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Has Russia Called Georgia’s Bluff Over Stated Desire to Improve Relations?

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has publicly appealed to Russia to embark on “sensible, if small” steps aimed at breaking out of the impasse in bilateral relations caused by Moscow’s recognition nearly 10 years ago of Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Tbilisi formally severed diplomatic relations with Russia in retaliation for that move and Kvirikashvili also affirmed, once again, his readiness for direct dialogue with those two breakaway polities.

Three days after Kvirikashvili's March 9 appeal, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded with a commentary welcoming Kvirikashvili’s initiative.

But at the same time, the ministry implicitly placed the onus on Tbilisi by stipulating that “Russia…is ready to go as far as Tbilisi is.”

That response neatly glosses over the more problematic aspects of Kvirikashvili’s statement, while signaling approval or acceptance of other proposals.

Kvirikashvili cast his overture as the pragmatic and logical next step in a gradual process launched following the advent to power in 2012 of the Georgian Dream party of which he leads.

The talks that got under way four years ago between Kvirikashvili’s special envoy, Zurab Abashidze, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin have yielded concrete steps towards resuming economic cooperation, and the Russian Foreign Ministry declared its readiness to deepen that cooperation.

Georgia's special envoy on relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze
Georgia's special envoy on relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze

But Kvirikashvili appeared to contradict himself by first affirming the possibility of breaking out of the “vicious circle” of mutual recrimination occasioned by the August 2008 war that culminated in a humiliating military defeat for Georgia and Russia’s formal recognition of the two breakaway state-lets -- and then casting doubt on the possibility of such a reset in light of “a chain of tragic incidents” for which he implicitly blames Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry response made no direct reference to that implicit reproach, or to the 2008 fighting. But it did hail Kvirikashvili’s professed desire to achieve “real progress” in the internationally mediated talks in Geneva on overcoming the security and humanitarian consequences of the war, “regardless of who heads Georgia’s delegation to Geneva.”
Kvirikashvili declared in December 2017 that he is prepared to participate personally in those talks if doing so would serve a useful purpose -- even though, as several Georgian analysts pointed out, the issues under discussion are not of the magnitude that would require his direct participation.

Moreover, progress on that front is fraught with serious problems given that the position and priorities of Georgia on the one side and Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia on the other, differ so widely.

Tbilisi has consistently focused on discrimination against the Georgian minorities in the two breakaway regions and on Russia’s deployment of military personnel on those territories and unilateral demarcation of the borders between them and the rest of Georgia.

Russia, by contrast, criticizes as a potential threat to the two regions the military assistance Georgia has received from the United States, including the recent sale of Javelin antiarmor missile systems.

It therefore prioritizes the signing of formal nonaggression pacts between Georgia and the two breakaway polities. Tbilisi has dismissed that demand, arguing that it is Russia, rather than Abkhazia or South Ossetia, that poses a threat to regional peace and stability.

As for Kvirikashvili’s parallel offer to Abkhazia and South Ossetia to embark on direct dialogue, the Russian Foreign Ministry lauded it as “the only real way of addressing the problems that worry Georgia and that do not fall within the framework of bilateral relations.”

That circumlocution is tantamount to a direct rejection of Tbilisi’s long-standing argument that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders are merely Russian puppets that obediently carry out its orders, and that responsibility for the situation on the frontiers between Georgia and the two breakaway regions lies exclusively with Moscow.

In that respect, Moscow’s decoupling of two issues that Kvirikashvili linked together -- Georgia’s relations with Russia on the one hand, and with its breakaway republics on the other --is clearly intended to convey the message that those republics’ de facto presidents have complete freedom in conducting what, from Russia’s standpoint, are their respective foreign policies.

The Abkhaz leadership has repeatedly made clear that dialogue with Tbilisi is contingent on Georgia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state. Moscow for its part has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of rescinding its formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

As noted, the Russian Foreign Ministry commentary did not make any direct reference to the August 2008 fighting. The 10th anniversary of the outbreak of that war, to which Kvirikashvili pointedly pegged his initiative, is still five months away.

