Georgian officials are weighing a response to an April 16 edict from the Kremlin, under which Russia can establish official cooperation with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Tbilisi has termed the move an attempt at "annexation," some local analysts question the actual impact of Moscow's actions.
The order by Russian President Vladimir Putin will allow the Russian government to freely interact with the two regions' de facto governments, opening the door for a free exchange of goods and services as well as recognizing property ownership, providing legal advice and offering consular services "when necessary." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Over the past two months, the Russian Duma has repeatedly discussed the pros and cons of recognizing the two regions as independent states. The country's Federation Council is scheduled to vote on recognizing the two regions on April 25.
During a televised afternoon cabinet meeting on April 17, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili demanded that Russia "revise all those decisions that breach Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Describing himself as "astonished and anxious about the provocative nature of Russia's move," Saakashvili told the cabinet and viewers "that nothing will prevent Georgia from becoming a democratic, successful state and a united country."
The president has dispatched Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze to Washington, DC, and State Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze to Germany and France for consultations with Georgia's American and European allies. In remarks to journalists shortly after Russia's decision was announced, Foreign Minister Bakradze stressed that Georgia will use "legal and diplomatic means" to obstruct Russia's plans.
Moscow's announcement came one day after the United Nation Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution reiterating support for Georgia's territorial integrity. Russia supported the measure. But Georgia, which has repeatedly called for the removal of a Russian-led peacekeeping mission from Abkhazia, sees such support as meaningless. Many analysts and officials contend that Moscow's latest maneuvering is designed to frustrate Georgian efforts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian opposition played an important role in thwarting NATO, at its recent summit in Bucharest, from giving Georgia a NATO Membership Action Plan, the last stage before full induction into the alliance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Atlantic alliance is expected to reconsider the MAP question in December. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some Georgian experts believe that Russia is trying to goad Tbilisi into taking impulsive action that can torpedo Georgia's NATO prospects. "This very step aimed at achieving a very sharp response from the Georgian side," commented Irakli Menagarishvili, a former foreign minister. The Georgian government needs to be "wise" and to take "principled steps" in response to the Russians, he added.
Analyst Zurab Bendianishvili, chief of staff of parliament's temporary commission on territorial integrity agreed, terming the move "political blackmail." Putin's order, he says, merely allows Russia to act in the open. "Regardless of what Russia does representatives, announcements in reality, politically nothing changes," said Bendianishvili, who described Abkhaz de facto president Sergei Bagapsh and South Ossetian de facto president Eduard Kokoiti as "the two biggest Russian representatives in the conflict zones."
The separatist leaderships have welcomed Putin's order, with Abkhaz de-facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba describing it as "one step" away from total recognition. Despite the partisan nature of the move, Moscow continues to claim that it can still act as a neutral peace-broker. "Our actions in respect [to] Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not mean that Russia makes a choice in favor of confrontation with Georgia," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement read.
Menagarishvili, a founder of the Center for Strategic Studies in Tbilisi, believes that Russia's decision has little to do with conflict resolution. A call in the April 16 statement to end Russia's transportation embargo against Georgia is an indication, he argued, that Moscow is merely trading one lever for another to pressure Tbilisi.
"The only way to understand it is they realize the economic sanctions against Georgia failed to give them the effect they wanted," he said. "Now they shift to pressure [Georgia] through the separatist regions with the aim to [stop] Georgia's striving toward the West."
Moscow has already dropped economic sanctions placed against Abkhazia in 1996.
Steering clear of an outright denunciation of Moscow, Washington on Wednesday repeated its "unshakeable" support for Georgia's "territorial integrity and sovereignty."
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer issued a statement on April 16 saying that Russia's announcement "undermine[s]" Georgian sovereignty. He called on Moscow to "reverse" its decision.
In his remarks to the Georgian cabinet, Saakashvili stated that he was "satisfied, for the first time" with the response, but stressed that ""[W]e need not only statements, we need serious diplomatic actions from our partners, our friends."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter in Tbilisi.