1 Apr 2019
Russia and Georgia 2008-2018 – Escapism for the Sake of Peace?
Russian nationalism, foreign policy, and the ‘Georgian question’
The process of political transformation of Russian foreign policy—which can be described with the lofty metaphor “getting off the knees”—also means the development of a foreign policy “independent of the West.” This policy can be tracked through a series of conflicts in the post-Soviet space in which Russia either was one of the main active protagonists or had some other level of involvement.
In this sense, the conflict in Georgia was extremely important. According to many experts and researchers, this conflict became a turning point for a very serious transformation of Russia’s foreign policy. Jeffrey Mankoff argues that the armed conflict between Russian and Georgian armies, while short and relatively small in scale compared with other conflicts in the post-Soviet space, carries importance for at least two main reasons. First of all, the Western countries became “more reluctant to challenge Russia’s leading role in the post-Soviet space” (Mankoff 2011, 267). Secondly, Russia became “increasingly conscious of the limits of its power in the [CIS] region, as well as of the need to make itself a more attractive partner for its neighbors” (Mankoff 2011, 260-261).
This situation is dramatically different from the time of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency when Russia tried to play a more balanced role in the postSoviet space and attempted to find a balance between its own interests and those of other countries. The events in Georgia in 2008 support both of Mankoff’s arguments. However, the domestic policy implemented at the end of 2010 allows viewing the events in Georgia as a turning point for the domestic political transformation of the Russian ruling regime.
First of all, in 2008 Russian nationalism was at a historically critical period (Verkhovsky 2016, 75-77). The vector of this transformation can be identified as a shift in Russian ideology of nationalism from ethnic to imperial. Modern Russian nationalism comfortably fits with the concept of “Pax Russiana,” which is the main guiding force of the foreign policy conducted by the current Russian regime. This is the main reason why the events in Georgia did not generate much interest and were perceived as a demonstration of the policy of Russian dominance in the region. The events that followed not only deepened the divide inside the nationalistic groups in Russia but also seriously undermined their political positions when these policies and agendas became largely associated with the ruling regime.
In this situation, nationalists were positioned as opposition. For example, they organized rallies on Manezhnaya Square (Manage Square) in 2010 and actively participated in the movement against election fraud in 2011-2012. However, these were the last serious political actions made by Russian nationalists that were visible as a political opposition. After the “Russian Spring”—the events that led to the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbass—the national movement took another hit. First of all, Russian nationalists split in their approach to the “Ukraine issue.” The majority took up arms to fight alongside the “people’s republics,” and a smaller number took the side of the “white brothers.” In essence, this was the defeat of “ethnic nationalism” in a clash with “ethnic imperialism,” since the majority of Russian nationalists chose the “Russian Spring.” This choice required even more active cooperation with the Russian government who organized and supported the “Russian Spring” in Ukraine (Verkhovsky 2016, 98-100).
Russian nationalists showed little or no reaction to the development in Georgia. Their active involvement in the Abkhaz war of 1992-1993 was the last significant activity in the Georgian context. Even at that time, the unique trait of ethnic xenophobia of Russian nationalists was the perception of a “threat” to Russia that was coming not from Georgia, but Central Asia, particular from the people of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In general, Russian nationalists, who came a long way from being street hooligans in the 1990s to holding seats in the Duma and Kremlin, have largely ignored Georgia’s military-political crisis in 2008, as for them it was not connected with the challenges of “Russian culture and identity.”
Moreover, some of the nationalists, including several in Georgia, tried to present the situation as a result of a Western conspiracy against “traditional values” that are allegedly unique to the people of Russia and Georgia. This is why the Russian-Georgian war should be conceptualized as a war provoked by the Western Saakashvili government against friendly Russia, or as Malkhaz Gubashvili, the “chairman of the public commission on Georgian-Russian settlement,” said, an “attack by the West on the traditional values” (Davtyan 2009). This position fits perfectly into the overall pattern of Russian policy of “protection of traditional values” that views it as being under constant pressure from “unfriendly external (aka Western) forces” (Dubrovskiy and Quenoy 2018).
