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Russia: Moscow Looks To Regain Toehold In Georgia After Ivanov's Diplomatic Coup

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov appears to have played a key role in securing Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation yesterday. Ivanov's role was largely welcomed in Georgia, despite the long history of tense relations between the two countries. Russia has been struggling to regain influence over a region that had appeared to be slipping into Washington's orbit. Observers in Moscow, however, say the outcome for Russia of Ivanov's diplomatic success is still uncertain.

Moscow, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Is Russia getting a second chance in Georgia?

Georgian opposition supporters enthusiastically shouted "Igor! Igor!" as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov stepped into the excited crowd in Tbilisi yesterday. Ivanov's shuttle diplomacy between opposition leaders and President Eduard Shevardnadze helped lead to the Georgian leader's quiet surrender yesterday to the pressures of the street. Shevardnadze gave up any plans to introduce a state of emergency and resigned instead.

On Saturday (22 November) night, in the midst of his diplomatic efforts, Ivanov told the crowd, "[Russia] will not intervene, but we want these problems to be solved by constitutional means."

Even the Georgian opposition met Ivanov's arrival with cautious approval. Former parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who is acting president until new elections are held, said, "Georgia is ready to listen to the good advice from Russia." Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, meanwhile, welcomed what he called Russia's "constructive role."

It was quite a change of tone for Georgian politicians. Traditionally, Russia has been perceived more as a meddling neighbor and a regional destabilizer than as an effective peacemaker.

Russia has openly accused Tbilisi of supporting Chechen separatists, even going so far as to introduce visa requirements for Georgians. Russian fighter jets executed several strikes over Georgian territory directed against Chechen rebels.

At the same time, Georgia has been cooperating with the U.S. in the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that would bring Caspian oil to Western markets by circumventing Russia. Georgia has also been participating in a $64 million U.S. program to help train its military and has expressed interest in joining NATO.

Russian moves to secure influence over Georgia had recently been strenuously rejected by Shevardnadze, who compared them to Nazi Germany's expansion through Europe.

Nevertheless, Russia had seen in Shevardnadze "a guarantor of relative stability," as one Russian newspaper put it, and therefore he was "the least of all evils." That was until growing pressure from the opposition over disputed election results threatened to plunge Georgia into revolution.

While the U.S. largely remained on the sidelines, the Russian daily "Kommersant" says Moscow seized a last-chance opportunity to regain some influence in Georgia. "The turn that events were taking forced Russia to urgently reconsider its policy," the newspaper wrote. "It became clear that [Moscow] should start building bridges while there was still time."

However, Russian foreign-policy analyst Andrei Piontkovskii believes Ivanov's mediation is actually the result of a deeper change in Russian policy. "For once, our diplomacy played it successfully. What is being done now is a step to correct the fundamental mistakes [Russia] has been making -- this dividing into pro-Western and pro-Russian," he said. "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Ivanov, everybody speaks about our integration with Europe, but when, say, Georgians or Ukrainians say the same thing, then real hysterics begin. We have to move away from the paradigm that pro-Western means anti-Russian."

Piontkovskii says the events in Georgia can be seen as the fruit of a joint working group set up after the last summit between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush aimed at "cooperating instead of competing in the CIS."

Piontkovskii, who advises the joint working group, says events in Georgia show the new approach is succeeding. "The first such example was Azerbaijan. You may have noticed that the elections, the transfer of power, happened there with the silent approval of both Russia and the U.S.," he said. "It looks like Georgia could become a second such example of the new Russian and U.S. policy in the former Soviet zone -- the coordination of their interests."

However, other analysts note that Georgia's immediate future will be left to the devices of domestic politics and politicians, and that Moscow will have little say. "Georgia is an incomplete state with a weak central power," Europe Institute Director Sergei Karaganov told Russian newspapers, noting that outside forces "will have a difficult time influencing the processes" at work in the country.

Karaganov points out that Georgia is now entering a power vacuum, where the different forces have been let loose without any real legitimacy until elections take place.

During a cabinet meeting today in Moscow, Putin said he looks forward to improved relations with Tbilisi following new elections, which are supposed to take place within 45 days. "We hope that the future legitimately elected leadership of the country will do everything it can to restore the traditions of friendships between our two countries," he said. "And for us, for Russia, there is no other goal in our relations with Georgia."

The Caucasus expert for the Carnegie Endowment, Aleksei Malashenko, also notes that, in the near future, much will depend on Georgia's politicians and their readiness to recognize Russia's importance.

Malashenko said that beyond what he sees as anti-Russian pre-election rhetoric, most politicians "are ready to talk to Russia." He points out that Russia's economic importance is impossible to ignore in Georgia, whose population has been suffering economic hardship for a decade. "One hundred percent of natural gas used in Georgia is Russian, and we know more than 50 percent of Georgia's energy is controlled by Russia in some way or another," he said. "And at one point, Russia was a very good market for Georgian [products] -- maybe only in Soviet times, but nevertheless."

In an interview in the business daily "Vedomosti," Dario Tuburn from the World Research Center, a London-based think tank, warns how influential internal forces will be in deciding the outcome. It's "important [they] find a compromise. Shevardnadze's power was based on a complex system of deals with different political clans," Tuburn said. "These people haven't gone anywhere, and they are backed by very real economic forces."

The most explosive areas are considered to be separatist Abkhazia, bordering the Black Sea and Russia, and the pro-Shevardnadze Adjaria region, along Georgia's southern border on the Black Sea and Turkey.

It is no coincidence that on Sunday (23 November) evening, Ivanov immediately left for Adjaria, apparently in an attempt to ensure the cooperation of the leader of the Democratic Revival Union of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze. He had declared a state of emergency following the regime change in Tbilisi.