Vienna, December 18 – Russia and Georgia may gradually overcome their current hostility and eventually restore diplomatic ties if they begin to address issues like flights between their capitals and the development of trade in much the same way t hat Turkey and Armenia have moved toward a rapprochement, according to a Moscow specialist on the Caucasus.
In an article in this week’s “Novaya politika,” Sergey Markedonov suggests that this is a very real possibility despite the current deep freeze in Russian-Georgian relations since the August 2008 war both because of traditional links and the recent comment of President Dmitry Medvedev to this possibility (www.novopol.ru/text79777.html).
Russian-Georgian relations, Markedonov says, “bear a paradoxical character.” On one side of the scales are “the traditional and above all socio-cultural ties that have linked the two peoples together for much of the last several centuries and that still provide the basis for information contacts.
But on the other “is the weight of mutual pretensions and the contradictions of ‘perestroika’ and the post-Soviet period.” The Soviet use of force against Georgia in 1989 became “one of the catalysts of the disintegration of the Soviet Union,” and former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze for many Russians is linked with the “hated” Gorbachev.
Many in Moscow expected that Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power as a result of the Rose Revolution, would improve ties, but the new Georgian president’s efforts to re-unite Georgia had the effect of transforming the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts “into a Russian-Georgian one,” leading to war a year ago.
That led to a break in diplomatic relations and to the current “deep freeze” of relations. But, Markedonov asks, “is there a way out of the existing blind alley?” He argues that there is and that Medvedev pointed to this exit in comments he made at the Forum of European and Asian Media in Moscow December 9-10.
The Kremlin leader was asked whether there were any “serious obstacles” to re-opening border points between the two countries. Medvedev said that “does not see any particular problems since this concerns ordinary people … despite the great tension in the political establishment and the intense opposition on certain questions in the international arena.”
While some commentators pounced on this response as an indication that Moscow might soon seek to restore diplomatic relations with Tbilisi, Markedonov continued, that expectation is almost certainly “premature.” But he said, “there is a rational kernel and good sense in Medvedev’s words” that all concerned should given attention to.
In many conflicts around the world, “the resolution of humanitarian issues” has helped promote a thawing of relations. Indeed, the Moscow analyst says, there is a clear example close at hand: the way in which Armenian contacts with Turkey “before the publication and signing of the protocols on the normalization of relations” helped make that possible.
“Yes,” Markedonov notes, “Turkey to this day is blocking the land border with Armenia and supports Baku in its demands in the Karabakh conflict. However, beginning from 1996, direct air links between Yerevan and Istanbul and then between Yerevan and Antalya” were opened.
As a result, “Armenian tourists in Turkish resorts are today not a rarity even without the restoration of diplomatic relations. [And] the Turkish co-president of the Turkish-Armenian business forum Kaan Soyak declared recently that the current level of trade between [the two] is 200 million US dollars. With the opening of the border, that could rise to a billion dollars!”
Thus it is worth “noting also that the Armenian-Turkish protocols appeared on a definite foundation, the bricks of which were the air links, and tourists and business contacts,” a pattern that can be observed in other cases. “Precisely this scenario was proposed by Dmitry Medvedev for Russian-Georgian ties.”
Among the reasons for thinking this possible is that Russian business in Georgia “not only has not contracted but even increased” since the August war. And even in such a sensitive issue as the Inguri Hydro-Electric Dam, “Russian and Georgian energy officials have been conducting negotiations and have signed a memorandum, bypassing Sukhumi.”
“Today,” Markedonov says, “it is difficult to image a Georgian politician would recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as territories not having a relationship to Georgia.” But “after 15 to 20 years, a new generation of leaders in Georgia, “lead by pragmatic considerations” is likely to recognize that Georgia’s current approach undermines its own interests.
Most probably, such a change of heart in Tbilisi will not come quickly, Markedonov concludes, but there is one thing at least that could speak up a rapprochement between Russia and Georgia: the growing threat of Islamist terrorism to both, something politicians in both those capitals and elsewhere should be thinking about.