Can Georgian-Russian Relations Improve?


Recent statistics showed that in January 2018, Russia became the biggest export partner of Georgia ($28,665 mln), while overall in trade balance, the country is currently second ($94 mln) only after Turkey ($112 mln) and slightly ahead of Azerbaijan – $91 mln. This is an interesting development: while tensions between the countries are high and the 10th anniversary of the Russo-Georgian military conflict is imminent, Moscow and Tbilisi, in fact, enjoy pretty intensive economic activity.

However, as will be shown, despite these positive economic trends, the relationship between the two countries will be difficult to improve as Tbilisi and Moscow share some fundamental differences in foreign policy.

Although the majority in Georgia regard Russia negatively, its geographic proximity to Georgia forces the latter to talk and have economic relations. Georgia’s geographic position allows Tbilisi to be more active as a regional transit hub, and not be oriented towards one country (hypothetically Russia). However, this also does not preclude Georgia and Russia from talking to each other and fostering economic relations. The non-existence of diplomatic relations as well as fundamental differences regarding the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions would not stop the Georgian government from creating closer economic contacts with Russian businesses. It is a fact that Russia is Georgia’s neighbor, and it would be impossible not to talk to Moscow on a permanent basis. To that end, the current Georgian leadership is doing so rather cleverly. The recent statement from the Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili on breaking the deadlock in bilateral relations between the two countries is based on the reality that you cannot avoid Russia in this region.

It could be argued that Georgia is pursuing a clever strategy of positioning itself not as an anti-Russian state, but also not abandoning its pro-western course. The ideal scenario for Tbilisi would be when all the neighboring countries have a stake in the security of Georgia. In addition, large players, such as China with its Belt and Road Initiative, the EU, the US and others would also be involved in the economics of the country. This might create a certain balance in the region.

Countries might be enemies, but geopolitics can at times dictate otherwise. Governments may be attacking each other diplomatically, but economic relations can only thrive. In the modern world, where economic competition is intense, and the globe is becoming an increasingly interconnected place, rarely do neighboring countries negate any economic cooperation because it is at times impossible to do so.

Economic interconnectedness through supply chains eventually breaks down large geographic and man-made barriers like those, for instance, created between the Tskhinvali region (“South Ossetia”) and the rest of Georgia. Russia-Georgia economic cooperation proves that economic progress tramples geopolitics. In other words, the economic interconnectedness through the creation of supply chains and corridors (via new railways, sea ports and pipelines) could replace geopolitics as a primary driver of relations between the countries.

Then, what is the Future of Georgian-Russian Relations? How far can possible cooperation go? Is Georgia simply being forced by the realities of the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus to become more open to Russia, or it is a continuation of the policy the current Georgian government has pursued throughout the past several years: pro-Western foreign policy and maintaining contacts with Russia? Too large questions to answer for the moment, but it nevertheless shows that Tbilisi and Moscow have much to talk about. Both could cooperate in the security realms as well as deepening economic ties.

At the same time, this potential limited cooperation would not mean a rosy picture for the future of Russia-Georgia relations. Moscow is very unlikely to give up on its policy towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while Tbilisi will remain principled towards its territorial integrity. Moreover, Russia has issues with Georgia’s foreign policy moves, its pro-western course, which would mean that Russia’s geopolitical aims in the Caucasus are in danger.

These fundamental problems will prevent any significant improvement, but the two states could talk over at least some differences in order to decrease tensions. This brings us back to the Georgian PM’s statement on reaching a breakthrough in relations with Russia. Indeed, a “breakthrough” here does not signify anything overly important, it just emphasizes the fact that there exists the need for engaged Georgia-Russia talks.

Emil Avdaliani

12 March 2018 19:22