Staunton, October 14 – There can be no doubt, a leading Russian specialist on international security says, that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s decision to unilaterally allow visa-free travel to Georgia by residents of the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus represents the latest “provocation” by Tbilisi against the Russian Federation.
But at the same time, Stanislav Ivanov, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), argues, this Georgian action will have positive consequences for some Russian Federation citizens and should be used rather than simply denounced to help restore bilateral relations (journal-neo.com/?q=ru/node/2272).
In an article posted online today, Ivanov, who specializes on international security questions, explicitly asked whether the elimination of entry visas to Georgia for residents of the North Caucasus was “a benefit for Russians or the latest provocation of the Georgian authorities,” thus opening the door to a very different discussion of the situation.
Ivanov notes that as of yesterday, the Georgian action means that “citizens of the Russian Federation who are residents of the North Osetia-Alania Republic, Daghestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Adygeya” will be able to enter Georgia for up to 90 days without having first secured a visa.
On the one hand, Georgia’s action was not unprecedented: Special visa regulations for people living in border areas have become the norm in many parts of the world. Such arrangements allow people in these areas to travel across international boundaries without having to go to often distant capitals
But on the one hand, because Tbilisi and Moscow have not had diplomatic relations since the August 2008 war, because Tbilisi introduced this arrangement unilaterally and without consultations, and because the Georgians directed it only at residents of the non-Russian republics in the North Caucasus, Moscow reacted with anger.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Moscow scholar noted, “called this decision of the Georgian authorities ‘the latest propaganda act,’ and the deputy plenipotentiary representative of the Russian President in the North Caucasus Federal District Arkady Yedelyev suggested that what Georgia had done “could be considered not otherwise than as a provocation”
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Aleksandr Torshin, the first vice speaker of the Federation Council, went even further. He told the media that Georgia was seeking to make “simpler contacts of band formations in the North Caucasus with Georgian underground bands and Georgian official policy.”
“Unfortunately,” the IMEMO scholar notes, there have been few reports about how “the residents of the North Caucasus or independent experts” view what Tbilisi has offered. An exception to that, he says, is the deputy editor of “Vremya Novostey,” who was sharply critical of Moscow’s response.
Semyon Novoprudsky pointed out that “unfortunately, in Russia there is always a very poor attitude toward any constructive and reasonable initiatives of those countries which from the point of view of the Russian powers that be are hostile.” Moscow simply never “considers the interests of its own citizens,” and thus it fails to see how they could benefit.
“If one throws off all the rhetoric of officials and tries to analyze in an open fashion the last step of the Georgian authorities,” Ivanov suggests, “then it is possible to make the following, most preliminary assessments and conclusions.”
It is impossible not to agree with the foreign ministry’s assessment that Saakashvili’s action bears “a propagandistic character and is a provocation,” one that by itself will do little to improve bilateral relations especially since it appears to represent a “discriminatory” approach to different categories of Russian citizens
But at the same time, Ivanov continues, statements like those of Torshin “look more emotional than convincing and based in reality.” Whatever the Georgian authorities do, he points out, Russian border guards will be in a position to block the introduction into Russia of illegal bands and weapons.
Moreover, the IMEMO expert continues, “one must recognize that the realization of Saakashvili’s order will be extremely difficult in practice above all from the point of view of documentation.” That is because the residence of any citizen of the Russian Federation is shown only on his or her internal passport and not on the foreign one.
Consequently, someone from one of a North Caucasus republic will have to show not one passport but two, Ivanov says. Nor, he adds, is it clear that anyone will react in any but the most negative way to Georgia’s unilateral proposal for simplified border crossing procedures between South Ossetia and Georgia.
“If, however, the reaction of Moscow to the unilateral action of Tbilisi would be more flexible,” Ivanov says, “and if Russia were to take some kind of steps in response … then everyone would win: the powers that be and the residents of both countries.” Neither capital should forget “about the simple people who live on both sides of the border.”
Despite the obvious “subjective and objective difficulties” in relations between the two countries since the August 2008 war, he continues, “today as never before, it is extremely important to preserve the traditionally friendly relations build up over the centuries between the peoples of Russia and Georgia.”
Moreover, Ivanov says, Moscow doesn’t gain from “passively awaiting” regime change in Georgia. It needs to take the initiative And as a first step, the Russian authorities could at least “respond” with understanding to the possibilities of “trans-border cooperation and questions of humanitarian nature” that the visa-free arrangements could allow.
“Even the most insignificant normalization of Russian-Georgian relations could in the most favorable pay have an impact on the improvement of the general situation in the region and serve as a stimulus to the development of trade and economic relations, to raising the level of national and international security … and to lower terrorist activity in the North Caucasus.”