The odds are high that the upcoming presidential election in Georgia will have it over and done with the ill-fated Mikheil Saakashvili’s political career. And there are signs that Moscow and Tbilisi are on the way to revive dialogue. It’s not about the so-called Geneva consultations only; it’s too early now to expect the process would lead to anything like a diplomatic breakthrough. The issues in focus are partial restoration of trade, economic and transport communications between Russia and Georgia. Mineral water Borjomi is back filling the Russian shop shelves, as well as some other food stuffs. The number of Russian tourists visiting Georgia has grown spurred by renewal of regular direct air flights. A recent NDI – ordered poll showed two thirds of Georgians support the restoration of railway connection between the two states.
At that, some reinvigoration of Russia-Georgia economic contacts and links between non-government organizations does not mean Russia is intent to deviate from its fundamental policy decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The statements made by Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement, on the South Ossetia-Georgia demarcation process started by Russian border guards are off target. It entailed a response on the part of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscoring that finger-pointing at Russia has no legal ground since South Ossetia is an independent state, which has a right to mark border demarcation lines and install border infrastructure anyway it chooses. It’s worth to note the border control maintained by Russian guards is rather iffy. Sergey Kolbin, head of the region's border guard service, which is part of the Republic’s state security structure, said those, who cross the border from South Ossetia taking advantage of eased crossing regime, move freely across the whole Georgian territory and the number of violations is on the rise. (3)
It’s already evident that the West is set to use the «border issue» for racketing up tensions in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian-Georgian situation merits close international attention, said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. «Borders are only as good as both sides decide to recognize them», the expert noted. «If … one of the sides decided to push a border, and the international community does not react … not only does it put in danger the weaker power, it threatens international order in Europe and in the world».
It’s clear that the issue of guaranteeing the security of South Ossetia will be gaining significance for Russia with the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi drawing closer. South Ossetian special services provide Russia with important information related to the event, said Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, after the ceremony of signing a memorandum on cooperation between the two security councils. (5)
The Moscow – Tskhinval security interaction will be no less important after 2014. South Ossetians watch with anxiety the Georgia’s ongoing military build-up, the armed forces capabilities being enhanced according to NATO standards. The Georgian military still have a mission to «restore the country’s territorial integrity».
The military modernization is implemented under the close scrutiny of the USA and NATO. The specific feature of the process is getting close with the military of neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The US and Georgia plan to hold a combined military exercise. Perhaps the training event will totally involve four participants. The Georgian Navy and Air Force are getting back on track. It evokes concern in Abkhazia, the country tied to Russia by bilateral accords, including security arrangements. A US-funded naval command and control infrastructure is being built in West Georgia. According to official information provided by US embassy in Tbilisi, the Supsa facility’s formal mission is to contribute into international and interagency effort to counter the trans-border criminal activities. In practice it means the Georgian Navy is back after having suffered great losses in 2008. It would be propitious to draw lessons from the Middle East events as the naval infrastructure of US close allies’ is being used against Syria.
On July 10, 2013 the Georgian border guards once again seized a ship in the international waters of the Black Sea. This time it was the Turkish vessel Pasha en route from Abkhazia (the port of Sukhum) to Turkey. There have been three illegal seizures of Turkish ships by the border forces of Georgia over the past six months. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia made a related statement to condemn the resumption of piracy by Georgia in neutral waters of the Black Sea. These aggressive actions, pursuing the purpose to exert political and economic pressure on Abkhazia, are aimed at destabilizing the situation in the region.
Georgia boosts its Air Force capability. Some aspects of air activities propaganda coverage are mentioned in the recently published US State Department report partly devoted to Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In response the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the Comment of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia as regards the publication of the report of the U.S. Department of State on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Non-proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (07.19.13) saying «It is appropriate to remind that the reality is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are sovereign states. The lack of wish to take this into account will negatively affect CACE prospects, as well as the functioning of the acting instrument of building military security and trust in Europe – Treaty on Open Skies (OST). The Russian Federation adheres and will adhere to the principal position that any flights in open skies mode closer than 10 kilometres from borders of the states not parties to the OST (Abkhazia and South Ossetia are such countries) would be in violation of Article VI of this Treaty».
The Secretary General of NATO has recently called on Russia to refrain from using force against Georgia. In response Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called on Tbilisi to take steps aimed at normalization of relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Looks like it’s a hope against hope. The meddling in by Tbilisi’s Western allies is likely to remain the main hindrance on the way of establishing a dialogue between Tbilisi, Sukhum and Tskhinval on the one hand, and between Tbilisi and Moscow on the other hand. They may interfere in different ways.
Georgian special operations forces are going through training instructed by US private military contractors. The US conducts biological activities along the Russian border. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs comment points out that «there is no documentary evidence that all the site under United States’ jurisdiction or control, which earlier participated in military biological programmes, have been destroyed or diverted to peaceful purposes pursuant to BTWC Article II. We are also seriously concerned with biological activities of the U.S. Department of Defence near Russian borders». It’s an open secret what kind of activities the National Public Health Reference Laboratory in Tbilisi, Georgia, is involved in. South Ossetia has reported that Georgia works on animal as well as human hostile viruses. (8) The last time serous meningitis came from the southern part of Russia. Gennady Onishenko, Russian chief health physician, said in this connection that a microbiology laboratory of the U.S. Navy continues to work in Georgia. Russian Rospotrebnadzor (the service for the oversight of consumer protection and welfare), believes the laboratory’s activities cause African swine fever which hits the bordering parts of Russia’s territory annually since 2007. This year the virus has struck 13 Russian regions, including those of Krasnodar, Rostov, Volgograd, Smolensk, Belgorod, as well as the vicinities of Moscow. According to Onishenko, the US has spent $350 million to create the naval research facility. Russia takes corresponding steps to counter the threat, including the acquisition of special equipment for South Ossetia and Abkhazia to monitor the environment and respond to emerging threats.
All these factors do not create preconditions to warm up the Russia – Georgia relationship. Even partial normalization hits the snags: mines are laid and blockages are erected. Of course it’s not like it was in the August of 2008, the obstructions may not be that evident, but they are no less perilous. In a speech at a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg in April, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said openly that the fact that there is a dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow shouldn’t create the impression that the country doesn’t need support from its partners anymore. The Georgian government is vulnerable facing complex problems. In 1992-2011 The United States has allocated $4, 24 billion for Tbilisi to become the largest foreign donor nation and the most influential Western ally. Now Washington can effectively block any, even the most modest, attempt to expand the business ties between Georgian companies with what the US views as «unwanted» partners, like Iran, for instance. The huge sums of money mentioned above are targeted at military programs, communications projects and «working with the elite». It cannot give the Georgian economy a new lease on life. The former ruling party functionaries are squeezed out of their positions, the President to be elected instead of Saakashvili this autumn will have restricted powers. But it doesn’t automatically bring to power those who stand for more balanced foreign policy. At that, the pre-election period and the voting itself will become a serious test for the Georgian powers that be.
It’s time to realize that a constructive dialogue with Russia first of all meets the interests of Georgian people and state. It’s at least unpropitious to pin hopes on the partners, who had supported Saakashvili during the days of his unrestricted rule. The interests of Russia and the «after Saakashvili» Georgia coincide, the both need to normalize bilateral relations free of destructive impact from outside. Perhaps it will not happen soon. But if Tbilisi will continue to let its territory be a source of problems for Russia and its allies, then any hope for positive dialogue with Moscow, Sukhum or Tskhinval can be forgotten for a long time as a wishful dream.