The positive aspect of this formula is that the Georgian population, and Georgia as a whole country, are perceived as victims of a “Western conspiracy”—the American imperialism that “plays off fraternal nations against each other” (Agapov and Vershinina, 2010, 115). Saakashvili’s presidency fits into this narrative. Interestingly enough, after his defeat in the elections, both Saakashvili as well as Georgia disappeared from discussions in the Russian media space. This, however, did not include media outlets and experts specializing and covering the Caucasus as a region.
Nevertheless, the Russian-Georgian conflict in South Ossetia was a serious shake-up for the region and had a significant impact on the transformation of Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet space. This conflict was largely predetermined by Russia’s previous policy towards Georgia. Apparently, even back at that point, Georgia was not considered the country that fit into the integration projects developed by Russia for the post-Soviet spaces (Novikova, Burkov, and Meshcheryakov 2015).
Changes in the attitude towards “compatriots” and uniqueness as well as peculiarities of the citizenship legislation made it easier to provide Russian citizenship to Georgian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, this policy was not developed to support the minority ethnic Russian population living in these republics. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 2002, nearly the entire adult population in Abkhazia and two-thirds of the South Ossetian population held Russian citizenship. This situation created serious grounds for intervening militarily in the conflicts of these entities with the Georgian government, because at this point, the “protection of Russian citizens” was at stake.
Moving further, Russia immediately labeled the conflict in Tskhinvali as “genocide” and the Prosecutor General’s office filed a case against Georgia on the “act of genocide” because the official discourse talked about “thousands of victims among the Ossetian population” (Caucasian Knot 2018). An investigation undertaken by Human Rights Watch showed the total number of civilian casualties to be about a hundred people, which was the result of the disproportionate use of military force against the non-military population, but it did not constitute genocide (Denber and Rone 2008). Despite this, appeals to the principles of international law, which allegedly were violated by the Georgian side only, have been central to the discussion on this conflict and its consequences.
Nevertheless, the conflict itself, Russia’s behavior, and future developments demonstrated an important change in the logic of foreign policy implementation. More specifically it showed that Russia is ready to sacrifice its economic interests and good relations with full-fledged democracies in order to establish political dominance over post-Soviet countries, or, as in case of Georgia, at least on part of their territory.
Russia did everything to provoke Georgia to launch this failed military campaign and the practical outcome of the conflict was Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This step made the establishment of any type of friendly relations between Russia and Georgia practically impossible. However, this decision also had another consequence. From Russia’s point of view, this would guarantee Georgia’s inadmissibility to NATO, which Moscow viewed very negatively considering that Russia views the expansion of the block as a completely anti-Russian project. Since the post-Soviet space is perceived as a “zone of special Russian interests,” Georgia’s accession to NATO would have been perceived as a serious defeat on the Caucasus front. Many political analysists believe that the calm and largely cold reaction to Russia’s actions towards Georgia shifted the perception of the political elite about the limits of possible actions in the post-Soviet space and paved the way for Crimea’s annexation in 2014.
The political consequences of the conflict in the relations between the two countries included severance of diplomatic relations, closing of the embassies, and the unilateral introduction of the visa regime for Georgian citizens. However, Georgia decided not to implement this last measure. Direct air communication was halted in 2006 due to an espionage scandal, and most of the other types of communications ceased to exist. Only in 2012, the political dialogue began to show some signs of life due to the new government’s appointment of Abashidze as a special representative for relations with Russia. This ensured at least a protocol of ongoing consultations in Geneva. However, the entire process stopped at the stage of “agreed to negotiate.” The initial demands of the Russian side to recognize the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parties to the negotiation process and to abolish the law “On occupied territories” introduced by Georgia for those who “ignore the principles of territorial integrity of Georgia” resulted in a deadlock.
