Michael Cecire explains why the new Georgian leadership will not dramatically change Georgia’s foreign policy:
And unlike Ukraine, where popular support for NATO was never particularly strong, Euro-Atlantic integration is mostly a consensus issue in Georgia. Conversely, despite ordinary Georgians’ largely positive feelings toward Russians, support for a pro-Moscow foreign policy is a politically punishable offense in Georgia, as evidenced by the now-lifeless political careers of previous opposition leaders who have sought accommodation with the Kremlin. This fact was certainly not lost upon Ivanishvili, whose populist campaign was keen to burnish its Euro-Atlantic credentials with the Georgian public as well as Western representatives. In a race typified by rampant public policy incoherence on both sides, Georgian Dream’s reliably pro-West stance is significant and cannot be dismissed [bold mine-DL].
That last point is especially important. It would be one thing if a genuinely “pro-Russian” party made all the right noises about wanting to pursue integration with Europe and NATO. One could say that this was done to placate Western governments but might not be very meaningful. That isn’t what has happened in Georgia. The opposition coalition wasn’t “pro-Russian” to start with, and it would have gone nowhere politically if it had been. The opposition endorsed the same goals for Georgian foreign policy that the ruling party had because that is the consensus view. The opposition also did this because some of the individuals responsible for sharping Georgian Dream’s foreign policy positions, such as Georgia’s former U.N. ambassador Irakli Alasania, were working for the Georgian government not that long ago before they became disillusioned and disgusted with Saakashvili’s leadership. Hard as it might be for some Americans to appreciate, other nations’ political contests don’t have to break down along pro- and anti-Western lines, and those elections don’t normally have major implications for that country’s foreign policy. If a country does suddenly reorient itself after an election, that’s usually a good sign that its previous orientation was something being forced on the country sharply contrary to its interests.
Another important difference between Ukraine and Georgia is that the prospect of NATO membership was a divisive issue that cut along the country’s existing regional and ethnic lines. Pursuing NATO membership wasn’t just unpopular, but also symbolized Yushchenko’s efforts to make Ukraine’s position an openly anti-Russian on in a country with a large number of ethnic Russians. While there is a constituency in Ukraine for a more “pro-Russian” or at least more balanced policy, one does not exist in Georgia. As Cecire explains, the ongoing dispute over the separatist republics continues to limit Russian-Georgian reconciliation:
Beyond policy platforms or leadership styles, however, Georgia’s relationship with Russia — and Russia’s with Georgia — will remain tethered to national interests. For Georgia, its independence is nonnegotiable, including its choice of friends as well as the prickly issue of the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Indeed, the relative support among Georgians for closer ties with the West pales in comparison to the universal desire to reintegrate the breakaway regions, which maintain their separatist status only through Moscow’s patronage.
As Fyodor Lukyanov noted over the weekend, the dispute is not going to be resolved anytime soon. Russia isn’t changing its position on the “independence” of these breakaway regions, and Georgia won’t be giving up on them. However, there are possibilities for improved relations on other issues if both parties are willing to settle for the status quo on South Ossetia and Abkhazia for the time being. Lukyanov writes:
Improvements in all other areas are possible provided Georgia takes the initiative. Russia will not take the lead, because it has little interest in Georgia. After recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow does not need anything else from Tbilisi. The new Georgian authorities can express the desire to resume diplomatic relations and are likely to receive a positive response. Cultural relations will probably improve and the two sides may resume the issuing of visas, although visa-free travel is unlikely.
Lukyanov adds that relations could improve much more significantly if Georgia were to rule out joining NATO. As long as NATO keeps encouraging Georgia to seek membership, it seems unlikely that Georgia would do that on its own. One thing that could remove this obstacle to improved Georgian-Russian relations is a decision on the part of the alliance to postpone or forego further eastward expansion. Continued NATO expansion makes no sense for the alliance, and remaining outside NATO doesn’t mean giving up on Georgia’s goal of integrating into Europe in other ways. This would be an instance when the U.S. could do itself and Georgia a favor by dispelling the illusion that Georgia will one day join the alliance.