Taking a more assertive approach towards Russia, as Saakashvili did, risks a fierce backlash. But engaging Moscow too closely and accommodating it too willingly opens the door to constant meddling in Georgia’s internal affairs. Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili says resolving his country’s conflicts with Russia is his “big dream.” But it’s a dream that had him locked in a war of words with President Mikheil Saakashvili and his allies. Saakashvili slammed Ivanishvili on 23 April 2013 for saying, in remarks to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, that Georgia made “many mistakes” in its relations with the pro-Moscow separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “Whose hearts is he trying to win?” Saakashvili asked. “This will have consequences for Georgia’s sovereignty, freedom, future, and territorial integrity.” Ivanishvili fired back at a seminar with NATO's Parliamentary Assembly on April 29, saying his government would like help "rectifying mistakes committed by the previous government" that included a "counterproductive stance" that led to Georgia's conflict with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili and his key foreign policy ministers say they are not altering Georgia’s pro-Western orientation or its drive to join NATO and the European Union. Like Saakashvili, they insist that breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia are integral parts of Georgia and refuse to reestablish diplomatic relations with Moscow until Russia reverses its recognition of their independence and withdraws the estimated 10,000 troops stationed there. But at the same time, the new government says it is also seeking to turn down the temperature with Moscow and engage Russia on issues of common interest, such as trade.
Tensions between Russia and Georgia date back to post-independence conflicts in the early 1990s. Relations remained strained throughout the 90s and the early 2000s, with Georgia accusing Russia of supporting separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia meanwhile accused Georgia of harbouring Chechen separatists and supporting other terrorists operating in the North Caucasus.
Tensions rose significantly in April 2008 when Russia issued a decree to establish closer relations with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and increased troop deployments in Abkhazia. There was a series of increasingly violent incidents within South Ossetia, which at the time was a patchwork of villages controlled by both the Georgian and de facto authorities. On 7 August 2008, Georgia made an attempt to end the violence by force and bring the separatist region of South Ossetia back under Georgian rule. Russia reacted with massive force and fighting raged between 8-12 August, leaving hundreds dead and over 150,000 people displaced. During the fighting, Russia encroached deep into Georgian territory beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, threatening Tbilisi itself.
Russia has since failed to comply fully with agreements made in the aftermath of the conflict, including withdrawal to pre-conflict positions. These events are recorded and analysed in detail in the Tagliavini Report, by Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, Head of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG).
On 12 August 2008, President Saakashvili announced that Georgia would leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS was created in 1991 and included twelve former Soviet republics (excluding the three Baltic Republics). Georgia's membership of the CIS formally ended on 18 August 2009.
In 2010, small steps were taken by the Russian and Georgian governments to begin the process of normalising their relations, including the reopening of a land border and permitting some direct charter flights. But, despite these moves, relations remain poor.
Although it is unclear when Russia might be ready to accede to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), discussions are well advanced. The major outstanding political issue is Georgia. Following the August 2008 conflict, Georgia has demanded customs oversight of the entire Georgia/Russia border, including the borders between Russia and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Talks between the two sides have started, but progress has been slow. A meeting in Berne in March 2011 was the first official meeting between the two parties since the 2008 conflict.
Georgia is willing to have good-neighborly relations with the Russian Federation, based on the principle of equality—which is impossible without respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and the beginning of de-occupation. Georgia is willing to start a dialogue with the Russian Federation on these fundamental issues.
Georgia would welcome the transformation of the Russian Federation into a stable, democratic country that respects other countries’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic values, and market economy principles. Democratization and a predictable foreign policy in the Russian Federation would have a positive influence on Georgian, regional, and international security.
The integration of Georgia into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions will foster peace and stability in the Caucasus, ensuring Russian security on its southern borders, which should be in the Russian Federation’s interest as well.
