Saturday, 7 November 2009

Dialogue With Georgia Seen as Needed, 'Agree To Disagree'

November 2, 2009

Article by Sergey Markedonov, head of the Department of Problems of International Relations of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, under the rubric "Analysis": "In Search of a Dialogue"

After breaking off diplomatic relations with Russia in August of last year, Georgian politicians have not flattered our country with their visits. So the recent official visit to Moscow by Zurab Nogaideli, the ex-chairman of the Georgian government (he held this post from February 2005 to November 2007) and now an oppositionist and leader of the Movement for a Just Georgia, was perceived both in Moscow and in Tbilisi as all but a political sensation. The situation was made even more striking by the fact that on 27 October Grigoriy Karasin, the deputy head of the Russian Federation MID (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), met with the former head of the Georgian government.

Allow me to mention also that the high-ranking Russian diplomat is not an ordinary official of the foreign policy department; he heads the Russian Federation delegation at th econsultations in Geneva (this negotiation format encompasses problems of security and humanitarian development of Abkhazia and in South Ossetia in the context of forming a new status quo in the South Caucasus). So for official Tbilisi, Karasin is in many respects the embodiment of Russian policy in the Caucasus arena. In the meantime, the former Georgian premier did not simply hold a productive meeting. He announced that Georgia needs a dialogue with Russia with no preliminary conditions. If the Kremlin's constant declarations on the need to resume relations with Tbilisi only after Saakashvili's departure are added to that, Nogaideli's visit indeed acquires special significance. Some politicians and experts in Georgia have started talking about almost the "casting" that Moscow is doing, trying to figure out who would best correspond to its interests in this republic of the South Caucasus.

Today the topic of organizing relations with the northern neighbor is very popular in the ranks of the Georgian opposition. Of course, everybody has his own interpretation of what normalization means, bearing in mind the positive resolution (for Georgia, naturally) of the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But be that as it may, not one of the key figures of the Georgian opposition had been in Moscow and met with the deputy minister of foreign affairs. Or sounded the ideas of starting a dialogue with Moscow in Moscow itself. The one that did this was Zurab Nogaideli, a politician who does not have as much charisma as other oppositionists but then has quite good financial potential to carry out political activities. His team includes quite experienced people such as Petre Mamradze, the parliamentary deputy and former chief of the state chancellery (similar to the president's staff) of Georgia. Nogaideli himself held the post of minister of finance back before the "revolution of the roses" in 2000-2001. From that moment he was considered a very close associate of Zurab Zhvania, one of the key players in Georgia after Eduard Shevardnadze's departure and before his tragic death in February 2005. According to the "white fox" himself, Nogaideli is a "level-headed and hardworking man." At least up to this point, he has not made any zig-zag political moves in the style of Nino Burjanadze or Irakli Okruashvili; in other words, he has not been drifting into radicalism after being on the political Olympus.

At the same time, let us not forget that today Nogaideli is not an official figure. And he cannot even be called the spokesman of the opposition's interests. The opposition in Georgia is a conglomerate of politicians dissatisfied with Mikheil Saakashvili's regime. At the same time, the dissatisfaction with the Georgian president of all oppositionists varies (in both form and substance). So the ex-premier in Moscow was representing himself as well as his movement, which, allow me to repeat, has quite good resource potential but should hardly be considered a potential favorite of Georgian politics. Most likely it is for that reason that within Georgia itself Nogaideli's trip to Moscow was perceived coolly. There was no praise nor was there any excess verbal abuse with the typical labels of treachery and cooperation with Gazprom or the special services. In the opinion of Levan Vepkhvadze, the deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament, all the talks with the Russian Federation can be conducted only around a discussion of the "de-occupation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in other words, within the framework of advancing preliminary conditions). In this connection a natural question arises -- "Should th evisit to Moscow by a Georgian politician who has a rich political biography but does not have real levers of power be overrated?"

I think that the visit of a prominent opponent of the Georgian president and former high-ranking statesman is extremely important even with all the nuances mentioned above. And the point here is not only that this is the first visit to Moscow by a prominent oppositionist since the "five-day war." Actually for the first time, Russia's official representatives are trying not to devise an opposition insidet he country (as was the case with Igor Giogadze or Aleksandr Yebralidze (as transliterated)), but to set up a dialogue with representatives of the "inconvenient country." It is clear that today Nogaideli's ratings in Georgia are not off the scale. But he personally and the members of his team represent at least a small part (but who knows what will happen tomorrow) of Georgia, but it is not Georgian politicians and not representatives of the diaspora or "emigration." The very fact of Nogaideli's visit (as well as its public consequences) showed that a dialogue with Georgia is necessary no matter what disagreements the Russian Federation has with this country (and not only on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but on NATO, interrelations with the United States and the European Union, and other foreign policy questions). It has long been time to acknowledge that the incessant statements by official figures that "we are not speaking with the Georgians until Saakashvili leaves" are no more than a propaganda formula.