As a result, Georgia was excluded from the integration process that Russia tried to initiate in the post-Soviet space. The analysis of Russian experts that support the official policy on the post-Soviet space shows that the main focus of the policy on the territory of the former USSR is the development of Eurasian Economic Community and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) including Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. It is very indicative that experts also include countries in this list that “demonstrate loyalty towards Russia and are connected with it via treaties and agreements,” such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Novikova, Burkov, and Meshcheryakov 2015). Between 2014 and 2015, the Kremlin signed treaties with both territories in order to protect them from “Georgian aggression” as both documents officially stipulate (President of Russia 2014). It is important to note that the agreement signed between Russia and South Ossetia goes beyond military assistance and economic partnership and, in fact, prepares grounds for the actual integration of the unrecognized republic into the Russian Federation (President of Russia 2015).
Russia’s policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia differ from one another, and that is reflected in the language of the signed agreements. According to official data Russia has invested about $500 million in the Abkhaz economy and about $650 million in South Ossetia, mainly through the Russian budget. This disproportion is mainly noticeable when comparing the territory and population of the two entities (according to the 2011 census 240,000 people lived in Abkhazia, and 55,000 people lived in South Ossetia per 2015 census data). Thus, in the last decade Russia has invested $2,000 per capita in Abkhazia and $13,000 in South Ossetia. It is not surprising given that South Ossetia only survives due to subsidies from the Russian budget. Abkhazia capitalizes on its geographical position and leveraging the “Soviet traditions” and survives on tourism, mainly from Russia. In 2016, for example, about one million Russian tourists vacationed in Abkhazia, but in 2017, due to the annexation of Crimea and intensification of Russian policies to attract tourists there, the number of Russian tourists in Abkhazia dropped by 30 percent (Gazeta.Ru 2018).
Thus, Russia de facto controls Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In essence, South Ossetia is another region of Russia. Interestingly enough, with all the complexity of the political situation, economic relations between Russia and Georgia did not suffer as could have been expected. Even during Saakashvili’s presidency, when anti-Russian invectives were an obligatory part of the official political discourse of the Georgian authorities, Russian investors actively invested in Georgia and did not seem to notice the political tensions between the countries. Two Georgian authors determined that Russians invested heavily in the construction and energy sectors in Georgia (Dzvelishvili and Kupreishvili 2015). Remittances from around 800,000 Georgians who permanently reside in Russia and transfer about $700 million to Georgia annually (2014 data) also form an important part of the Georgian economy (Dzvelishvili and Kupreishvili 2015). This financial flow is comparable to the amount of combined aid that the US and EU provide to Georgia. And finally, a smart move on Saakashvili’s part not to introduce a visa regime for Russian citizens as a countermeasure has led to a steady increase in the number of Russian tourists entering Georgia every year—in 2017 1.5 million people visited. Thus, economic ties remain fairly stable and independent of political differences.
A research study conducted by Levada-Center showed that the level of support from Russian citizens for Russia’s actions remains at the same high level, despite the fact that the main anti-Georgia propaganda on state television channels took place in 2008, after which the statecontrolled media simply stopped showing interest (Levada-Center 2018). A survey conducted by the center showed that Russian citizens perceive their own country in this conflict as a peacemaker that “has done everything to avoid conflict,” and these perceptions remained largely unchanged throughout the past 10 years. Whereas in August 2008 about 70 percent of respondents agreed that Russia did all to avoid conflict, in July 2018 about 60 percent kept the same position. About 22 percent of respondents (16 percent in 2008) think that Russia was involved in the conflict because of Georgian provocation, and only 4 percent believe that Russia created a conflict to achieve certain geopolitical goals (LevadaCenter 2018).
