Who Is Your Enemy’s Friend? – Closer China Ties May Be A Key For Tbilisi’s “Normalization” Policy With Moscow

Tim Ogden

Timothy C. J. Ogden is a columnist for Georgia Today and a lecturer at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. He was educated at the Royal Grammar School Worcester and later attended Keele University, studying Politics.

The annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the subsequent war in Eastern Ukraine once again demonstrated the West’s reluctance to openly confront the Russian Federation…

The release of NATO satellite images showing Russian military forces crossing the Russian/Ukrainian border prompted accusations from the West and denials from Moscow, but while Russia’s rebuttals were lampooned from Warsaw to Washington and calls for peace were widespread, there were few attempts to enforce a ceasefire.

Yet the West was presented with a quandary. The revolutionary Ukrainian government that it supports continues to suffer from chronic corruption, to the extent that Vice President Biden declared to the Ukrainian Parliament that unless the problem was successfully tackled, American aid to the country would cease. In addition, some officials (such as Mayor of Kiev and former heavyweight boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko) are deemed to be unsuitable for political office. Some corners of the American media were also reluctant to condemn secessionist sentiment in Eastern Ukraine due to the uncomfortable parallels with the USA’s birth as a breakaway British colony; the right of self-determination holds as true today as it did in 1776.

A similar dilemma faced the West (particularly the United States) in 2008 during Georgia’s brief war against the Russian Federation, a conflict that was also sparked by secessionist sentiment in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Mikheil Saakashvili – the former President of Georgia whose tenure was notable for the substantial amount of American financial, political and military support received – maintains that Russian-backed Ossetian militia troops fired on Georgian peacekeepers which caused the Georgian Army to legally retaliate. Tskinvali and Moscow claim that it was, in fact, Georgian troops who initially attacked, which prompted a Russian punitive expedition to push the Georgians back to Tbilisi.

The issue of which side fired first remains contentious, with evidence and arguments put forward by both sides. It is unknown at this time whether the ICC’s investigation into alleged human rights abuse during the conflict headed by Fatou Bensouda will attempt to ascertain whether Georgian forces were responsible for firing the first shot. Whatever the truth of the matter, the claims of Moscow and Tbilisi that neither were prepared for war seem very hollow due to the troop build ups and military exercises on both sides of the Georgian/Ossetian border. Whether one believes the Russians or the Georgians fired first, it is highly likely that President Saakashvili, a steadfast friend of Washington, was depending on American support to prevent a Russian assault, either in response to a Georgian advance into Tskinvali or (as the former President claims) an unprovoked invasion of sovereign Georgian territory.

Saakashvili’s United National Movement government was ousted in 2012 after the Georgian Dream coalition were voted into power. The UNM – now in opposition – stated numerous times that Georgian Dream’s founder and head, Bidzina Ivanishvili was a Muscovite puppet who sought to re-establish Russian control in the country. Their claims were substantiated in the minds of some by the fact that the billionaire Ivanishvili’s fortune originated from Russia, and his return to Georgia in 2011 seemed timely with regards to the following year’s elections. However, despite the UNM’s dire warnings of a return to Soviet-era Russian domination, the Georgian Dream government kept Georgia on its course of Euro-Atlantic integration, though the West has been bemused by the abrupt resignations of Prime Minister Ivanishvili and his successor, Irakli Garibashvili.

The UNM party looked increasingly vindictive as they criticized the Georgian Dream’s proposal to normalise relations with the Russian Federation. It is, naturally, inherently difficult for a political party to deviate from an established party line, but attempting to re-establish trade and diplomatic relations with Moscow was comfortably within the realms of both common sense and national interest.

Commendably, Georgian efforts to ease tensions with Russia have not caused the country to deviate from its path towards membership in NATO and the European Union. Since the Georgian Dream government came to power, Georgian troops remain in Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support, while others have been deployed on peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic, all having trained with NATO forces. In addition, an enormously important Association / DCFTA agreement was signed with the European Union in 2014, with Brussels then promising full visa liberalisation for Georgian citizens by the summer of 2016.

