Georgia-Russia: A Diplomacy of Wine and Water
A bottle of wine could become Georgia’s peace ambassador to Russia, as key talks are underway in Moscow on lifting a ban on Georgia’s alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and on removing the post-2008-war chill between the two neighbors.
Georgian wine is likely to return to Russian tables by the end of the spring, Georgian wine officials and winemakers said on February 4, after meeting in Moscow with Russia’s executive butler, Gennady Onishchenko.
Moscow has made it very clear that the 2006 ban was motivated by politics, rather than the supposed quality concerns. Now, ahead of the meeting with the Georgian wine delegation, Onishchenko, the food safety chief, said that politics is the “only barrier” to lifting the embargo.
Lifting the wine ban could serve as an aperitif for resolution of other issues between Tbilisi and Moscow, and has implications for the wider region. As another ice-breaker, Georgia’s new government said it might restore a railway link through breakaway Abkhazia to Russia, a proposal that led to eager nods from neighboring Armenia, Moscow’s main business and defense partner in the region.
But the recent overtures to Moscow have not made all and sundry happy in Georgia. While farmers and companies stand to benefit from lifting the ban, there is a tidal pull against seeking closer ties with Moscow from a large part of the Georgian intelligentsia.
And, needless to say, from President Mikheil Saakashvili himself, who warns about reconciliation policies potentially compromising national interests. He strongly opposes restoring the railway via Abkhazia, saying that the removal of Russian troops should come first.
Georgia's prime minister may be much friendlier toward Russia than its president, but Ivanishvili repeatedly has said that Georgian desires to join NATO and reclaim control over Abkhazia and the fellow Russian-protected, separatist region of South Ossetia are not going anywhere. Officials have strongly denied Russian reports -- or, perhaps, indirect offers -- that Georgia is considering a return to the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States.
So, with all due respect to Georgia’s dry red Saperavi, given the depth of the disagreements between Tbilisi and Moscow, it will take more than good wine to make good neighbors here.