What Will the New Dialogue Format with Russia Bring for Georgia?
By Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
In recent years, Georgian officials have expressed the idea of creating a new dialogue format with Russia on numerous occasions. According to their assessment, this should facilitate the resolution of the complicated problems existing between the two countries; first and foremost, those connected with the occupied territories. The former Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, was the first to speak about this publicly back in December 2017. More specifically, he expressed his readiness to get personally involved in the Geneva International Discussions which, in principle, would have amounted to the formation of a completely new format. Very recently, the President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, commented on this topic, stating that creating a format similar to that of the Normandy Four would be advisable for Georgia.
The idea of forming a new dialogue format with Russia cannot be assessed exclusively negatively. In theory, it could bring positive results for Georgia.
At the same time, it must also be pointed out that the so-called constructive policy that has been exercised by the Georgian Dream towards the Russian Federation since the 2012 Parliamentary Elections has not met with an adequate response from Russia. To speak of nothing else, it was in recent years that the tragic cases of Giga Otkhozoria, Archil Tatunashvili and Davit Basharuli took place. In addition, those who murdered these people have “demonstratively” received no punishment to this day.
Apart from this, the illegal detaining of Georgian citizens takes place regularly, coupled with moving the occupation line deeper within the territory controlled by the Government of Georgia. Pressure on the Georgian population living in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region has been intensified and their rights are being severely restricted.
At the end of September 2019, the first meeting between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Georgia and Russia since 2008 was not followed by any kind of promising response from Russia. Moscow has almost unequivocally stated that it does not plan on discussing the issue of occupation in any format, yet expects the Georgian side to continue dialogue nonetheless.
Now, let us move our attention from a rather heavy Georgian reality to the experiences of other countries. Among these, we should first speak about Ukraine which has for years futilely tried to resolve its very complicated problems with Russia in the abovementioned Normandy format.
At the beginning of December 2019, after a three-year pause, another meeting of the Normandy Four ended without any results. The three-year pause preceding the meeting does not bode very well for the efficiency of the format either and the gravity of the situation was further underlined by the fact that the meeting took place in a rather charged atmosphere.
Despite the fact that it was during his presidency that the Minsk Memorandum and Protocol were signed, the former President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, is now opposed to the implementation of this agreement, even though its implementation is the main topic of discussion of the Normandy format.
It would seem that the current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is also at best cautious about the implementation of this agreement. The reason for this is quite simple. According to the assessment of experts, in case of the implementation of the Minsk Protocols, Ukraine will be under the serious risk of a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Apart from the fact that the Normandy format has failed to find a political mechanism for resolving the conflict, the situation on the frontline remains difficult as well. After the most recent meeting of the Normandy format was completed, four Ukrainian soldiers died and seven were wounded on the Donbas front in the week of December 9-15. According to the information of the Ukrainians, Russian hybrid forces kept firing every day within that week.
Therefore, from this standpoint, talking about the efficiency of the Normandy format for Ukraine would unfortunately be completely groundless.
If we move our attention from Ukraine to Belarus, we shall see how the Russian Federation uses bilateral formats with its immediate allies. Belarus is probably the closest ally and strategic partner for Russia from the post-Soviet states. According to the statement of the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, partnership between the two countries does not only cover trade and financial-economic issues but a “common space for defense and special force activities” is also created.
Despite all of this, from the beginning of 2019, expert assessments and unclassified reports of the intelligence services of various countries stated that Moscow would be increasing pressure on Minsk with the aim of integrating Belarus into Russian Federation.
The developments confirmed that these expectations were justified. It would seem that the pressure on Belarus was exercised during the whole year on the basis of the 1999 agreement between the presidents of two countries on creating an allied state. The pressure reached its peak at the end of the year.
Given this background, Belarus is clearly trying to protect its sovereignty. On December 7, 2019, the main topic of the meeting between the leaders of the Russian Federation and Belarus that took place in Sochi was to agree on the roadmap for the further integration of the two countries. The meeting did not turn out to be very fruitful. Before departing to Sochi, President Lukashenko stated that “they never even considered for Belarus to become part of any other country, including its brotherly Russia, and this is not expected to happen in the future either.”
Soon after the completion of this meeting on December 9, the Head of the General Staff for the Belarussian Armed Forces, Oleg Belkonev, stated that official Minsk is ready to conduct joint exercises with NATO. However, he also added that such exercises can only take place with the understanding that Belarus is a strategic partner of Russia. Despite the second part of the statement, the political meaning behind it is quite clear.
Belarus’s position became even clearer after December 24 when in his interview with Echo of Moscow, Lukashenko stated that the possible attempt of the violation of the sovereignty of Belarus by Moscow will cause Russia’s conflict with the West; more specifically, NATO.
As it would seem, the fear of the danger of annexation from Russia is quite well grounded. How justified it is to think that Belarus will manage to evade this danger by holding a bilateral or even a multilateral dialogue with Russia alone is also quite simple to answer. Especially, since it seems that the results of Belarus’s dialogue and partnership with Russia is on full display.
Unfortunately, neither the time nor the political context give us the ground for thinking that Georgia’s starting a new dialogue format with Russia will bring positive results.
If the Government of Georgia still decides to launch such a format, this cannot only be justified by the fact that there is no alternative to dialogue. It must be stated from the outset what results we are expecting from this dialogue and when they will come. In such a case, even though the probability of reaching something positive with Russia will not increase, at least the political responsibility of the government will become clear.
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