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How to Improve Georgia-Russia Ties?

Last week [1/20/08], Mikhail Saakashvili was sworn in for a second term as president of Georgia. One of the major questions facing his administration is how to improve relations between Georgia and Russia?

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia on January 5, receiving 53 percent of the votes cast. That is considerably less than the 96 percent tally he won in presidential elections four years ago. At that time, he came to power following a popular movement known as the "Rose Revolution" that forced the resignation of the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Many analysts, including Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation, say Georgians became disillusioned with the promises made by the leaders of the "Rose Revolution". "There is bound to be disillusionment when there is such hope to start with. You have a bright, shiny new leadership coming to power, taking the place of an old leadership that very much exemplified the old regime, people who had been in power in Soviet times -- Eduard Shevardnadze was the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union," says Oliker. "And him leaving office and Mikhail Saakashvili coming in with his young, capable, western-educated new staff, certainly seemed like the wave of the future."

A Question of Style

But Oliker and others say Mr. Saakashvili embarked on an authoritarian style of governing -- limiting press freedoms, curtailing the activities of the opposition and increasing the powers of the presidency. Many analysts say those less than democratic measures led to the disenchantment with the Saakashvili administration.

Public displeasure spilled out into the streets last November when tens of thousands of demonstrators in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, called for the president's resignation. Police used tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Many analysts say that was the low point of Mr. Saakashvili's presidency.

The demonstrations forced Mr. Saakashvili to call early presidential elections. International observers described the January balloting as free and fair, despite some irregularities. Opposition groups still contest the election.

Points of Contention

As Mr. Saaakshvili begins his second term in office, analysts say he will maintain many of the policies he began during his first four years in office. Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago says that on the foreign policy front, the Georgian president will continue to move his country away from Russia, toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and the West.

"Georgia and Georgian intelligentsia -- and certainly the current Georgian government -- are very interested in being part of the West, part of Europe. There is no question about that," says Suny. "They see themselves as an ancient Christian country, they have developed a whole view that this is the sort of eastern edge of Europe. And their ambitions are to be integrated as much as possible into NATO, into the European community. Those are long-term goals. They see that as a way out of their isolation. They see that as a way to increase their security vis-à-vis Russia, which remains to them a threatening power."

Georgia's move toward the West has increased tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow. It is a very contentious issue between Mr. Saakashvili and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Another major source of friction between Georgia and Russia is the issue of the breakaway, separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- two regions within Georgia, but bordering Russia. Robert Legvold from Columbia University says resolving that issue is a major challenge for president Saakashvili as he begins his second term in office. "Probably the greatest among those challenges is whether he can make any progress on what he has said will be the central issue by which people will measure the success of his leadership in Georgia. And that is the restoration of what he would call the 'territorial integrity' of Georgia, bringing these areas back into the fold," says Legvold.

Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago says those two separatist regions pose a major problem for Mr. Saakashvili. "Now that he has been weakened by these demonstrations, by the fall in his popularity and in his inability to solve these problems in a kind of frontal attack on Russia, Saakashvili is not someone that, for instance, the Abkhaz leader [Sergei] Bagapsh, at this moment, feels he needs to talk to. So I would say that these issues are somewhat on the back burner," says Suny. "Maybe the president is coming to the realization that in order to deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he has to sit down and seriously negotiate with Russia."

Diplomatic Openings

Many analysts say there are signs that strained relations between Tbilisi and Moscow might be easing. In his inauguration speech, Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia extends the hand of friendship to Russia. And Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who attended the ceremony, said his presence confirms Russia's intention to normalize relations with Georgia.

Columbia University's Robert Legvold says a more positive relationship between the two countries is possible. "There is some sign that the two sides are beginning to talk about the boycott or the embargo on mineral water and wine from Georgia to Russia. And Russia is an important market for that. I think that would be the first major, if you will, confidence-building measure -- if they can resolve that issue and Georgia can begin again exporting to Russia in that area," says Legvold.

Russia decided to suspend the import of Georgian wines and mineral water in 2006 on health grounds -- a move Tbilisi said was politically motivated.

Analysts say resolving that issue is relatively easy in comparison to the apparently intractable problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Many experts believe for tensions to ease between Tbilisi and Moscow, each side will have to make considerable compromises. They say that might happen in a second Saakashvili administration and especially after a new Russian president takes office following elections in early March.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.