Does Ivanishvili's win put Georgia back in Russia's orbit?
Though President Saakashvili tried to paint him as a Russian puppet before this week's election, experts say Ivanishvili's – and Georgia's – relationship with Russia remains complex.
Tbilisi, Georgia, and Moscow
This week's political upset in Georgia, which was a major defeat for the Kremlin's long time nemesis President Mikheil Saakashvili and may soon see the Russia-friendly tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili become prime minister in a more parliament-centered system, has many experts in both countries wondering whether the deep freeze in Moscow-Tbilisi relations that's prevailed since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war may finally begin to thaw?Skip to next paragraph
The short answer, most say, is yes – but only in modest steps.
The two countries were joined within the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for almost 200 years, and have many historic synergies that could be re-energized, but if Moscow is hoping to restore the old dependency relationship with Georgia it's certain to be disappointed. Following the 2003 "Rose Revolution," which tore Georgia from Russia's orbit and helped to trigger a series of pro-democracy revolts around the former USSR, Georgia consciously set out to integrate with the European Union and NATO. Those goals remain anathema to the Kremlin but Mr. Ivanishvili endorses them just as strongly as Mr. Saakashvili does.
Nor is Russia likely to back down on its support for two Georgian breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which fought and won bitter wars of independence from Georgia in the 1990s. When Saakashvili launched a military invasion of South Ossetia four years ago, killing a dozen Russian peacekeeping troops, it triggered a massive Russian reaction that smashed the Georgian army and led Russia to officially recognize the independence of the two little statelets. While Ivanishvili has blamed Saakashvili for starting the war, experts say it would be impossible for him, or any Georgian politician, to concede the permanent loss of those territories.
But the personal antipathy between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which goes back to the "Rose Revolution," may have played a role in the near-total alienation of Russia from Georgia following the war: The two sides have no diplomatic relations and trade between the two – Russia was formerly Georgia's chief trading partner – has sunk to just 4 percent of Georgia's total. Mr. Putin once notoriously threatened to "string Saakashvili up" by his nether parts, and swore never to speak to him. That could become a thing of the past next year, when Saakashvili leaves the presidency and the newly-empowered parliament takes control in Georgia, presumably with Ivanishvili at the helm.
"At least opening a dialogue is a task that can be easily achieved," once Saakashvili is gone, says Archil Gegashidze, an expert with the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
"Now we don't have diplomatic relations and Russia is occupying our territory, but there is space for improving relations with our neighbor. Ivanishvili may intend to explore those possibilities, without crossing any red lines," he adds.
At his first press conference following Monday's election, Ivanishvili blamed Saakashvili for aggravating relations with Russia, but insisted that he would follow the same basic course.
"I think Russia's irritation over Georgia's bid to join NATO was deepened by Saakashvili," Ivanishvili said.