However, in spite or because of Georgia’s renewed efforts to integrate with the West, Tbilisi’s attempts at normalising relations with Moscow have been largely unsuccessful. In 2012, Georgia revoked its visa regime for Russian citizens, though the move has still not been reciprocated; Russia claimed it had eased visa regulations for Georgians in December 2015, but removing them entirely was said only to be ‘a possibility’.

Russia’s proclamations of solely desiring peace on its borders are not taken seriously in any diplomatic circles, though its explanations for the thinly-veiled presence of Russian regular troops in Ukraine or the prepared nature of its advance into Georgia in 2008 are swallowed by the West in order to avoid any direct confrontation. This is hardly surprising. Western political parties (particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom) are still attempting to recover from the public backlash over highly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is even less support amongst the Western public for a resumption of a rivalry that they feel belongs to the era of the Cold War, especially as Islamic extremism and widespread immigration are now viewed as the biggest threats to the Western way of life. To many, Russia is an enemy of yesteryear, an attitude equally reflected in the actions and words of Western politicians.

Meanwhile, Moscow has hardly even bothered to try and excuse multiple violations of Georgian airspace over the last few years. Russian helicopters have flown over the Administrative Boundary Line [ABL] and then over Gori on several occasions since 2013, undoubtedly aware that there will be no military response from Georgia. The point of these patrols remains unclear. Russian warplanes also probe NATO airspace, but at least the purpose behind these breaches of international law is clear, as Russian pilots are known to record how fast Western aircraft are able to intercept them. Since Georgia does not scramble its own limited fleet of helicopters or jets to interdict Russian incursions, these actions solely serve as simple provocations, a sinister reminder of Moscow’s military presence just over Georgia’s borders.

While these provocations are hardly conducive to normalising relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, the gradual pushing of the ABL further southwards and the outright abduction of Georgian citizens living on the Georgian side of the Ossetian border are much more damaging. Since 2013, the ABL has been pushed several kilometres closer to Gori, and a number of Georgian villages have been swallowed as a result; villagers have reported waking up in sovereign Georgian territory but by the afternoon being in South Ossetia after Russian troops moved the border during the day.

Abductions of Georgian citizens are becoming alarmingly frequent, though the motive behind them is once again unclear. Russia’s security services have not shown themselves to be averse to kidnapping, having abducted Eston Kohver, an Estonian security officer, in 2014. However, there are obvious motives behind targeting a security service agent of a rival country; it seems unlikely that Georgian farmers and church-goers would be privy to the same type of information as is common for an employee of Estonia’s Security Service.

The fact that abductees are routinely ransomed has caused some to speculate that money is the sole motive behind the incidents. The Russian Army’s ranks are still mostly filled by underpaid conscripts from poor homes (Georgian villagers reported the most bizarre items being looted from their homes during the 2008 war, such as toilet seats and forks), and so it is certainly possible that the kidnappings are the actions of Russian soldiers attempting to make money. Proponents of this theory either claim that the abductions are a deliberate government policy intended to terrorise local Georgians, or the independent actions of troops whose behaviour is tolerated by Moscow rather than condoned, since it still suits the Kremlin’s interests; the difference is, of course, moot. Others maintain that the ransom money is being used to help the flagging Ossetian economy, though this is unlikely since the sums – while large enough for Georgians living in villages on the ABL – are hardly enough to maintain even a regional economy. Though Russia denies that the kidnappings and subsequent ransoms are any result of government policy, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could not put a stop to them if the Kremlin so chose. But whatever the motive and official status behind these incidents, the damaging effect these actions have on Georgia’s efforts to normalise relations cannot be overstated. Should provocations continue – whether in the form of airspace violations, kidnappings or any further shifts in the border – it is possible that the Georgian government’s attempts at defusing tension will become increasingly (and understandably) half-hearted; if Moscow refuses to take Tbilisi seriously, it is not unlikely that Georgia will eventually simply not bother in appealing to the Kremlin if its entreaties are continuously ignored.

Russian overtures of peaceful intent in the Caucasus are overshadowed by Moscow’s aggressive actions. Diplomatic trust in the Russian Federation is at an all-time low, and Western-imposed sanctions coupled with a lack of firm action beyond NATO exercises in Poland and the Baltic States (which seem to provoke rather than discourage) seem to have convinced Moscow that it can act with military impunity in former Soviet republics.

