There is a lot of talk around Russia-Georgia relations these days. One venue is the current “Geneva Process,” established in 2008 to attempt to sort out the mess created by the Georgian-Russian war. After seventeen meetings, there is no evidence of any significant progress. There is also a substantial array of informal processes involving all kinds of well-intentioned people from London, Washington, Georgia and Russia. They haven’t had any discernible impact either.
Outsiders have a substantial interest in the normalization of the bilateral relationship. The situation between Georgia and Russia complicates the Western reset of relations with the Russian Federation. The unresolved conflict between the two obstructs Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Although the situation on the ground in Georgia seems fairly stable, the presence of large Russian forces inside Georgia coupled with the general level of hostility between the two maintains a risk of renewed conflict.
So why doesn’t it move? Whatever outside interests might be, it is the parties involved who have to do the deal and make the concessions.
First up is Russia, which has no particular incentive to make concessions. It got most of what it wanted in the war, notably the end of NATO enlargement into the former Soviet region. They also got a secure military presence in a second Southern Caucasian country. And they got at least one very attractive piece of real estate. It would be very difficult to row back on their recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. WTO accession (currently blocked by Georgia) is important for Russia. But it is not important enough. They have done without membership for a long time, and we probably need it more than they do.
There are domestic constraints as well. The war was extremely popular in Russia. Saakashvili’s government has been successfully billed as an enemy run by an erratic authoritarian who is a danger to the region as a whole. Compromise might be perceived as caving in to the West. The domestic political consequences would likely be small, but the perceived costs at the margin outweigh any potential gain. Russia is moving towards elections. The margins may matter.
A second domestic constraint concerns the military. The war and its result restored the position of the military in public opinion. The general staff value the strategic gains. Trading in the gains would not sit well with them at what is already a sensitive moment in civil-military relations, given the involuntary mass retirement of senior and mid-ranking officers. The military has a pretty good record of steering clear of politics. But soldiers do vote. So do military pensioners.
Turning to Georgia, Saakashvili probably survived in 2008-2009 because of the imminence of the Russian threat and a natural tendency to rally round the flag and the leadership at a moment of national emergency. The government plays upon Russian hostility to justify its concentration of power and to discredit the opposition. This approach makes it difficult to have meaningful official conversations with the Russians.
One of many other constraints on the Georgian side is the question of internally displaced persons (IDPs), of which there are now around 300,000. They are a significant portion of the electorate. The government’s relations with the IDP community are already strained by forced evictions of IDPs from public buildings in the capital. Moves towards a settlement without a clear commitment to return them to their homes would be seen as betrayal.
The question of IDP returns highlights the fact that you can’t really talk about Georgia-Russia relations without thinking about the other two major protagonists – the breakaway territories. Given the hard feelings of displaced Georgians, IDP return would make the incumbent minorities less secure. It would involve huge challenges in reconciling property claims. And, particularly in Abkhazia, where returnees would constitute a near majority, it would greatly weaken the incumbent de facto authorities.
The Abkhaz and Osset experience of brutality in the 1993 war, the 2008 Georgian attack in South Ossetia, and the intervening period of interminable, essentially empty negotiations, hardly reassure them on Georgian good intentions. Very few people on the Abkhaz and Osset sides show any capacity to trust Georgia, or even to conceive of the possibility of reintegration into Georgia.
To search for peace and reconciliation is a good thing, but we should not kid ourselves: the obstacles are huge, the incentives for the parties small, and the prospects poor.
Neil MacFarlane is Lester B Pearson Professor of International Relations and Fellow, St Anne’s College.