Georgia-Russia Relations Warning
Published: January 25, 2013 (Issue # 1743)
MOSCOW ľ Aácocktail-party chat that lasted only minutes has triggered hopes that theácountry's troubled relations with Georgia might be headed forásubstantial recovery.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had aáconversation with his Georgian counterpart, Bidzina Ivanishvili, during aáreception atáthe Davos World Economic Forum late Wednesday, Medvedev's spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said Thursday. "Both prime ministers were atáthe reception andáhad aáconversation," she was quoted as saying byáInterfax.
Timakova downplayed theámeeting byáadding that Medvedev talked "with many delegation heads fromáother countries" during theáforum, but national media were quick toápoint out that theáencounter marked theáfirst direct contact between governments ofáboth countries ináyears.
Diplomatic ties between Moscow andáTbilisi were cut iná2008, after both countries fought aábrief war over Georgia's breakaway region South Ossetia, followed byáMoscow's recognition ofáindependence foráthat region
as well as nearby Abkhazia. Moscow has since adamantly refused any contact with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom it accuses toábe aáwar criminal foráordering troops intoáSouth Ossetia.
But theáoutlook has changed since Saakashvili's United National Movement was defeated ináparliamentary elections last fall byáIvanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. Ivanishvili, aábillionaire who made much ofáhis wealth ináRussia, has said he wants better relations with Moscow.
This week saw other symbolic high-level meetings ofáofficials between both countries. OnáWednesday, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II became theámost prominent Georgian toábe received byáPresident Vladimir Putin ináthe Kremlin since theá2008 war.
Theáhead ofáthe Georgian Orthodox Church has maintained close ties with his Russian counterpart, Kirill, over theápast years. Both church leaders met forátalks Tuesday. Unlike theáKremlin, theáMoscow Patriarchy has ináthe past supported Georgia's territorial integrity, arguing that under church law, theábreakaway regions Abkhazia andáSouth Ossetia remain part ofáGeorgia.
No details ofáthe Kremlin talks were published, but Ilia told RIA-Novosti that he would raise theáissue with Putin.
Thursday then saw theáfirst direct contacts between senior lawmakers fromáboth sides, when theáforeign relations committee heads fromáboth countries met ináStrasbourg.
Alexei Pushkov, chairman ofáthe State Duma's International Affairs Committee, andáhis Georgian counterpart, Tedo Dzhaparidze, had anáhour-long conversation atáthe sidelines ofáthe Council ofáEurope's Parliamentary Assembly winter session. Pushkov told Interfax afterward that theámeeting was seen "as positive byáboth ofáus" andáthat they had agreed toámeet again ináApril "in aábroader format."
He added that theátalk was about "getting toáknow each other personally andápolitically" andáthat they did not discuss any concrete questions. He added, however, that Dzhaparidze raised theáissue ofávisa-free travel.
Tbilisi unilaterally scrapped visas foráRussians last year, aámove that has so far not been reciprocated byáMoscow.
Dzhaparidze told reporters that both sides agreed oná"red lines" that should not be crossed, Interfax reported.
Pushkov explained that Abkhazia, South Ossetia andásecurity issues would be excluded fromáthe agenda, because they would be discussed atáUN-sponsored talks ináGeneva.
Ináa signal that more substantial improvements are underway, Russia's chief sanitary official, Gennady Onishchenko, said Thursday that he was ready toávisit Georgia after talks with Georgian experts scheduled foráearly next month ináMoscow.
TheáFeb. 4 meeting will focus onáresuming imports ofáGeorgian wine andáthe famous Borjomi mineral water, he told Interfax.
Georgian food imports have been effectively banned since 2006, when theáFederal Consumer Protection Service, headed byáOnishchenko, deemed them toábe ofábad quality.
Earlier, Onishchenko said that almost 30 Georgian companies had submitted documents toáresume shipments, andáthat theáquality ofáwine had improved significantly. He has said he was hopeful toásee imports start again ináMarch.
Analysts have warned that aásubstantial rapprochement between both countries is hardly possible, because Moscow cannot revert its decision toárecognize theátwo separatist provinces, while no Georgian government can be expected toágive them up ináthe near future.
But this week's meetings were undoubtedly positive, said Felix Stanevsky, anáexpert with theáKremlin-connected CIS Institute, who served as ambassador toáGeorgia fromá1996 toá2000.
Stanevsky argued that progress is likely toábe slow because differences were based onánon-tradable issues.
While Georgia has aálot toáwin economically byáresuming exports toáRussia, this is not theácase ináthe other direction, he explained. "If economic ties are normalized, only Georgia will win," he said.
He added that Tbilisi would have toámake political concessions, either over theáseparatist territories or over security policy.
Under Saakashvili, Georgia has forcefully lobbied forájoining NATO, angering theáKremlin, which has argued that theáWestern military alliance should not expand ináits sphere ofáinterest.
Stanevsky explained that Tbilisi would not have toágive up territorial claims but merely its previous argument that Abkhazia andáSouth Ossetia are aáRussian-Georgian problem.
"If they are honest they will stop speaking ofáRussian occupation andáadmit that it is theáAbkhaz andáSouth Ossetians who do not want toábe inside Georgia," he said.
Georgian politicians accuse theáregions' leadership ofáethnic cleansing andádemand theáreturn ofátens ofáthousands ofáethnic Georgians that have fled those areas.