Last Sunday, Georgia has completed its first constitutional transition of power since gaining independence 22 years ago. The Georgian people have a big reason to celebrate, even if some are still reeling from last year's electoral defeat and others may eventually become disappointed in the hopes of a quick material improvement in their lives. Later this month, Georgian leaders will also participate in the European Union's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, where Tbilisi is likely to sign an association agreement with the EU. This would agree with the Georgian elites' long-time yearning to be joined with Europe.

At Sunday's inauguration ceremony, one foreign delegation was conspicuously absent. Diplomatic relations with Russia, broken off by Tbilisi at the time of the 2008 war in South Ossetia, have not been restored. Moscow, for its part, has recognized independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and set up military bases in both. Despite the recent relaxation of Russia's economic sanctions against Georgia and the ongoing dialogue between the two countries' senior diplomats in Geneva, Moscow and Tbilisi remain wide apart and apparently headed in opposite directions.

This, however, may not always hold true. President Vladimir Putin's vision of a Russia-led "geopolitical unit" in Eurasia marks a wholly new departure in Moscow's foreign policy. So far, the bulk of the attention has been focused on Ukraine, where Putin is fighting hard to steer Kiev away from Brussels and toward Moscow. Putin's master plan, however, reaches beyond Ukraine. Armenia, Georgia's neighbor, has already indicated its intention to integrate with Russia, its sole strategic ally. That Armenia is physically isolated from Russia is no problem for Putin: in that sense, it is just like Kaliningrad, and perfectly manageable.

Putin may not need Georgia as a land bridge to Armenia, but he may need it in its own right, as a fellow Christian Orthodox country with historically very strong links to Russia. His oft-expressed contempt for former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili notwithstanding, Putin has always spoken warmly about the ties between the Russian and Georgian people. Now that Saakashvili is finally history, the Russian leader may be ready to make an offer to his successors, and the Georgia people.

The main issue in Georgian-Russian relations is, of course, the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has steadfastly refused to "de-recognize" the two enclaves, but, in keeping with the pattern of giving material concessions to those willing to join Putin's Eurasian project, it might come up with an idea which at least some Georgians would find appealing. What, for example, if the Russians offered Georgia a reunion of sorts with its estranged ex-provinces again—within a confederate scheme and in the framework of economic integration with Russia. Many Georgians would reject such an offer out of hand, but many may be tempted to try it. The outcome of their hypothetical competition looks uncertain, of course, but the chances that Russia will soon take an active interest in Georgia are going up. Comparing the situation in the Caucasus with that of the Balkans, Moscow may be wondering whether it can borrow a page from the EU's book on Serbia and Kosovo.

  • Dmitri Trenin