What is Russia seeking? relations between Tbilisi and Moscow


What is Russia seeking? relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have been characterized by
tension and mutual mistrust, ever since Georgia declared its
independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The South
Caucasian state has sought to maintain an autonomous and pragmatic
foreign policy that removes it from the Russian sphere of influence and the
new leadership in Georgia has been inclined to seek the engagement of
external actors such as the EU, the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the US, demonstrating its desire to
integrate with the West. This has upset Moscow, which is unhappy with its
southern neighbor’s European leanings and rewarding relationship with
Washington, particularly the growing US military influence in the South

Moscow is seeking to retain its influence over former Soviet states
such as Moldova and Belarus, believing that it has “lost” Georgia and
Ukraine to the West. President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Moscow will
continue trying to influence affairs in former Soviet states, dismayed at
perceived Western attempts to “manufacture democracy” in what it
considers to be its own “strategic backyard.”13 As a result, Moscow has
been seeking to re-assert its waning hegemony by means of political
posturing and saber-rattling, attempting to manipulate separatist conflicts
as foreign policy instruments. However, far from enabling Moscow to retain
influence, its manipulation of events in regions such as South Ossetia and
Abkhazia have hastened Georgia’s move towards the West, strengthening
its desire to join organizations such as NATO and reduce the leverage that
Russia has.

With the majority of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian population
claiming Russian citizenship, Moscow is able to cite concerns for the
security of its citizens as a possible motive for escalation of the conflicts.
The Russian authorities did precisely that in July 2004 with the statement
that Moscow “will not remain indifferent towards the fate of its citizens,
which compromise the absolute majority of South Ossetia.”14 This rhetoric
has yet to be backed up by any real action and, despite 15 years of socalled “independence,” the secessionist regions are still a part of Georgia
and neither de jure independent, nor a legal part of Russia. If Moscow
really wanted to incorporate South Ossetia, then it has the means to
achieve this. The fact that this has not happened indicates that, while it
enjoys the leverage over Georgia that involvement in these conflicts lends
it, it is not keen to actually take full control and propel itself into a full-scale
war with a neighboring state.
Russia holds the key to the resolution of Georgia’s territorial
disputes, and plays a crucial role both in keeping them alive and in
moderating tensions. In the wake of the agreement between Moscow and
Tbilisi in 2005 regarding the closure of Russian military bases on Georgian
territory, there was hope that this positive momentum could be harnessed
to resolve other major sticking points in the bilateral relationship, notably
the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, there is some doubt
as to whether Russia is genuinely interested in facilitating the resolution of
these conflicts. First, this would deprive them of leverage over Tbilisi.
Second, an unstable Georgia is a lot less attractive to the West in terms of
investment and political partnership and thus would enable Moscow to
retain its dominant influence in the region.

 It could be argued that the
Russian approach is short-sighted for while it may benefit in the short-term
from political leverage over its southern neighbor by providing support for
Georgia’s separatist groups, in the longer term such intervention is only
going to lead to further instability in the Caucasus. Moscow will gain far
more from encouraging the development of a stable country on its volatile
southern border and co-operating with Tbilisi to tackle transnational
problems such as drugs and weapons trafficking.
Unable to stop itself meddling in what they still consider to be its
own backyard, Russian officials hold periodic meetings with the leaders of
Georgia’s separatist regions and in September 2005 hosted a conference
of self-proclaimed republics, the so-called Commonwealth of Unrecognized
States, which included representatives from South Ossetia,

 Abkhazia and
Transdniestr.15 This tacit recognition by a major world power encourages
the separatists to persist with their demands and balk at negotiations.
South Ossetian officials have rejected a series of peace proposals put
forward by Tbilisi, which offered considerable autonomy, on the basis that
the region is already independent and agreeing to a deal would essentially
represent a step backwards.. There were no official representatives from
either South Ossetia or Russia at a peace conference held in Batumi in July

14 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Statement “V svyazi s
obostreniem situatsii vokrug Yuzhnoi Osetii” 9 July 2004 -

2005, at which Saakashvili unveiled new proposals to resolve the conflict,
stating that the status quo is unsustainable and Georgia will aggressively
pursue peace as he is not prepared “to wait for the next 100 years to
resolve these problems.”16 According to the Georgian authorities, most of
the key security positions in the South Ossetian administration are
occupied by ex- or current Russian officials. Givi Targamadze, the
chairman of Georgia’s parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, has
described talks with South Ossetia as “pointless” because “the key posts in
Tskhinvali are directly appointed by Russia,” while the local authorities have
no influence.17
One of the principal obstacles to an agreement between Russia and
Georgia over the separatist regions is the issue of border monitoring. Tbilisi
has demanded that it be permitted to establish checkpoints in Abkhazia and
South Ossetia to monitor the border with Russia. It believes that the placing
of customs officers and border guards at Adler and Leselidze in Abkhazia
and the Roki Pass in South Ossetia will tackle the problem of smuggling,
which it alleges is facilitated by the current lack of controls. 

The Roki Pass
contains a tunnel, through which the Transcaucasian highway travels, the
sole road linking South Ossetia with Russia.18 Georgian concerns over the
pass have been compared to Russian fears over the Chechen sector of the
Russian-Georgian border: when Moscow became increasingly frustrated
that Chechen guerrillas were able to escape by crossing the massive
Caucasus mountain range, Georgia agreed to Russian calls for joint control
of this section of the border in an attempt to halt the flow of fighters and
arms to the North Caucasus republic. In contrast to this co-operation,
Moscow has remained intransigent over the issue of joint monitoring of the
Roki Pass and the issue has been largely ignored, although Tbilisi is
continuing its calls for international monitoring of the situation to
independently establish the quantity of weapons and armed formations in
the region in order to put an end to unsubstantiated rumors that merely
served to inflame the tense situation further 

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