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"What will the Russians do next?" This is the question I heard debated in multiple conversations in Georgia earlier this month.
Friday June 27 is a big day for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as their leaders travel to Brussels to sign Association Agreements with the European Union and agreements on deeper economic ties known as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.
Moscow has already registered its disapproval. The Russian government has weapons to hand it can use in Moldova and Ukraine to try to slow the two countries' progress towards European integration. Ukraine is in a protracted crisis, largely of Russia's making. Moldova has a parliamentary election later this year in which the pro-Russian Communist Party is a major contender.
Georgia is a different proposition, being far more independent of Russia both economically and politically. In April this year, Russian officials let it be known that they would not try to disrupt Georgia's progress towards the EU Association Agreement.
In a recent paper, Sergi Kapanadze, a former Georgian deputy foreign minister who now runs a think-tank in Tbilisi, has compiled a useful list of the "pressure points" that Russian can use to squeeze Georgia if it wants to.
They include expelling Georgian migrant workers from Russia, as happened in 2007; cutting off the large remittance flows; re-imposing a ban on Georgian exports of wine and agricultural products. Russia could also invite South Ossetia to call a referendum on unification with North Ossetia and the Russian Federation. This is the desire of the new majority party in the South Ossetian parliament and was discussed with Kremlin envoy Vladislav Surkov over the last few days.
The trouble with these measures, from Moscow's point of view, is that they would most likely produce the opposite effect of what was intended, further alienating Georgians from Russia.
Russia still has a much weaker foundation in Georgia than in either Moldova or Ukraine. In Georgia's recent municipal elections the party of former speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze, who positioned herself as "the only opposition" with a pro-Russia and anti-Europe program won only 12 percent of the vote.
Years of aggressive behavior have reduced support for Russia amongst Georgians, despite many historical and religious ties.
That is why we can expect Russia to continue to use more carrots than sticks in Georgia.
A new rapprochement with Moscow since the Georgian Dream coalition took office in October 2012 has had results. Georgian wine has now recovered its position in the Russian market and more than 15 million bottles were sold in the first quarter of this year. Georgia took part in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Negotiations are taking place about easing visa restrictions.
Moscow will try to build a new support-base using friendly businesses, non-governmental organizations and elements in the church. Pro-Russian actors will portray the EU as a purveyor of decadence and a threat to Georgian traditional values. And they will try to exploit inevitable disappointment that the new free trade agreement with the EU is not providing instant relief from high unemployment.
In short, an exertion of soft power by stealth is Russia's best chance of re-establishing influence in Georgia. And its only chance of success is if the new economic relationship between the EU and Georgia fails to deliver results.
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