Author Giorgi Menabde
Posted November 10, 2016
Following the second round of the parliamentary elections on October 30, the ruling party, Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia (GDDG), received a constitutional majority—over three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament. The opposition party of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, United National Movement (UNM), will have only 27 members of parliament against the 115 of the ruling party. Other pro-Western parties—Republicans and Free Democrats—suffered a crushing defeat and fragmented or ceased to exist completely (Newsgeorgia.ge, November 3).
The opposition fears that the authorities will use their large advantage in the parliament to change Georgia’s foreign policy from a pro-Western to a pro-Russian course. “GDDG is controlled by the Russian [sic] oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is acting in the interests of Vladimir Putin, not Georgia,” UNM parliamentarian Nugzar Tsiklauri claimed (Author’s interview, November 7). His colleague and member of the UNM Political Council, David Darchiashvili, believes that the latest developments in Russian-Georgian relations, including certain statements by Russian officials as well as some actions by the Georgian authorities, “already give reasons for serious doubts and suspicion in this regard” (Author’s interview, November 7).
The pro-Western opposition in Georgia was alarmed by a recent statement made by the head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Integration and Communications with Compatriots, Leonid Kalashnikov. The Russian official stated that the results of the October parliamentary elections in Georgia “created the chance for a resumption of inter-parliamentary dialogue” and that “consultations regarding this are already underway.” Kalashnikov said, “We are considering how to make this happen,” adding that the Russian side intends to propose to the Georgian parliament holding a joint Russian-Georgian parliamentary session to discuss bilateral problems. Regarding the overwhelming victory of GDDG over Saakahsvili’s UNM party, he declared, “The primary thing is that the [Georgian] policy based on confrontation [with Russia] was defeated and a chance to resume relations between our countries has appeared” (Sputnik-georgia.ru, November 1).
On November 3, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin lectured the Georgian side for “not being prepared to resume diplomatic relations with Russia.” He concluded, “I constantly tell the special representative of the prime minister of Georgia for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, about such incidents [of Tbilisi ‘sinking’ back into anti-Russian rhetoric] in the course of our ongoing dialogue” (RIA Novosti, November 3).
Last month, Abashidze stated that Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and the Georgian authorities as a whole “do not envisage the possibility of restoring diplomatic relations with Russia until Russia retracts its illegal recognition of the so-called ‘independence’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” which he called a “red line.” He declared that “during the dialogue with [his Russian counterpart in bilateral talks] Grigory Karasin, we only discuss economic, trade and humanitarian issues. That is, only the issues that we can resolve without crossing our red lines” (Author’s interview, October 9).
Members of parliament from the ruling party dismissed the claims that they were carrying out “consultations” with their Russian counterparts. “[T]hey are impossible while Russia occupies our territories,” the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security, Irakly Sessiashvili, told this author on October 28. Sessiashvili specifically raised Moscow’s continuing “unfriendly actions,” which it was undertaking in parallel to bilateral talks about “restoring diplomatic ties and inter-parliamentary dialogue.” In particular, Sessiashvili recalled the decision of the Russian Ministry of Defense to sign contracts with residents of occupied South Ossetia to serve in the military as well as setting up a “united military group of Russia and Abkhazia” (Kommersant, October 26; Author’s interview, October 28). Similarly, GDDG parliamentary deputy Zachary Kutsnashvili noted that “Russian embassies in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali [the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively]” are obstacles that prevent Tbilisi from restoring diplomatic ties with Moscow. “Once Russia agrees that there is only one embassy of Russia in Georgia—in Tbilisi—all obstacles to restoring our relations in full will immediately disappear,” he stated (Author’s interview, November 2).
However, the opposition asserts that the ruling party’s actions speak louder than words. One of the leaders of UNM, Sergo Ratiani, pointed out that several days ago “the GDDG delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] refused to support the resolution [on Ukraine’s territorial integrity], which Moscow detested” (Author’s interview, November 6). The head of the parliamentary majority and a member of the Georgian delegation to PACE, Zviad Kvachantiradze, explained that the Ukrainian delegation “did not indicate sufficient effort on their side to gain their Georgian colleagues’ support to vote for this resolution” (Interpressnews.ge, October 13).
Georgian authorities realize that Mikheil Saakashvili might use accusations of “changing the country’s foreign policy orientation” as a serious tool of political pressure against the GDDG. Saakashvili remains the leader of the Georgian opposition despite his political career in Ukraine. Therefore, GDDG demonstrates it is prepared to take steps toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. In November, joint NATO-Georgian military exercises will take place in the suburbs of the Georgian capital (Armenpress.am, November 7). Georgia’s Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze stated that the government “welcomes the increasing presence of NATO on the Black Sea” and is prepared to support the activities of the Alliance in the region (Golos-ameriki.ru, October 28).
Military expert and a former aide to the Georgian representative office at NATO, Vakhtang Maisaya, argued that he sees no visible indicators of a changing Georgian foreign policy course. Rather, he stressed that the question is “how much the West itself, including NATO, is prepared to do to achieve greater integration of Georgia into the Alliance. Unfortunately, for example, at the NATO Warsaw Summit, no decision was taken on establishing a joint [Black Sea] naval group according to the formula ‘28+2,’ with the participation of Georgia and Ukraine. NATO refuses to give our country a Membership Action Plan [MAP], which would signify a move from the third to the fourth level of integration with the organization,” Dr. Maisaya said (Author’s interview, November 2). According to Irakly Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military analysis journal Arsenali, “The United States, United Kingdom and other NATO countries increasingly often hold military exercises on Georgian soil. They use increasingly powerful military equipment in those exercises, such as the Abrams main battle tank and the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle” (Author’s interview, November 6).
David Avalishvili, an analyst with the news analysis agency GHN, also does not expect Georgia to shift from a pro-Western to a pro-Russian foreign policy orientation. “[A]ll of the country’s political establishment is oriented toward the West […] and a policy change in the direction of Russia would bring the ruling party nothing but big domestic political problems. Such a move would reinforce the opposition, which is only waiting for the slightest reason to start massive anti-government protests” (Author’s interview, November 7).