geopolitical importance of our country. Russia well understands our current and potential value for the West - it understands it better than many of our European partners do and tries to minimize that importance. By strengthening our statehood and developing our economy, we may become way more important for the West than just being a transit country. In the event of developing the necessary infrastructure, Georgia may become a serious actor in the growing economic relations between East and West.
True pragmatism from the Georgian government would thus not come in the form of attempts to sweeten Russia, but instead would be focused on strengthening our statehood.