Just whom are our diplomat stalking with in Geneva is no idle question. Or does Giga (Giorgi) Bokeria now represent himself rather than his president? And with whom did the representatives of Inter RAO YeES (Russian Joint-Stock Company Unified Energy System) hold talks and sign papers in December of last year? Let me remind you that at that time the Memorandum on Joint Management for 10 Years of the Inguri GES (hydroelectric power plant), the largest hydroelectric power plant in the South Caucasus, was formalized between the Russian energy company and the Georgian energy ministry (which caused displeasure in Abkhazia). One wonders, since when has this Georgian ministry not been subordinate to Mikheil Saakashvili? The economic presence of Russian business in Georgia since August 2008 has not become any smaller. The absence of diplomatic relations is not preventing well-known Russian companies such as Lukoil, Vympelkom, VTB (Foreign Trade Bank), the already-mentioned Inter RAO YeES, and the OAO (open-type joint-stock company) RZhD (Russian Railways) from working in Georgia (the latter is making a "stop-off" through Armenia). In February of this year (2009), even the expressive President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili said: "Our policy was always that we welcome Russian economic and business interests in Georgia." Nor will we ignore the interaction along the lines of the Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches (in November Patriarch Kirill plans to meet in Baku with the Catholicos- Patriarch of all Georgia Ilia the Second). All this creates the prerequisites to allow bilateral relations to be set up on a pragmatic (rather than a propaganda) basis. If after the universally known events, a certain (although minimal) level of contacts even with Saakashvili's team is maintained!

Here let me add the fact that with the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border, the importance of Georgia as a unique transit country will markedly decline. In this connection, out of purely objective considerations of an economic and geographic character, the interest in the Russian direction of transit will rise. And that will be a pragmatic basis for revising relations with the Russian Federation. The second consideration deals with an altogether different subject, security. The drastic step-up in terrorist and sabotage activity in the Russian North Caucasus today is not occurring under the slogans of ethnic separatism, but under the green banner of radical Islamism. But the Islamists' final goal is not Chechnya or even the North Caucasus. They are thinking in categories of a global jihad. Here is what Doku Umarov, the leader of the best-known terrorist group today, the Caucasus Emirate, has to say on that topic: "I do not think that there is a need to draw the borders of the Caucasus Emirate. In the first place, because the Caucasus is occupied by infidels and apostates and is Dar al-Kharb (as transliterated), a territory of war, and our immediate task is to make the Caucasus Dar Es-Salam (as transliterated -- haven of peace) by affirming the shariat on its land and driving out the infidels. Secondly, after the infidels are driven out, we must get back all the historical lands of the Muslims, and these borders are outside the limits of the borders of the Caucasus." All this allows us to assume that the fighters' activism will move to the other side of the Caucasus range any day now, and consequently, Georgia and Russia will be forced by life itself to revise their relationship and establish acceptable formats for cooperation in the security sphere. And although there are emotional supporters of the struggle of the "North Caucasian brothers" against Russia in Georgia today (for example, Zaal Kasrelishvili, the chairman of the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus), there is also a strong realization that the North Caucasus outside the Russian Federation and without the Russian Federation would be a greater danger for Tbilisi than an "occupier" country.

Consequently, ways and methods to interact with Georgia are necessary. Without deviating from the obligations to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that we have taken on and placing the accent on Russian national interests. But in spite of all that, the Georgian direction must not be abandoned. Above all out of pragmatic considerations. And so we must not be afraid of visits by people like Nogaideli, but also ourselves try to actively propose a new agenda for the Georgian political class and the expert community. As if there were no Saakashvili. Only such a proposal should actually be made to the Georgians rather than the Moscow Georgians. At the same time, we should understand one more important truth. The statements of any oppositionist are not the same as conducting real domestic and foreign policy. The examples of Leonid Kuchma and Vladimir Voronin should be analyzed well. And so we should have no illusions about the idea that a new president of Georgia (Nogaideli, Alasania, or another as yet unknown so-and-so) will turn around policies toward the Russian Federation, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia 180 degrees. But even so, holding a dialogue based on the principle of "agree to mutually disagree" (when your partner acts within a certain framework and is controlled in that way) is better and more advantageous than going on the all-out defensive. However, more fine tuning is required to realize that. Intellectual and diplomatic tuning.

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