Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, March 25, 2013

Foreign Policy Risk and Opportunity in Ivanishvili’s Georgia


Photo from Ivanishvili's official Facebook page.

In October, 2012, the Georgian electorate gave Bidzina Ivanishvili, regarded by many as being a pro-Russian politician, a mandate as the country’s new prime minister. At the time, the election was hailed as the first successful transfer of power in Georgia under democratic auspices, as well as a break with the past under the pro-Western Mikheil Sakaashvili. The election may mark, in the eyes of some Western observers, a plenary turn by Georgia away from the West and back toward Russia. This is especially the case considering the previous Georgian leader was unabashedly pro-Western and sought integration with the EU and NATO.

Yet the election of an ostensibly more pro-Russian leader in Georgia need not signify a total change in policy, and relations with the West need not suffer. That said, a leader who professes to maintain friendly ties with the West while working with Russia may open Georgia up to even greater geopolitical conflict than before.

While Georgia has not had diplomatic relations with Russia since the war in 2008, the country’s stability depends on its ability to work with Russia. There is no way that Georgia can completely turn away from the large power to its immediate north. Georgia’s geopolitical orientation, however, need not be a zero-sum game between Russia and the West: in fact, it is simply not practicable, seeing as Russia currently holds on to parts of the country’s territory and industry, necessitating some sort of conciliatory action on Georgia’s part with its larger neighbor. Georgia’s geographical proximity to Russia, specifically to the North Caucasus, inevitably makes Georgia vulnerable to Russian pressure. Before the Rose Revolution, Russia cited the presence of Chechen terrorists hiding in the Pankisi Gorge as a possible pretext for invading Georgia in an alleged counter-terrorist operation.

Ivanishvili’s assertion that he will work for greater rapprochement with Russia should not be seen as kowtowing to Russia at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty, but rather an act of realpolitik on the part of the new Georgian leader. A parallel can be drawn with Poland’s strongly pro-American defense minister Radosław “Radek” Sikorski, who has also been accommodating and cooperative toward Russia on account of his country’s security vulnerability toward the latter.

Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Institute, states that after the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia realized that as long as Sakaashvili was in power, Georgia’s chances of joining NATO were “equal to none," and that Sakaashvili was from thence regarded as an unreliable partner by the West. It is logical that if Western states are not be more protective of or active in Georgia, Georgia would be subsequently forced to cooperate with Russia to a larger extent than under Sakaashvili.

In terms of economics, it makes sense that Georgia would actually continue to seek closer ties with the EU. Russia has essentially become a petrostate, and while the price of oil may serve the Russian economy well in the short term, in the long term Russia will be forced to diversity its exports. A wise Georgian leader would realize that strengthening the country’s economic integration with Europe is essential for its economic survival. While Russia may be able to subsidize parts of the Georgian economy in the short term, it is imperative for Georgia to maintain economic ties with the EU.

Support for an explicitly pro-Russian foreign policy is not a way for a Georgian politician to ingratiate himself with the electorate, nor is it something that comes easily or is a simple matter of changing direction. No Georgian leader thus far has found it easy to have smooth relations with Russia, and a pro-Russian foreign policy is a politically punishable act in Georgia. Ivanishvili himself was quoted by the Russian press shortly after meeting with Russian Prime Minister Medvedev as saying that “Georgia’s strategy isn’t changing” and that he would continue to seek closer ties with the EU and with NATO from a security standpoint, but that “relations with Russia must also improve.” He went on to say that he understood that it would not be easy to seek integration with these Western structures while seeking rapprochement with Russia, but that he considered integration with the West to be the “primary question.”

In February, 2013 When members of Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement called on Ivanishvili to amend the constitution to make Georgia’s pro-Western stance legally binding, Ivanishvili refused, but stated that it was “unimaginable” for Georgia to turn away from the West. The refusal to legally bind the country’s orientation shows recognition of the need for flexibility and agility in ensuring Georgia’s security.

Ivanishvili has thus far maintained a pro-Western rhetorical stance, but he still is the political opponent of Saakashvili, and did make his fortune in Russia. There remains a risk that Ivanishvili’s flexibility may actually lead to an increase in geopolitical tension and conflict. Under Saakashvili, no one had any illusions about where Georgia stood in terms of its geopolitical orientation, and so strongly felt was the threat of Georgia leaving Russia’s orbit completely that the latter used military force to ensure this would not happen. Yet now, Ivanishvili’s openness may entice Russia and the West to heat up their tactics. The West may perceive a risk of losing Georgia, while Russia may see an opportunity to regain the country’s loyalty. A specifically pro-Russia party was recently created in Georgia, and it will be interesting to see if, and how many, seats it gains in parliament during the next election. It was specifically created to counterbalance pro-Western parties in Georgia, and may prove to be a useful tool for Russia to exert its influence in the country.

Georgia’s selection of Bidzina Ivanishvili as its next prime minister should not be regarded with alarm in the West as a turn back toward Russia, but rather a level-headed realization of Georgia’s dependence on and vulnerability toward Russia. Georgia has every reason to continue its path toward greater integration with Europe. But for security reasons as well as historic political and social ties with Russia, combined with the refusal or failure of the West to take a more active role in Georgian affairs, Georgia will also need to be less antagonistic and more cooperative with Russia. It remains to be seen to what extent Ivanishvili will stay true to this course, but it should not come as a surprise to the West, nor should it be a cause of undue fear.

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