It can be concluded that the crisis of the Russian-Georgian relations that dates back to the mid-2000s is reflected, primarily, in the asymmetry between the level of political contacts on the one hand and active economic interaction on the other. The current situation raises questions about how stable such a system is and how the situation in the political sphere needs to be changed radically, and whether or not this change is necessary.
Russia in Georgia’s public-political space
One of the main problems appears to stem from the clash of two political narratives—the Russian imperial nationalism and the Georgian liberal nationalism. Unlike imperial nationalism, the democratic international community views liberal nationalism as an acceptable form of nationalism. However, its extreme popularity in Georgia had its own impact on the development of the conflict situation. It is expected that direct interference into the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, direct support for separatism, and the military confrontation brought about a perception of Russia as an aggressor and enemy of Georgian independence. It has to be emphasized that both sides accurately identify this conflict as political. This favorably distinguishes the rhetoric of the Russian side, when, at the height of the 2006 crisis, Russia not only seriously violated the principles of international human rights law, by deporting thousands of Russian citizens of Georgian origin, but also significantly ethnicized the conflict, which led to a surge in xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic Georgians in Russia (Human Rights Watch 2007).
The clash between Russian and Georgian narratives happened not only in the political arena but also within the context of the political history of the 20th century, which was tragic for both the Russian and Georgian peoples. Nevertheless, the Tbilisi-based museum dedicated to the Soviet occupation portrays Georgia and its people as victims of the Soviet (and in this context Russian) regime, without any attempt to assess internal support provided to Bolsheviks and the weakness of national democracy (Shatirishvili 2009). However, the Russian historical narrative is in direct conflict with the Georgian one, justifying the Bolshevik aggression in Georgia in 1920 at modern multimedia exhibitions such as “Russia is My History.”
And finally, the question of the role of Russian language and culture in the relations of the two countries has a special importance. Once very high, the level of teaching the Russian language in Georgia has expectedly dropped following the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, once Russian tourism became an important part of the Georgian economy (up to 7 percent of GDP in 2016), the Russian language was reintroduced in Georgia as a second foreign language. The routine interaction between Russian and Georgian citizens in Georgia is peaceful and friendly; however, recent studies in political sociology show that most Georgians see Russia as its main threat (International Republic Institute 2015).
Most Georgian citizens agree that Russian aggression against Georgia continues to the present day. The most recent sociological survey conducted by National Democratic Institute confirms the same pattern: the majority of the population sees Russia as the main threat (Thornton and Turmanidze 2017). In addition to the challenges of territorial integrity, respondents point out Russian propaganda as a main threat.
However, one-third of the population does not agree with this. It is indicative that the highest percentage of those who consider Russian propaganda to be a problem is among people with higher education—60 percent. The general attitude towards Russia can be characterized in two ways. On the one hand, the majority considers Russia a serious threat, considering its military activity and support of the separatists. On the other hand, real economic ties, a large number of tourists, and personal daily contacts reduce the level of domestic xenophobia, leaving it at the level of political and ideological confrontation between the Russian and Georgian authorities.
Since Russian goals and strategy in Georgia are in direct contradiction with the logic and developmental goals of Georgian statehood, it is only logical that issues related to Georgia’s territorial integrity in the relations of the two countries should not be touched. In essence, any discussion of these issues in the current context will most likely exacerbate the conflict rather than provide avenues for resolution (Haindrava, Sushentsov, and Silaev 2014). Domestic development of ethnic nationalism, whether conservative as in Russia, or liberal as in Georgia, is dangerous, not only because of the possible ethnicization of the Georgian-Russian conflict, but especially because of the need to expand the scope of identity politics in Georgia, which seems to be excessively limited by ethnocultural boundaries. This is especially important in order for the Georgian state to win the loyalty of ethnic minorities, many of whom, according to National Democratic Institute and International Republic Institute polls, differ significantly from the majority of the population in their attitudes towards the Georgian state. Perhaps, federalization of Georgia—by amending the Constitution—could significantly change the situation related to the territories currently not controlled by Georgia. This recommendation is put forward not only for the Georgian government but more importantly for international donors.
