Georgia recently launched a campaign to fashion itself as a champion of North Caucasus rights and the center of a peaceful, prosperous Caucasus. In theory, the campaign is all about good vibrations. In practice, though, the initiative could have more to do with a tit-for-tat for Russian intervention in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some observers say.
President Mikheil Saakashvili first sounded the call for a “free, stable and united” Caucasus last month in a speech to the United Nations. “[I]n terms of human and cultural space, there is no North and South Caucasus,” Saakashvili said. “There is one Caucasus that belongs to Europe and will one day join the European family of free nations, following the Georgian path.”
So far, the focus is mainly on Russia’s North Caucasus, but Georgian officials say that Tbilisi is working in all directions to make the “united” Caucasus a reality.
To date, Georgia has dropped visa requirements for Russian citizens from the North Caucasus; launched parliamentary hearings on recognizing as genocide Tsarist Russia’s 1864 slayings of North Caucasians; and called for the cancellation of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, a center of the Tsarist crackdown.
Media will also play a role. Before the end of the year, a Russian-language TV channel is expected to start broadcasting news to the North Caucasus that provides a Tbilisi-centric alternative to standard Russian TV news.
Parliamentarian Nugzar Tsiklauri, who heads a committee on Diaspora affairs that is slotted to handle Caucasus issues as well, maintains that these moves do not mean that Tbilisi questions Russia’s sovereignty over its North Caucasus republics; rather, he claims, it wants to help inject a dose of democracy into a region where human rights abuse, ethnic tensions and corruption run rife.
The alleged lack of corruption, bureaucracy and discrimination in Georgia’s business and education sectors “will help bring much-wanted stability and security to a volatile region, and everyone will benefit from it,” commented Tsiklauri, a member of the ruling United National Movement.
The potential beneficiaries for this Caucasus outreach campaign include, of course, Georgia itself. While the idea of a “greater Caucasus” has long had proponents, some observers see Georgia’s initiative as a calculated attempt to repay Russia for stationing troops in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and recognizing both regions as independent from Georgia.
“[T]he Georgian government seems to have yielded to the temptation of playing the kind of ‘ethno-political’ chess that Russia itself has played in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” commented Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Associate Thomas de Waal, the co-author of a book on Moscow’s 1994-1996 war in Chechnya. “I see this as the Georgian government looking for political leverage against a hostile power which is firmly camped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and finding this leverage in the turbulent North Caucasus.”
The campaign recently announced by Georgian parliamentarians to block the 2014 Sochi Olympics illustrates that concept. Georgian officials and politicians have long lashed out at Russia for using nearby Abkhazia for building materials for the Games. Now, by siding with Diaspora North Caucasian groups who also oppose Sochi as an Olympics site, Tbilisi has gained additional comrades-in-arms.
Russian officials have not yet commented on the Georgian parliament’s anti-Sochi campaign, but the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier deemed Tbilisi’s revocation of visa requirements for North Caucasians as part of an attempt “to destabilize [the] situation in [the] North Caucasus and to distract attention from [the] destructive policy of the Georgian leadership towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
One Caucasus expert, though, believes that Georgia’s democratic track record alone will not easily convince North Caucasus inhabitants to look to Tbilisi for regional leadership.
“Should even the North Caucasians be given [a] legal permit to live and work in Georgia, they would still prefer to travel to large Russian cities[,] which provide them [with]. . . a better place to make money and . . . established networks of ethnic kin, than [does]. . . tiny Georgia with its 4 million. . .inhabitants and rather limited economic potential,” commented Emil Suleimanov, an assistant professor of Russian and East European Studies at Charles University in Prague.
Nor are North Caucasus attitudes toward Georgia necessarily friendly, Suleimanov continued. Tbilisi’s 1992-1993 war against Abkhaz separatists has strongly influenced opinions among many Adyghe, Cherkess, Abaza and Kabardinians, he said. Sizeable numbers of North Caucasians, who share close cultural ties with the Abkhaz, fought against Tbilisi in the conflict.
Analyst de Waal believes that Georgia is courting danger by poking Russia in a sore spot. “I can see why they [the Georgians] are tempted to play this card, but I think potentially this is a very dangerous policy,” he said.
If Georgian efforts turn into a real challenge to Russia, Moscow can find a way to punish Tbilisi, he said. In the past, Russia has accused Georgia of supporting Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus and used the accusation to bomb Georgian territory in 2002.
Meanwhile, the campaign continues. Parliament’s legal affairs committee is now studying the international law aspects of genocide recognition for the 1864 North Caucasus killings, said Tsiklauri, and plans are underway to organize in Tbilisi regional conferences on Caucasus-wide integration
One high-ranking Georgian government official, who requested anonymity, shrugged off the risks associated with such measures. Russia, he noted, is eager to reduce its military expenditures, encourage stability in the North Caucasus and change its “image as an aggressive country.”
A united Caucasus with Georgia as its center may not now be a concept that Moscow “will . . digest easily, but it will eventually accept the new reality . . .” the official said. “It may take time, but it will happen.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.