Establishing a peaceful and cooperative environment in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation is of particular importance to Georgia. Georgia realizes the need to deepen and develop relationships with the peoples of the North Caucasus, which will increase their awareness of Georgia’s goals and political course, contributing to the creation of an atmosphere of trust, peace, and stability in the Caucasus. The languages of the peoples of the North Caucasus, their culture and history are part of the world’s heritage; their preservation and development is thus important for Georgia. The preservation of the unique nature of the Caucasus and of the region’s environmental security, along with the related issues, should become the subject of joint efforts by Georgia and the peoples of the North Caucasus.
The Caucasus is a common home for all individuals and groups living here. Georgia supports the peaceful resolution of all existing conflicts in the Caucasus in accordance with the principles of international law. Th ethnic and religious diversity of the Caucasus is a positive characteristic of the region that, in conditions of goodwill, democracy, and the protection of human rights, will form a solid foundation for the region’s stability, peace and development.
Georgian billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the Georgian Dream coalition which won the country’s parliamentary elections late in 2012, said he wanted to improve relations with Russia and would welcome Russian investors in the country.
Georgian wines and mineral waters were very popular in the Soviet Union and retained much of that appeal after the Soviet Union broke up. Russia banned imports of Georgian wines and two popular brands of mineral water in 2006, citing the poor quality of the products, in a move widely condemned in Georgia as politically motivated. Russian consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor chief Gennady Onishchenko then branded Georgian and Moldovan wines as "poison." Before the ban, Russia was the largest market for Georgian wines. On 06 March 2013 Russian consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor cleared 36 Georgian winemakers and four mineral water producers to resume exports to Russia.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on 04 August 2013 he looked optimistic about the prospects of bilateral relations between Russia and Georgia five years after a brief war between the two countries. “In this regard, I'm a total optimist. I'm convinced that everything will be fine. Our peoples aren't enemies,” Medvedev said in an interview with Russia Today international news TV Channel. “Of course, the conflict didn't help but it wasn't based on deep-running disagreements. Again, that was a criminal mistake of certain leaders. But these days the situation is indeed a bit different. The country's new leadership that was brought in by the political and constitutional reforms is taking a more pragmatic stance... We welcome that,” Medvedev said.
Georgia is facing the process of demarcation, also known as “borderization,” which has resulted in the manipulation of Russian-occupied territory lines called Administrative Boundary Lines. ”Borderization” has created nearly 23,000 internally displaced persons in proximity of the South Ossetia ABL. Nongovernmental organizations are primarily helping to support this population working on issues of poverty and social inclusivity since the government response to the issue is largely tied up in legislative efforts. With an estimated 270,000 IDPs in Georgia since the ‘90s, it’s evident that Russia’s efforts to dominate its neighbor have a large human impact.
There are growing concerns in Georgia about the risks of civil society organizations working in proximity of the Administrative Boundary Lines. Russians have advanced the Administrative Boundary Line approximately two kilometers deeper into Georgian territory, cutting off villages’ and farmers’ access to their lands and fields. With reports of arrests and abductions common around the ABLs, some donors are becoming skeptical of providing assistance.
A member of the Russian Duma, Sergey Gavrilov, was part of a delegation at the 2019 meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, hosted by Georgia. During the event held at the Georgian parliament, on 20 June 2019 the Russian MP addressed the delegations from 21 Orthodox countries in attendance from the seat of the parliament speaker, which provoked a sharp reaction from pro-Western Georgian MPs and sparked weeks of protests in Tbilisi.
The opposition quickly took advantage of the situation and rode the wave of public outrage, following the "coloured revolution" playbook, which Saakashvili had helped draw up years ago. Opposition supporters attempted to storm the parliament, but were brutally repelled by police, which resulted in dozens of injuries. Having failed at that, they moved on to a Maidan-style protest, its visuals squarely aimed at internationalising a domestic political conflict. Pictures from the scene showed dozens of posters in English, many of them calling Russia an occupier.
The Kremlin, too, was quick to play up public outrage. Government media portrayed it as Russophobic and war-mongering, while the Russian government issued a ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia, delivering a major blow to the country's fledgeling tourism industry at the height of the season.
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