Currently, the European Union is faced with the challenge of liberal nationalism quickly transforming into illiberal democracies, primarily in Poland, Hungary, and Austria. In this regard, perhaps it would make sense to review a positive attitude towards liberal nationalism and view it as a source of serious problems not only in Georgia but also Europe. Since the EU, unlike the US, is less irritable to Russia, it can (and in some cases already has) become a conflict mediator (Firchova Grono 2010). Since today’s overall political environment is not conducive for the resolution of the Georgian-Russian conflict, the focus should be on small steps to build on existing cultural, economic, and educational ties.
Georgia’s exclusion from the Eurasian integration process does not mean that the country cannot benefit from economic cooperation with Russia. As mentioned above in this article, the main directions of such cooperation currently are construction, energy, and tourism. Due to the Western sanctions against Russia, the possible risks of this cooperation that certain Russian businessmen or companies could end up on the sanctions list and the potential fallout should be accessed. However, sanctions against Western food products imposed by Russia open up the potential for expanding the Russian market of agricultural products from Georgia. There is also great potential for cooperation in the areas of geo-mining and public transportation.
The active development of Russian tourism requires matching steps on the Georgian side. First of all, the number of border crossing points can be increased, of course, with careful consideration of security issues. Currently, tourists traveling to Georgia in personal vehicles complain about long lines at the border-crossing points. Also, the necessary language support for tourists should be provided: currently, at many tourist locations materials and information in the Russian language are not available. Since direct air traffic between Russia and Georgia has been restored, perhaps another step could be financial support for the Georgian air carrier to ensure lower ticket costs from Russia, which would lead to more tourists (currently, the cost of a ticket from central Russia to Georgia is about the same as a ticket to a European country). It is also possible to promote a summer charter flight system, especially to Batumi. Furthermore, permission to fly to Sukhumi from Georgia could help strengthen the ties between Abkhazia and Georgia.
Mass media and education
One of the important components of the political conflict between Russia and Georgia is the use of ethnic categories. As a result, the conflict is being framed as “ethnocultural,” where one ethnocultural community— the “Russians”—oppose another ethnocultural community—the “Georgians.” However, this conflict appears to be completely political, as is the conflict of the center with the regions (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). By removing the ethnic component from the language of conflict description in both conflicts, it will be possible to concentrate on the political aspect of these conflicts. At the same time, rejection of ethnic categories will devalue the positions of ethnic conservatives on both sides of the conflict. It is equally important to delegitimize the language of liberal nationalism in Georgia, which jeopardizes the development of a more comprehensive framework of common Georgian identity that includes ethnic minorities with the same rights as the “ethnic majority.” Currently, this is not the case in Georgia, and as the polls show the ethnic minorities are extremely concerned with the growth of Georgian nationalism (Thornton and Turmanidze 2017). In this regard, it is important to review and revisit the educational system, which taps into historical as well as ethnic and cultural narratives for the development of Georgia’s new common identity. For example, instead of equating the victimization of Georgians by the Soviet regime with victimization at the hands of Russians, both national communities can be described as victims of the Soviets, and, at the same time, contributors to the creation of Soviet-style authoritarianism.
The Russian language and its development are officially recognized as one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities. This factor could help support educational projects in the Russian language in Georgia mainly in the areas of common culture and memory.
Georgian Orthodox Church
The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) and the Georgian Orthodox Church had strong ties throughout history. Even the political conflict between these countries was unable to sever this union. Despite the fact that the Georgian Church did not support the ROC-MP in the conflict around the establishment of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, their cooperation has a high potential, primarily in the development of humanitarian projects, for example, in Abkhazia.
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*The feature photo of this publication is taken from Wikimedia.org The image portrays the Georgian-Russian Friendship Monument, built in 1983.