Challenging Georgian ambitions: Medvedev’s warning and implications
The Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Russia.
“Discussions about the possible inclusion of Georgia in NATO are resurfacing. We do not need a repetition of the 2008 history. We, as before, are ready to solve issues through negotiations in the spirit of the UN Charter. However, if real outlines of concern emerge, we will not delay. The idea of joining Russia remains popular in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And it can very well be realized if substantial reasons arise for it,” Medvedev wrote in an article titled Unlearned Lessons, dedicated to the events of 2008.
In Tbilisi, the statement of the Russian official was met with indignation, urging respect for the fundamental principles and norms of international law and adherence to the ceasefire agreement of August 12, 2008. Some Russian experts even claimed that Medvedev jeopardized Russian-Georgian relations. However, in Georgia’s leadership is the Georgian Dream Party, which in recent years has taken a series of steps to bring the country closer to Russia and distance itself from the West.
Tbilisi maintains neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian war: the country does not join sanctions against Russia, resulting in an increase in trade between Georgia and Russia over the past year and a half. The Georgian government succeeded in restoring direct air connections. Russian cruise liners began to visit Georgia. And although Tbilisi supports Kyiv in international organization votes, the policy of the Georgian leadership is quite acceptable to Moscow.
It’s not surprising that the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergey Lavrov, even praised Tbilisi for not joining the Western sanctions against Russia. So why then is the Kremlin complicating relations with a partner loyal to it by threatening to annex occupied parts of Georgia? Is Russia ready to start a new conflict in the South Caucasus?
To some extent, Medvedev’s statement can be explained by Kremlin’s fears that Georgia might become a member of NATO. However, the fact is that despite all the Alliance’s decisions and the readiness of the Georgian army, Tbilisi’s membership is still far from realization.
On one hand, this is due to Tbilisi’s policy of scaling back democratic reforms, which leads to power concentration within the Georgian Dream Party and its gray cardinal, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as well as a crisis in relations with the West. On the other hand, although NATO confirms (including at the summit in Vilnius) that Georgia will become a member of the organization, the Alliance is not ready to admit this South Caucasus country. As with Ukraine, the main reason is the fear of escalating conflict with Russia.
The fact that Georgia is currently in a gray area is more than satisfactory for Moscow. However, statements resembling Medvedev’s threats are likely to further distance Tbilisi from NATO, increasing the Georgian government’s fear of a new Russian invasion. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has other objectives in mind as well, by threatening Georgia with the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Firstly, in Moscow, they want Tbilisi to recognize the “new geopolitical realities,” which refer to the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This was directly stated by Medvedev himself in an interview with TASS and RT: “I hope Georgian leaders will have enough pragmatism to recognize the realities, including the existence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent subjects of international law, and to build relations with them, as historically, these are closely related nations.”
They also demand that Tbilisi acknowledge the “responsibility” for aggression and “war crimes” against South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, sign an agreement on non-use of force, and carry out work on demarcating the “borders.” However, even though the”Georgian Dream Party is taking significant steps towards Russia, the Georgian government will not comply with such demands from Moscow, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali. Otherwise, it would mark the end of the Georgian Dream Party’s stay in power.
Secondly, by threatening to incorporate Abkhazia and South Ossetia into its territory, Russia aims to strengthen its influence in the South Caucasus. The issue is that Moscow is gradually losing ground in the region: after February 24, 2022, Baku, leveraging the redirection of Russian military resources to the Russian-Ukrainian front, increasingly acts in Karabakh with less regard for the Kremlin. Moreover, Russia’s influence over Yerevan is diminishing gradually: it seems that the Armenian leadership now views Iran and the West, rather than Russia, as guarantees for its security.
However, it’s unlikely that the Kremlin, already engaged in the war with Ukraine, is willing to open a “second front” in the South Caucasus against Georgia. Moreover, the quasi-state unifications themselves aren’t overly eager to become part of the Russian Federation, as the former Russian president writes.
Balancing neutrality and regional ambitions
The President of South Ossetia, Alan Gagloyev, claims that “we are ready today to develop integration processes with the Russian Federation, leading to joining the RF.” However, South Ossetian bloggers note that while the idea of South Ossetia joining Russia is quite popular among the population, it’s seen in the context of unification with North Ossetia into the state of Alania within the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, the main motive for this is the fear of Georgia’s invasion.
While Medvedev’s words were welcomed in Tskhinvali, they didn’t spark enthusiasm in Sukhumi. As testified by Sergei Shamba, the Secretary of the Security Council of Abkhazia, his country doesn’t consider the option of becoming part of the Russian Federation. According to him, the political forces in the republic “advocate for close and allied relations with Russia,” but not to become one of its subjects: “We don’t have political forces that propose joining Russia. We have our own unique path.”
At first glance, Shamba’s seemingly peculiar statement makes sense: the Abkhazians fear that Russians will buy up land and property. In the event of incorporating the quasi-state unification into Russia, the role of local establishment in governing Abkhazia and its opportunities for enrichment would decrease, while the role of incoming Varangians from rural Russia would increase. Even though Abkhazia is a Russian satellite, the Abkhazian clans don’t want to share power, money, and property. That’s why Sukhumi favors the status quo.
Furthermore, although Abkhazia is dependent on Russia in many areas (military, tourism, etc.), this dependency is less pronounced than in South Ossetia. This is primarily because Turkey holds significant positions in Abkhazia, as it’s interested in two things in the partially recognized republic — scrap metal and nuts.
Moscow is well aware of these peculiarities of the Abkhazian “kitchen.” The negative reaction from Tbilisi to the statement of the former Russian president was evident to Russians. However, Medvedev’s threat to incorporate Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian Federation is a demonstration of Russian ambitions, reminding Tbilisi of Russia’s interests as it grows weaker.
Originally posted by Volodymyr Kravchenko on Zn.ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website