Georgia’s number one foreign policy challenge has been managing its relationship with Russia. While there are practical reasons for Georgia to cultivate its relationship with its powerful neighbor to the north, most Georgians prefer a pro-Western orientation. When given an opportunity to choose its political preferences after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia refused to join the CIS for a full two years. In 2002, Shevardnadze formulated a foreign policy concept according to which Russia and the U. S.were both “strategic partners” of Georgia.

Shevardnadze’s policies

Nonetheless, Shevardnadze found himself with good personal reasons to lean towards Russia. Russia decisively came to his rescue twice—once in July1993, when Sukhumi fell to Abkhaz forces and he was evacuated on board a Russian ship, and again in November 1993, when Russian troops put down a Zviadist rebellion in Megrelia.

Georgia subsequently joined the CIS in October 1993, and signed an agreement allowing Russia to keep its four military bases in Georgia, use Georgian ports and airfields, and station guards on Georgia’s southern border. The Georgian parliament refused to ratify the base agreement, however. By the late 1990s, Shevardnadze began to seek greater security cooperation with Western states and the removal of Russia’s military bases. At the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Summit, Russia committed itself to removing twob ases, near Tbilisi and in Abkhazia. The first base was subsequently closed.

Reasons for Georgia-Russia tensions

Georgians resent the support Russia has given to the Osset and Abkhaz secessionists, whom they see as pawns in Russia’s imperialistdesigns.

The conflict in Chechnya also aggravated Russian-Georgian relations. Russia accused Georgia of allowing Chechen fighters to move freely across its mountain border with Chechnya. The Georgian government insisted that the7,000 Chechens in Georgia were non-combatant refugees, and refused to allow Russia to deploy troops on the Georgian side of the border. Russian aircraft bombed the Pankisi Gorge area in 2001. Shevardnadze reacted by sending in2,500 Georgian troops to restore control over Pankisi. By the end of 2002, under Russian pressure, Georgia closed Chechen leader Maskhadov’s office in Tbilisi.

OSCE border monitoring mission short-lived

In December 1999, the OSCE expanded the mandate of the OSCE Mission to Georgia to include monitoring and reporting on movement across the82-kilometer mountainous border between Georgia and the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. In December 2001, the OSCE expanded the operation to include the border between Georgia and the Ingush Republic to the west of Chechnya. 

But in December 2004 Russia asserted at the OSCE Ministerial in Sofia that the mandate of the border patrol mission had been fulfilled. Over the strong objections of Georgia, the U. S., and other countries, Russia refused to accept an extension of the mission’s monitoring mandate.

OSCE border monitors observe activity on the Chechen-Georgian border on a mountain ridge, summer 2000.(OSCE)

OSCE border monitors observe activity on the Chechen-Georgian border on a mountain ridge, summer 2000.(OSCE)

Russia opposed suggestions that the European Union deploy monitors to replace the closed OSCE monitoring mission.

After the Rose Revolution

Although Saakashvili talked about the need for Georgia to maintain good relations with Russia after becoming president, he quickly showed a stronger pro-Western orientation than Shevardnadze.

The new Georgian leadership pushed for closure of the remaining two Russian bases, at Batumi in Ajaria and at Akhalkalaki in Javakhetia. Anagreement was reached in May 2005 on the closure of the bases and the withdrawal of these Russian troops by 2008. Nonetheless, the Georgian Parliament called in 2006 for Russia to speed up the pullout of its troops.

In September 2006, relations sharply deteriorated after Georgia charged four Russian officers with espionage, and Russia responded by canceling its troop pullout, banning the import of Georgian produce and wines, suspend ingtransport links with Georgia, and harassing and deporting Georgian citizens in Russia. The OSCE Ci O, Belgian Foreign Minister De Gucht, successfully mediated the release of the Russian officers.

Collision of Russian and Georgian interests

Increasingly, an assertive Georgian leadership unwilling to lose great chunks of its territory as a result of a “frozen conflict” found itself confronting an increasingly assertive leadership in its vastly more powerful neighbor to the north seeking to reestablish its influence in the“post-Soviet space.” Saakashvili’s efforts to remove Georgia from Russian influence and bring it under NATO’s security umbrella was seen as a major threat to Russian interests. Georgia’s efforts to establish itself as an alternative to Russia as an energy corridor also could be seen as a threat to Russian interests.

Starting in 2007, military incidents along the de facto borders between Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia escalated. Russia had established itself as both peacekeeper in the area and defender of the separatist“states.” In August 2008, this clash of immediate and deeper interests involved Russia on the side of its separatist allies in a short, but intense five-day war with Georgia.

New Georgian government seeks to normalize relations with Russia

The Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili that defeated President Saakashvili's United National Movement in the 2012 parliamentary elections has promised to use diplomacy to normalize Georgia’s relationship with Russia, while saying that it will bring Georgia even closer to the United States and NATO membership.

The Georgian Prime Minister's Special Representative for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, met with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister in December 2012, in the first direct talks between the two countries since the2008 war.

Cultural ties between Russia and Georgia--largely cut after the 2008conflict--have also been resuming during Ivanishvili's tenure.  These include Russian television broadcasts on cable in Georgia, Georgian dance groups touring Russia, a journalism school opening in Tbilisi, and conferences and roundtable events bringing together Russian and Georgian intellectuals.

Ivanishvili's stated goal of normalizing relations with Russia may actually constitute a shift from Saakashvili's Western orientation to an alignment towards Russia similar to that of Moscow's Caucasus ally, Armenia.