Georgia’s cautious rapprochement with Russia is a game with fire

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Political analyst Dr. Emil Avdaliani, Professor of International Relations at the European University, and Director of Middle East Studies at the Geocase Research Center in Georgia, says that since the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Georgia refuses to join the sanctions against Moscow, and hasn’t criticized it publicly despite its actions in Ukraine.

Russia’s reaction to that announcement last May was the resumption of direct flights between the two countries and the abolition of visa requirements imposed on Georgian citizens.

Russian officials have repeatedly praised the Georgian government for maintaining a constructive approach befitting a sovereign state, and bilateral trade has increased.

Georgia’s exports to Russia increased in 2022 by 6.8% to $652 million, while imports increased by 79% to $1.8 billion, the highest level in the past sixteen years.

In a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Georgia’s actions seem illogical, given that relations between the two countries have not been easy since the early 1990s, especially after 2008, when Russia invaded its territory.

Moscow has already retained control of more than 20% of Georgia’s territory since then, with the establishment of military bases in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are separatists from Georgia.

This advance in relations with Russia comes at a time when Tbilisi’s relations with its traditional Western partners have worsened.

Mutual criticism is growing, and there are doubts about Georgia’s progress with respect to most of the twelve recommendations set by the European Union to obtain the status of a candidate country for accession to the European Union.

Dr. Avdaliani says that the Georgian government’s motives behind this improvement in relations with Moscow are diverse, but one of the main factors is Georgia’s growing regional importance.

The prolonged war in Ukraine forced the European Union to reassess its dependence on Russia for energy and trade, and pushed it to search for alternative ways through which it could reach China and Central Asia.

The Middle Corridor route through Georgia seems to be the most appropriate option.

Given that Georgia is the shortest land bridge between the EU and China, the EU has increased its presence in the South Caucasus through newly signed projects with Azerbaijan and Georgia, in the fields of gas and infrastructure.

As a result, Georgia has acquired much more geopolitical importance than it did before the start of the war in Ukraine.

There is a possibility that Georgia will also exploit the prospect of rapprochement with Russia as a negotiating tactic when dealing with reluctant European partners.

However, it’s not right to portray Georgia as a pro-Russian state, since Tbilisi believes that Russia will be bogged down in Ukraine for years, if not decades.

Amid this apparent turmoil, Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus has waned, allowing other state actors—particularly Türkiye and Iran—more room to maneuver.

The invasion of Ukraine ended the post-Soviet era and caused the virtual end of total Russian hegemony in the South Caucasus, according to Dr. Avdaliani

Dr. Avdaliani believes that this means more opportunities for Georgia to take more aggressive steps in foreign policy and to exploit Russia’s weakness.

It’s expected that Moscow will push Abkhazia and South Ossetia to make some conciliatory initiatives towards Tbilisi, which would represent something like a potential settlement of the dispute.

Such initiatives could include strengthening economic ties between Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the rest of Georgia, and even some minor political contacts with Tbilisi.

Another step could be facilitating free movement among the local population, and reducing abductions of Georgian nationals by Russian-Ossetian forces.

In fact, Tbilisi’s estimations depend on realizing that Georgia now has more to offer Russia than it did before 2022, which increases its value and influence with Moscow.

It’s in Russia’s interest that the border with Georgia remain open, as this helps provide a path for Russia to Türkiye and Armenia.

Secondly, for Russia, improving relations with Georgia means that relations between Georgia and the European Union could become more stagnant: which will lead to diminished Western influence in the region.

Thirdly, Georgia can play the card of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), through the withering away of its membership application.

Another consideration is that Tbilisi believes that Western military aid to Ukraine appears insufficient to end the war, while Russia has succeeded in retaining control over large parts of the country.

Georgian officials believe that the balance of power is shifting in favor of Russia, and that NATO’s expansion is what triggered the war in Ukraine.

However, this geopolitical calculation is also fraught with the risk of being wrong, which will have lasting effects on Georgia and its patrons in the West.

It’s not entirely clear whether Russia – whether becoming increasingly unstable or triumphant – would be beneficial to Georgia’s security and its quest for territorial reintegration. In addition, any slight shift toward better relations with Russia could further distance Tbilisi from the West, and if the European Union refuses to grant Georgia the status of a candidate country for accession later this year, Georgia’s inclination for greater rapprochement with Russia could become clearer.

Dr. Emil Avdaliani concluded his analysis by saying that any normalization of relations between Tbilisi and Moscow will eventually lead to the issue of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

It’s known that Russia has always expressed its unwillingness to make any concessions in this regard, nor voluntarily ready to cede Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the event of their defeat in Ukraine.

For now, Georgia’s best bet is to navigate between an increasingly dangerous Russia and the West, which is gradually expanding to the east, but not fast, enough to encircle geographically distant Georgia before it’s threatened again by Russia.

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