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Is There A Foundation For Peace Between Russia And Georgia?

Moscow will not talk to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Moscow will not talk to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitri Trenin, recently published his proposal for a peace agreement between Russia and Georgia. According to his article, a logical (and possible) solution to the standoff consists of two parts.

First, Georgia should recognize Abkhazia's independence in exchange for the return of the Gali district (which is almost entirely populated by ethnic Georgians).

Second, Russia should withdraw from South Ossetia in exchange for some sort of intermediate status for that region between independence and Georgian control, with a special security role for Russia.

The obstacle to this plan, according to Trenin, is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili -- first, because he is bad and, second, because Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have sworn not to negotiate with him and they are not going to go back on their word. But if Saakashvili leaves office in 2013 and does not become prime minister, then such a solution could be possible.

Theoretically, all this is possible. If one proceeds from the idea that returning Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia is impossible (because Russia will never allow it and because the people who live there don't want it), then compared to the present situation, such a solution would be better for Georgia. It is all quite rational.

So what's the problem? Is it just Saakashvili?

It is obvious, but true, that in order to reach a peace settlement, all sides have to really want to. It has to be the top priority for everyone, particularly if reaching an agreement means makes painful concessions. It is hard for me to imagine any Georgian leader who could survive politically after making such a decision. The alternative would have to be very bad and the dividends would have to be enormous.

Under what circumstances would the parties want to make such serious concessions?

An anonymous commentator posting a comment on Trenin's "The Moscow Times" article asked a good question: "What do we need peace with Georgia for anyway? Why should we give South Ossetia back?"

And it's true that it would be extremely illogical for the Russia that invaded Georgia in August 2008 to endorse Trenin's plan. The basic idea of the war was the conviction that the West is Russia's enemy and Georgia is a Trojan horse in Russia's backyard. Georgia and its foreign protectors had to be taught a lesson and shown who is the boss in the "near abroad."

Two Russias

They didn't quite manage to get this lesson across, since Saakashvili is still in power and continues to stubbornly pursue his policies. So what is the point of making life easier for him by normalizing relations? The worse things are for (a pro-Western) Georgia, the better they are for Russia.

Trenin, working for an American center in Moscow and writing in an English-language newspaper in the capital, is proceeding from a different view of Russia. The Russia that Trenin imagines (as do some Western analysts and politicians) might be provisionally called "Medvedev's Russia" (as opposed to the real "Putin's Russia"). This Russia, on the one hand, has not rejected its claims to great-power status (which in practice means demanding a privileged role in, at the least, the "near abroad").

But, on the other hand, this Russia has ceased to consider the West an enemy and, on the contrary, wants to establish a "modernization alliance" with it. No one knows exactly what this means, but the practical implication for the West is clear: It must strengthen Medvedev -- or, at the least, it must not do anything to weaken him. This Russia won't become a democracy but at least it will be more rational and predictable. It will be a Russia one can do business with. Such a Russia really does need to improve relations with Georgia (of course, after "Crazy Misha" leaves office) in order to remove the most serious source of disagreement with the West.

As far as Georgia is concerned, of course it is better to have good relations with Russia than bad ones. But the practical question is this: What concrete concessions would have to be made in order to "buy" better relations with Russia (the Russia that really exists, not the one that is imagined by Russian and Western Medvedevites), and what concrete dividends can Tbilisi hope to receive?

In order even to begin thinking about possible solutions, one must first imagine a Russia that is capable of genuinely recognizing Georgia's right to choose its own government and its own political course. But no such Russia is anywhere in sight. The very fact that Moscow refuses to talk to Saakashvili proves that Moscow believes Georgians do not have the right to choose their own government.

That is why projects like Trenin's are only theoretically interesting. Today's Russia and today's Georgia have no need for them.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL