Moscow Unperturbed by Georgias Peacekeeper Resolution
While officials in Tbilisi have touted as decisive the Georgian parliament's call for the removal of Russian peacekeepers from the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Kremlin sees the decision as inconsequential. Russian pundits say that Tbilisi's move is no more than a desperate attempt to strengthen its negotiating position amidst an uneasy relationship with an increasingly assertive Moscow.
On July 18, Georgian lawmakers ordered the government to suspend the Russian peacekeeping operations in the secessionist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and organize the withdrawal of Russian military contingents from Georgian territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. No concrete date for the Russian pullout is specified, but the Georgian cabinet has been instructed to launch procedures aimed at the "discontinuation" of Russian peacekeeping activities "without delay." Some Georgian legislators suggested the Russian troops might be withdrawn by October 15, the expiration date for the mandate for peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia.
Russia's Foreign Ministry immediately retaliated with a sharp riposte to the Georgian parliamentary resolution. In its special statement, the ministry labeled Tbilisi's initiative a "provocative step" apparently designed to "whip up tension, undermine the existing negotiating formats and liquidate the legal basis for the peaceful settlement" of Georgia's two territorial conflicts.
Russian policymakers and analysts have reacted to the Georgian demarche following two lines of reasoning.
First, some observers say, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zones means the resumption of a civil war in Georgia, as the Abkhaz and South Ossetians will not tolerate the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers. Thus, according to the Russian State Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov, the Georgian government should be aware that the Russian contingent's pullout poses a direct threat to the territorial integrity of Georgia.
A second argument contends that any changes in the Russian peacekeepers' mandate or in the format of their activity cannot be defined by just one party it is a subject for negotiations between all the parties involved including Russia as well as the Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatist leaders. For this reason, policymakers see the latest Georgian resolution as a document without juridical force. "It's just an appeal to the Georgian leadership," commented Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma International Affairs Committee. "Such appeals on the part of the [Georgian] parliament took place before, but they didn't lead to any concrete decisions." Most Russian pundits see the generation of such empty "paper threats" as only discrediting Georgia's legislature.
But some Russian analysts note that the parliament's resolution could well serve as part of a larger foreign policy strategy. At a meeting in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili failed to resolve any of the outstanding problems in their bilateral relations or to reduce tensions between the two states. The unsuccessful June talks seemed to demonstrate to President Saakashvili that his bargaining position vis-à-vis Moscow is extremely weak.
The Georgian parliament's resolution narrowly preceded a July 21-22 summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow at which Presidents Putin and Saakashvili were expected to meet. Although the meeting did not take place, talks are reportedly ongoing to schedule an eventual encounter between the two leaders.
The Georgian parliament's peacekeeper resolution, therefore, might well have been regarded by Tbilisi as another strategic move that will significantly strengthen Georgia's ability to bargain with Moscow, a recent commentary published in the business daily Kommersant suggests. With a second resolution in hand calling for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, Georgia at least would have had the advantage of fresh public attention to use as a potential trump card in its talks with Russia. Tbilisi has also announced that it will resume negotiations on Russia's joining the World Trade Organization, effectively blocking Moscow's admission into the WTO.
The only remaining question is how best to respond. In a July 18 commentary published in Kommersant, political analyst Sergei Strokan argued that Moscow shouldn't react to Tbilisi's antics with the same hysteria that is seen to characterize Georgia's moves. Otherwise, the international community will perceive Russia's actions as an attempt to limit the sovereignty of the "small but proud and freedom-loving republic," Strokan wrote. It would be a pity, said Strokan, for Russia to have all the chances for success, but still lose its Georgia gambit.
Faced with that, some pundits argue that only one strategy remains for the Kremlin: keep cool and wait and see.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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