TBILISI -- Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili says resolving his country’s conflicts with Russia is his “big dream.” But it’s a dream that has him locked in a war of words with President Mikheil Saakashvili and his allies.
Saakashvili slammed Ivanishvili on April 23 for saying, in remarks to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, that Georgia made “many mistakes” in its relations with the pro-Moscow separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Whose hearts is he trying to win?” Saakashvili asked. “This will have consequences for Georgia’s sovereignty, freedom, future, and territorial integrity.”
Ivanishvili fired back
at a seminar with NATO's Parliamentary Assembly on April 29, saying his government would like help "rectifying mistakes committed by the previous government" that included a "counterproductive stance" that led to Georgia's conflict with Russia in 2008.
The flap is just the latest example of ongoing friction over Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow since Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement in October’s parliamentary elections and became the ruling party. Under constitutional changes enacted last year, the main powers of the president, including control of foreign affairs, have been transferred to the prime minister and the parliament.
The tension over Russia policy between Ivanishvili’s government and Saakashvili’s presidential administration, analysts say, reflects a fundamental dilemma for Georgia in how it deals with its large and powerful northern neighbor, which still tends to view former Soviet states as virtual vassals.
Taking a more assertive approach, as Saakashvili did, risks a fierce backlash. But engaging Moscow too closely and accommodating it too willingly opens the door to constant meddling in Georgia’s internal affairs.
"Russia is an extraordinarily difficult neighbor for Georgia. It is very hard to deal with," Stephen F. Jones, a professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College and author of the book "Georgia: A Political History Since Independence," says. "They still have this tendency to believe that former [Soviet] republics are their colonies. But there are avenues that Georgia can pursue. They're not going to solve the issue of Russian-Georgian relations or solve the political status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But they are mechanisms by which the relationship can at least begin to sort itself out."
Ivanishvili and his key foreign policy ministers say they are not altering Georgia’s pro-Western orientation or its drive to join NATO and the European Union. Like Saakashvili, they insist that breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia are integral parts of Georgia and refuse to reestablish diplomatic relations with Moscow until Russia reverses its recognition of their independence and withdraws the estimated 10,000 troops stationed there.
But at the same time, the new government says it is also seeking to turn down the temperature with Moscow and engage Russia on issues of common interest, such as trade.
Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s defense minister, notes that "a nuclear-armed country of 140 million people on our northern border will not disappear." Like it or not, he adds, Tbilisi needs to “deal with” and “outsmart” Moscow.
"We don't have any illusion that Russia will change its policy toward Georgia, on its territorial integrity, or our aspirations to join NATO. But we want to get breathing space by calming the rhetoric so we can develop ourselves," Alasania says. "We want to tone down the rhetoric so we can have a workable relationship on trade, so we can develop our institutions and our economy and give ourselves more space to deal with the Abkhaz and the Ossetians. This is the idea. We call it a realistic approach to Russia."
And for the time being, the approach has overwhelming public support. According to a recent poll commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, 68 percent of Georgians believe the Georgian Dream coalition can best handle relations with Russia and 54 percent trust it to steer the country into NATO.
The government has negotiated the return of Georgian products, including wine and mineral water, to the Russian market. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations, Ivanishvili has also appointed a special envoy, Zurab Abashidze, to coordinate its dealings with Moscow.
Giga Bokeria, who is Saakashvili’s national security adviser, says the ruling coalition’s new policy risks undermining Georgia’s interests.
"The trade issue is a legitimate issue to focus on," Bokeria says. "But if the bargain [means] that the issue of Russia's interference in Georgia's domestic affairs -- not just the occupation but attempts to undermine Georgia's Euro-Atlantic path -- [is] sidelined at the expense of this, I think it would be a mistake. The message is blurred and contradictory and that all creates anxiety."
Some of that anxiety was evident during a rally by Saakashvili’s supporters in downtown Tbilisi on April 19 -- despite the public’s overall support for the government’s approach.
Giorgi Sibashvili, a 21-year-old student who came to the demonstrations with his face painted in the colors of the Georgian and European Union flags, says he is worried about Georgia moving too close to Russia and too far from the West.
"Now Georgian wine is returning to the Russian market. But what do we get from this?" Sibashvili asks. "I think first they need to return our territory to us and then we can discuss the wine."
The new government says that while Georgia’s goal of reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia has not changed, the tactics for doing so have.
While Saakashvili shunned the de facto authorities in the territories, the Ivanishvili government says it plans to engage them and to initiate more contacts with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian societies as well. Getting Georgia closer to membership in the EU, admittedly a far-off goal, is also a carrot they intend to use to entice the regions, which de facto left Tbilisi’s control following brutal wars in the early 1990s.
And they also hope to capitalize on growing disillusionment in Abhkazia and South Ossetia with Russian domination of the territories.
"We need to give them a choice between Russia, as it is, and a new Georgia, a democratic Georgia that will be a part of Europe," Paata Zakareishvili, Georgia’s reintegration minister, says.
In response to their critics, members of the government note that despite Saakashvili’s anti-Russian rhetoric, under his rule critical parts of Georgia’s infrastructure were sold off to Russian companies. They also note that Saakashvili did not veto Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), thus allowing Russia to join and giving up a key bargaining chip.
David Usupashvili, Georgia’s parliamentary speaker, says that Tbilisi’s new policy is strongly supported by NATO, the European Union, and the United States.
"We are doing the things that the Europeans, Americans, and NATO representatives were always advising Georgia to do," Usupashvili says. "On one hand, we believe we should do these things. On the other, this is what we were advised to do [by the West]."