* Correction appended
On October 11, the Georgian government announced the introduction of a visa-free travel regime for residents of the republics of Russia’s North Caucasus region. Shortly before that, on September 23, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili described his vision of “a unified Caucasus” at the United Nation's General Assembly.
In the spring, the Georgian parliament debated the possibility of recognizing as genocide the 19th-century mass killings of Circassians by imperial Russian forces. The subject is still open for discussion.
What is the point of Georgia’s new North Caucasus policy? Is the point, as critics suggest, that Saakashvili wants to annoy Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin without giving much thought to the consequences? Or is this a more thought-out, long-term strategy?
There are two main questions here: What does Georgia want to achieve and might not this new policy lead to new dangers?
Let’s take the second one first.
Critics say that Georgia’s decision to introduce a visa-free policy for residents of the North Caucasus is provocative toward Russia. And it is hard to deny that the Kremlin’s anger was perfectly predictable. But when it comes to logic and fairness, it’s easy for Tbilisi to brush aside this criticism. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement that “the attempt to divide the population of Russia into various categories contradicts the norms of civilized international relations” is simply comical, considering Russia recently invaded Georgia and then recognized the independence of the two Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But it isn’t really a matter of fairness but of real-world dangers: What is it that Russia may decide it has been provoked to do?
On this matter, Tbilisi’s calculations seem simple enough: Russia has already done everything short of a violent overthrow of the Georgian government, and a second military incursion because of the visa-free regime is unlikely. Although this calculation might not be quite so cut and dry. The possibility of future Russian military aggression against Georgia cannot be completely ruled out. In particular, Georgian strategists have discussed this possibility in the context of upcoming election-season battles in Russia in early 2012 or in the event of a major military confrontation between the United States and Iran.
In either event, Russia will need an excuse that is more or less intelligible (if not acceptable) to the international community. The frequent assertions by Russian leaders that Georgia is providing covert support to terrorists in the North Caucasus can be seen as preparing the groundwork for such a pretext.
Of course, there is no logical connection between introducing visa-free travel for average citizens and supporting terrorism. In fact, it is more likely the opposite, since if Georgia had decided to support Islamic militants, why introduce visa-free travel? But for the average Westerner or even a Western politician who has already been prejudiced against Saakashvili, such a connection may seem convincing – if Georgia wants to embrace the people of the North Caucasus just to poke Russia, then it might also support anti-Russian terrorists.
And this brings us to the other side of the matter.
Georgia’s actions regarding the North Caucasus are poorly understood in the West, and this could become a problem since the support of the West is extremely important to Georgia. Whether Tbilisi likes it or not, most of the political class in the West (except for a small crowd of human rights activists) accept the interpretation of the situation in the North Caucasus as defined by Moscow: an incomprehensible and explosive region full of unpredictable people who are prone to violence. It is better to let Russia deal with them, even if the Russian government resorts to less-than-fully-civilized methods.
In this context, Georgia’s actions seem hard to understand. What is it that Georgia is trying to do, save for upsetting Russia?
There seems to be no obvious, immediate political advantages to this policy. But it is precisely because the North Caucasus is an explosive region that it is important for Georgia that the energy of any regional violence is not directed against Georgia itself, to the extent that it was in the early 1990s. The fact that public opinion in the North Caucasus – particularly in the western parts – was essentially anti-Georgian played an extremely negative role for Tbilisi in the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
So it is important to have direct contacts in the region and to overcome the prevalent image of Georgia as an enemy. Georgians have a historic reservoir of sympathy for the peoples of the North Caucasus, and there are pockets of sympathy for Georgia remaining in the region. It would be a sin not to take advantage of these resources.
But this certainly does not include steps directed toward destabilizing the North Caucasus, which would not only be bad for Russia, but for the entire region, including Georgia. However, it is not sufficient just to avoid such steps – I don’t think this is really at issue here. Tbilisi needs to work to explain its policy both to its allies and to its own citizens, so as to head off accusations of adventurism and irresponsibility.
* A reference in the second paragraph to the 19th-century mass killings of Cherkessians has been corrected to Circassians.
Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL