About us   Editorial Board   Advisory Board   Contact us  


In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010

There can be few next-door neighbours who loathe each other as much as Russia and Georgia. Relations between the former Soviet ruler and its pro-Western former satellite had been poisonous ever since 2003 Rose Revolution. The August War of 2008 did not emerge out of nowhere – it was the perhaps inevitable result of years of mutual hostility, economic skirmishing and sporadic violence.

The war marked the nadir in the Moscow-Tbilisi relationship. Vladimir Putin’s infamous remark just after the war that he would like to “hang Saakashvili by the balls” sums up the tone. However, recent events suggest that ties between the two could be moving towards a surprising thaw.

Small steps have been taken over the last few months, in the economic sphere at least. In March, the Upper Lars border crossing – the only land link that does not run through the breakaway Russian protectorates of Abkhazia or South Ossetia – re-opened; direct flights resumed two months later (BBC, May 24). However relations between the two states’ political establishments have been cold, with Moscow accusing Tbilisi of involvement in the North Caucasus insurgency (Eurasianet, March 30); President Saakashvili’s government, for its part, has accused Russia of funding the political opposition (Civil.ge, March 20 2009).

The rhetoric seems to be cooling down on both sides. In early July Russia’s hawkish Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted that Moscow would be willing to negotiate with Tbilisi (Messenger, July 12). It was hardly an olive branch, and used a standard tactic – addressing the Georgian people rather than the Georgian government – but it nonetheless marks a significant shift in tone. Mr Lavrov’s comments followed remarks by President Medvedev in late June in which he expressed hopes for a better relationship: “as soon as Georgia has a new leadership” (Messenger, June 25).

Unsurprisingly, Tbilisi bristled at Russia’s dismissal of its political leadership. However shortly after Mr Medvedev’s statements, President Saakashvili reiterated his willingness to “hold comprehensive talks with Russia without any pre-conditions on normalization of relations” (Civil.ge, June 29).

What is behind this gradual rapprochement? Arguably, it marks a qualified success for the US ‘reset’ policy towards Russia. The atmosphere of mistrust and recrimination which poisoned US-Russian relations in 2008 – over the financial crisis, missile defence, Iran, and Georgia itself – has been replaced with cordiality or, at the least, pragmatism.

Although there is still a clear danger for Tbilisi that Washington will sacrifice it as part of a new relationship with Moscow, the other scenario is that better ties between the old Cold War foes will take the sting out of Russia’s attitude towards Georgia. As long as the Kremlin can be sure that NATO membership is off the cards, and that the US will not indulge President Saakashvili’s ambitions, it can afford to warm ties a little. The Georgian government has certainly learnt that military force is not an option – its new Action Plan for Engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia takes an exceptionally conciliatory and technocratic tone (Civil.ge, July 7).

Another interpretation would be that this assessment gives too much weight to the Obama Administration’s reset policy and too little to President Saakashvili’s powers of political survival. He has faced down street protests and defeated the opposition in the Tbilisi mayoral elections, widely seen as the first barometer of public opinion after the war (Reuters, May 31). This is not to assume that Russia accepts or respects his democratic credentials; simply to judge that Moscow has given up on its wish to see him ousted before the end of his term.

For even without the more positive atmosphere brought about by the reset policy, most of Moscow’s key objectives have long since been achieved. NATO membership is impossible to envisage; Russian troops sit within an hour’s drive of Tbilisi; Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost certainly lost to the Georgian government.

President Saakashvili may still be persona non grata for Moscow, but Georgia’s healthy economy is an attractive proposition. Many Russian companies continue to invest in Georgia, and informal economic links remain strong, partly due to the large Georgian diaspora in Russia. Rebuilding economic ties is a worthwhile prize for Moscow. Indeed, a leaked strategy paper by the Russian Foreign Ministry in May emphasised the need for a foreign policy based on economic imperatives. Georgia may be an economic minnow, but in the current financial climate Russia needs all the trading partners it can muster.

Sorry, Comments are not available for this article.

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
  China and Central Asia, CU Issue 33, May 19, 2009
  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
  © 2006-2010 CRIA
  All rights reserved
About us
Editorial Board
Advisory Board
Our Authors
Current Issue
Back Issues
Caucasus Update
Call for papers
Submit a paper
Contact Us
Join us on Facebook