Western-Russian relations have become further complicated by on-going Syrian civil war. Though Moscow continues to support President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime and Washington backs a collection of rebel militia groups, both are enemies of the Islamic State, a faction whose adherents have managed to strike at the heart of Europe and threatened to launch further attacks. Moscow is equally at risk from IS terrorists, due to its prior struggles with Muslim extremism in the North Caucasus and the launch of its own military campaign in Syria.

President Putin’s deployment of Russian forces caught the West off balance, as despite the fact that engaging IS with regular forces is viewed in military circles as being the only sure way to defeat the extremist faction, it is not a step that any Western politician dare take. Russia’s hands-on approach to tackling IS has won some praise on the Western political stage, particularly by increasingly-popular ‘alternative’ politicians such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, and so the Western public’s willingness to confront Moscow has likely fallen even further.

The conflict in Ukraine is becoming a distant memory in the Western media, with the troubles in Georgia all but forgotten. The West is now discussing areas of ‘mutual cooperation’ with Moscow, as Russia continues to hammer the Islamic State and the threat of further Paris-style terrorist attacks increases. Even should Georgia be admitted into the European Union and NATO this year, Tbilisi will still not be able to rely on Europe and America to protect it from further provocations and aggression; it is very unlikely that the West would compromise its relations with Russia even for the sake of Tallinn, Vilnius or Riga, especially as the Islamic State continues to plan covert attacks on the continent.

Arguably, Georgia’s national security lies within the proposed New Silk Road project. Over the last few years, Georgia has sought to actively encourage Chinese investment in the country, with China becoming Georgia’s third largest foreign investor by 2014. One of the most tangible results of Georgia’s dealings with Beijing was the interest of the Hualing Group, which has energetically engaged itself in buying quarries, factories and banks throughout the country, as well as building its own residential and luxury hotel complex in Tbilisi. Negotiations on a free trade agreement between Georgia and China were announced in December 2015, with more bi-monthly talks to be held throughout 2016.

Plans to transform Georgia into an Eastern European counterpart to Switzerland have been discussed since the Saakashvili era, though at the time the only grounds for such a comparison were the landscapes and the shared history of being surrounded by larger, more aggressive nations. No concrete plans were ever acted upon to make the comparison economic as well as aesthetic.

Switzerland is increasingly dependent on foreign investment, its investment climate consistently attractive due to its stable politics. While it is unlikely that Tbilisi will be able to match Zurich in terms of political stability in the foreseeable future, an increase in foreign investment is eminently feasible, especially as Georgia expands ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan, both nations being integral parts of the new route connecting Asia and Europe.

While Georgia has had some success in attracting foreign investments from Europe (the new Tetnuldi ski resort in Svaneti was partially financed by a French company), China must become one of Tbilisi’s primary trading partners. The proposals of the Georgian government – to make Georgia an important link in the chain connecting Europe and Asia – are realistic and likely to benefit the country, but any interest shown by Beijing is also likely to deter any aggressive behaviour from Moscow.

China remains a key partner to Russia, a relationship which has become increasingly important to Moscow since the West’s economic sanctions against the country for its actions in Ukraine crippled its economy. Although US Secretary of State John Kerry said that some sanctions may be lifted in the future (undoubtedly due to Russia’s cooperation with the West in fighting the Islamic State), Moscow will still need to foster relations with China; Russian officials have openly declared that the world is entering a new Cold War, and so trade relations with the West are unlikely to improve even with the removal of some sanctions.

Should Georgia manage to encourage enough investment from Beijing, it is unlikely that Russia would risk angering its chief trading partner by undertaking aggressive action towards Georgia. This is not to say that China will take on the role of an impartial arbiter in settling regional disputes. Events over the last eight years in Ukraine and Georgia itself have clearly shown that international diplomacy has not prevented Russia from military action, violating agreements or deniably deploying its forces over neighbouring borders. Yet if Georgia could indeed garner enough Chinese investment, Moscow would undoubtedly recognise that it is hardly in Russia’s interests to risk losing the one ally it has. This would not prevent Tbilisi from continuing on its path towards integration with the West, but it would perhaps allow Georgia to finally enjoy an unprecedented state in its history: political neutrality.



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