That raises the question of whether Kvirikashvili’s primary objective may have been to deflect opposition criticism of his government’s handling of the most recent in the “chain of tragic events” to which he refers.

The incident in question is the death last month of Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian whose family fled South Ossetia in 2008, but who periodically returned there to sell fruit and vegetables.

Meeting in Gori to commemorate Archil Tatunashvili on March 4, 2018.
Meeting in Gori to commemorate Archil Tatunashvili on March 4, 2018.

According to de facto South Ossetian authorities, Tatunashvili, 35, was apprehended on February 22 and taken to the main police precinct in Tskhinvali for questioning on suspicion of having committed war crimes against the civilian population during the 2008 fighting and of plotting “acts of sabotage” in South Ossetia in the run-up to the March 18 Russian presidential election.

Tatunashvili is said to have assaulted a police officer while being taken back to his cell, lost his balance during the ensuing struggle, and sustained unspecified injuries falling down a flight of stairs. He was taken to a hospital where he died early the following day, allegedly of heart failure.

Tatunashvili’s family and Georgian officials reject that version of events, saying his death was the result of torture.

According to Georgian Human Rights Ombudsman Nino Lomjaria, Tatunashvili had been beaten and was already dead on arrival at the hospital.

Furthermore, RFE/RL’s Echo of the Caucasus reports that in August 2008, Tatunashvili was serving as part of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent in Iraq, and therefore could not have participated in the fighting in South Ossetia.

To date, South Ossetian representatives have steadfastly rejected appeals by the Georgian leadership, the head of the Georgian Orthodox church, and also the UN, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in their capacity as co-chairs of the Geneva talks, for Tatunashvili’s body to be handed over to his family for burial. They say this will be done following a further autopsy to be conducted in Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s explicit inclusion of the Tatunashvili case among those issues that it says can only be solved by bilateral talks between Georgia and its breakaway regions thus constitutes a rejection of statements by some Georgian politicians (but not Kvirikashvili) laying the entire blame for Tatunashvili’s death on Russia as the “occupying force.”

In a long interview with InterPressNews, veteran political analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze postulated that it may have been one of Georgia’s Western partners that persuaded Kvirikashvili to go public with his overture to Moscow so the West would have a valid reason to pressure Russia to respond.

If true, that could explain the unconventional medium Kvirikashvili opted for -- a post on his Facebook page -- rather than resorting either to the contacts between Kvirikashvili’s representative, Abashidze, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, or co-opting a neutral intermediary.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s opposition parties, in particular the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) and European Georgia, which split from it early last year, have lambasted Kvirikashvili for “capitulating” to Russia by implicitly abandoning Georgia’s previous consistent designation of it as the occupier of parts of Georgia’s territory, and for failing to stress the importance of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity.

The ENM has demanded that Kvirikashvili publicly apologize for the wording of his statement and resign. One of its lawmakers, Salome Samadashvili, accused Kvirikashvili of having “exonerated Russia from all legal and political responsibility.”

European Georgia leader Davit Bakradze was less categorical, but nonetheless characterized Kvirikashvili’s initiative as “a major error,” warning that any move to alter the format of the Geneva talks risks playing into Russia’s hands, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Speaking at a cabinet session on March 14, Kvirikashvili defended his initiative and denounced the criticism it was met with as “absurd.” He insisted that every single step taken by his government serves Georgia’s interests.

“When our country needs it, and when it’s about preventing serious provocations and maintaining stability in the country, we politicians must do everything in our power to defuse tension, regardless of its consequences for our image,” quoted him as saying.

Notwithstanding the opposition’s outrage over Kvirikashvili’s gambit, on March 16, following two weeks of consultations, the Georgian Dream, ENM, and European Georgia parliament factions announced they have reached what ENM lawmaker Sergo Kapanadze called “a common position” that will be reflected in a joint statement condemning human rights violations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in particular the death of Tatunashvili.

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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