By Stephen R. Bowers l October 30, 2012
Summary: Georgia’s recent elections have demonstrated the relative maturity of the nation’s political system by allowing a peaceful transfer of power. At the same time, they have highlighted questions about the uncertain direction of an Ivanishvili administration that is apparently determined to conduct a balancing act between Russia and the West. In addition, this transition has raised concerns about Moscow’s effort to restore the “Soviet empire,” assert control over Georgia’s BTE pipeline, and influence the growing Iranian crisis.
The long Russian campaign to create a “Eurasian Union” that could challenge the European Union as well as China took another step forward in the most recent Georgian elections. On October 1st the Kremlin moved closer to its goal of unseating Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili when the ideologically diverse Georgia Dream bloc captured more than 80 of the 150 seats in the Georgian Parliament. While it is difficult to predict the precise policies of the newly created and ideologically inconsistent six-party Georgia Dream coalition, it is clear that its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is financially dependent on Russia and has been able to capitalize on the legitimate fears of elderly Georgians and the growing frustrations of the nation’s younger citizens. The coming months will reveal the extent to which Russia can exploit the Georgian predicament in order to reassert its influence over this important region of the post-Soviet space.
As of this time, Georgia’s transfer of political power is proceeding peacefully. As would be expected, Ivanishvili is not selecting for his administration individuals who were Saakashvili allies, but the transition has been orderly. If the process had been associated with violence, Russia could have intensified its anti-Saakashvili campaign, maintaining that the president was creating regional instability that required Moscow’s intervention. Barring such violence, the prospect of a new Russian military move against Georgia, something that once seemed possible, has diminished.
In advance of the elections, there was a series of military moves by Russia and NATO. The largest of the exercises was Russia’s Kavkaz-2012 maneuvers which involved over 8,000 soldiers, 200 military vehicles, and 100 artillery pieces. Meanwhile, in September, NATO also conducted an exercise in Georgia. Admittedly, the NATO exercise, which focused on disaster preparations, was less provocative in that it was small and less military but it still roused Russian ire about Georgia’s relationship with the West. That concern was also reflected in Russia’s June, 2012 announcement about the pending expulsion of 9,000 Georgian residents who were working in Russia and, for the most part, investing their earnings back home in Georgia.
Yet, there are indications of some uncertainty about the transition of power. The most prominent has been the disappearance of a large number of officials from Saakashvili’s administration. While many of the now absent officials are said to be on vacation, it is likely that they are fearful of prosecution by the incoming administration. Some members of the Georgian Dream coalition spoke of the need to investigate and even prosecute Saakashvili associates who were implicated in the pre-election videos showing alleged human rights violations in Georgian prisons. The fact that Saakashvili issued an order allowing hundreds of senior officials to retain their diplomatic passports for a year after leaving office is a clear indication that the apparently peaceful transition may yet be disrupted.
In addition to the above domestic concerns, there are equally significant international matters. One of the first relates to continuing efforts by Moscow to restore the “Soviet empire.” The Georgian elections are not an isolated concern for the Russian leadership. They are simply one step in a pattern of Russian intervention in other regional elections. As the Ukrainian elections raised Russian fears of a new pro-Western government, there was speculation that Moscow might provide “security assistance” to the pro-Russian administration of President Viktor Yanukovich in order to guarantee public order. Russian President Medvedev spoke of Yanukovich as “a worthy Ukrainian partner” in clear contrast with his predecessor and Russia has left open an offer for Ukraine to join a Russian security agreement that already includes six of Russia’s neighbors.
The Baltic republics, while more fully consolidated as democratic states, also feel the impact of Russian concern about their political process. Speculation about Russian cyber attacks against Estonia has reminded many Baltic citizens of the troubled history of their relationship with Moscow’s. When the Kremlin supported the 2010 uprising in Kyrgyzstan in order to install a more pro-Russian regime, it was further evidence that the new Russia was a lot like the old Russia.
While Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states face persistent pressure to relinquish elements of their political and economic independence, Georgia seems likely to maintain its pro-Western orientation and continue seeking NATO membership. During his campaign, Ivanishvili pledged to support democratic reforms as well as the free market initiatives that have contributed to Georgia’s relative prosperity. In addition, while embracing ties with NATO, Ivanishvili declared his intention to improve relations with Russia. The muted Russian reaction to his electoral victory may well indicate that Moscow, like many observers, sees these positions as inherently contradictory, if not unattainable.
A second concern is Russia’s effort to gain influence over the Georgian energy sector. An important element of the changed Russian-Ukrainian relationship was Moscow’s suggestion that the Ukrainian state oil sector merge with Russia’s gas company. Oil is an equally significant factor in Moscow’s interest in Georgian territory. The South Caucasus Pipeline or, as it is otherwise known, Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum (BTE) Pipeline drives Russia’s economic interest in Georgia. Just over 150 miles of the BTE’s 42-inch diameter pipeline are on Georgian territory and Georgia, as a transit country, will derive tremendous economic benefits in the future. Equally important is the fact that this pipeline, which will supply Europe with Caspian natural gas, is currently beyond Russian control. It is likely that one of the first challenges of the Ivanishvili administration will be to respond to Russian proposals for a merger that will give Russia at least some control over the pipeline that bypasses its territory.
A third concern is the complicated relationship among Georgia, Russia and Iran. Although Georgia does not enjoy major power status, it has emerged as a significant if indirect participant in the current Iranian crisis. According to Israeli sources, Israel’s anticipated response to the emerging threat of Iranian nuclear weapons development depends on support provided by both the Georgian Republic and Azerbaijan. Even though Georgian-Israeli relations were strained by Israel’s decision to cultivate its relationship with Russia by selling arms to Moscow, deep cultural linkages are keeping Tbilisi and Tel Aviv together. Georgia’s Jewish community has a 2,600-year history having suffered greatly during Soviet times. As of the 1970s, there were more than 80,000 Jews living in Soviet Georgia. Most of that community immigrated to Israel and only 13,000 remained. This situation underscores the close relationship between Tbilisi and Tel Aviv. While it is unclear if an Ivanishvili administration would upset the long-standing ties between the two nations, it is clear that Ivanishvili’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow will be a barrier to Georgian participation, however indirect, in an Israeli move against Teheran.
Israeli efforts to improve relations with Russia have their own dynamic that has only an indirect relevance to Tel Aviv’s attitude toward Georgia. In the summer of 2012, there were violent clashes between the forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has a long tradition of good relations with Armenia and has become a main supplier of weapons to Yerevan. Regarding the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia plays an important role in this conflict and the Russians are dependent upon Tehran for providing all of the fuel for their base. This situation encourages speculation that Russia will assist Iran in the event of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
On balance, the Georgian election has demonstrated Russia’s continuing interest in asserting itself as a global power. That power is being felt in the post-Soviet space as well as in the energy-rich and unstable Middle East. Moscow’s ability to achieve its Georgian goals may well determine whether it regains its long-sought super power status or remains a second tier nation struggling to reclaim a lost empire.