Petro Poroshenko made his first visit to Georgia as Ukraine’s president, as ties between the two countries – spoiled in recent years by a feud over former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili – now have new momentum following Saakashvili’s exit from Ukrainian politics.
The visit, from July 17-19, allowed the two sides to highlight their many common interests, starting from the fact that Russia-backed unrecognized states occupy part of each of their territories. “We have a common aggressor – both Ukraine and Georgia – this is the Russian Federation,” Poroshenko said during a visit – by now a ritual among visitors to Tbilisi – to the fence that Russian forces have erected around the de facto borders of South Ossetia, one of the unrecognized territories in Georgia.
“We share great strength,” added his Georgian counterpart, Giorgi Margvelashvili, who accompanied Poroshenko. “These barbed wires will be demolished; our states will be as united, sovereign and independent, as all states in the world, except Russia, recognize.”
During the visit, the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement affirming the “centuries-old friendship and good neighborly relations between Georgian and Ukrainian peoples” and pledging to cooperate on goals like accession to the European Union and NATO. Building economic ties also was on the agenda: at a business forum, Poroshenko said the two countries have set a goal of increasing trade from 526 million dollars in 2016 to a billion dollars “in a few years.”
In spite of a significantly overlapping agenda, Georgia and Ukraine have until recently had somewhat distant ties – from 2014 until this year, Ukraine did not even have an ambassador in Tbilisi. The biggest bone of contention was Saakashvili, who after his electoral defeat in Georgia in 2012 moved to Ukraine and became governor of Odessa. From that perch, he launched frequent criticisms of the government in Tbilisi that succeeded him, and for their part, the new authorities in Tbilisi painted Saakashvili as a criminal and repeatedly sought his extradition from Ukraine on charges of abuse of power.
“The personal factor had a huge effect on bilateral relations,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a foreign policy analyst at the Razumovsky Centre, a Kyiv think tank. “It’s ridiculous because these two countries have so many issues in common, starting from a common threat, a common enemy, to a common vision of the future – Euro-Atlantic integration.”
Saakashvili stepped down as governor in November and fell out with Poroshenko, which opened the door to improving relations between Georgia and Ukraine. Kyiv appointed a new ambassador to Tbilisi in February, and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili visited Kyiv in March to discuss reviving GUAM, a counter-Russia bloc that includes Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.
“Now everyone got fed up with Saakashvili in Ukraine, including Poroshenko,” said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics and a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University. “These countries need each other, and there’s an understanding both in Tbilisi and in Kyiv that they need at some point to work together, because of a common threat of Russian aggression and a lot of other issues.”
Saakashvili’s presence still loomed heavily over Poroshenko’s visit. In spite of a request by Margvelashvili’s administration for Georgian journalists to not ask about the extradition requests, reporters nevertheless did so, repeatedly. Poroshenko initially said he was unaware that there had been any such requests, then later acknowledged having received updated information, but dodged the question of what Kyiv intended to do about the extradition. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani weighed in, noting that Georgia would still appreciate Ukraine handing Saakashvili over.
Still, Georgian officials seemed unwilling to press the extradition issue with Poroshenko in public. The government also likely prefers Ukraine not to extradite Saakashvili; a trial in Georgia would be a political circus the authorities do not need and would run the risk of making Saakashvili into a martyr, Kakachia said: “Everyone is happy with the status quo.”
Saakashvili himself also lobbed a number of spitballs from his Facebook page during the visit. His criticisms ranged from disputing Tbilisi’s justification for the extradition and the circumstances around the ceasefire deal with Russia after the 2008 war over South Ossetia, to accusing Tbilisi of organizing an inhospitable welcome for Poroshenko – sending the education minister, rather than Margvelashvili himself, to greet him at the airport. Saakashvili also advised Poroshenko to “bring his own soap and towel,” referring to a minor scandal in which Saakashvili was criticized for paying for a trip for then Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko’s trip to Tbilisi’s famous sulphur baths.
Saakashvili is not the only obstacle standing in the way of better Georgia-Ukraine relations. While the two sides largely share a common agenda, neither has articulated what cooperation would look like, Kakachia said. “On the societal level, there’s a huge support for each other... but it needs to be institutionalized,” he said. “The problem is that from both governments, there is no vision of how to cement these links.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet.org, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul.