Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
The first two days in April illustrate well the huge task that Zurab Abashidze, Georgia's Special Representative for Relations with Russia, faces as he tries to mend relations between the two neighbours.
On April 2, a Georgian delegation is due to discuss the crucial restart of agricultural exports with the leadership of the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor) in Moscow; the day before, Russia was dismissing Georgian complaints about its Black Sea exercise military exercises over the weekend, which involved up to 7,000 military personnel and more than 30 warships, describing Tbilisi's reaction as "the public inflation of a Russian threat to cover its own confrontational policy."
Given this backdrop, Abashidze is pushing pragmatism over emotion and "small steps" to end the political deadlock between the two countries that fought a war as recently as 2008.
Abashidze, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Russia in 2000-2004, was tapped by incoming Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili last year to restart a dialogue with Moscow. Ivanishvili had prioritized improving relations with Russia during his election campaign, and promoted a plan of reengagement that broke sharply with President Mikheil Saakashvili's rather recalcitrant policy toward a country with which relations had been tense since the break-up of the Soviet Union, then worsened after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The 2006 Russian embargo effectively ended diplomatic and commercial relations between the two neighbours, and Tbilisi severed all ties to Moscow after the August 2008 war.
The loss of trade with Russia, particularly for small farmers in Georgia's poorer western region, has been a blow to the economy. But reengaging with Moscow has been a political hot potato for Georgian politicians for the past decade, and Abashidze has repeatedly stressed that his meetings with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin are just "the first steps out of the deadlock," not a resumption of relations. "[This is] not yet a political process," he tells bne in an interview. "We started just talking on certain issues like trade, transport, culture and some humanitarian issues, and we will see if there is any chance to go forward."
To date, the two men have met twice, once in Geneva and one in Prague. A third meeting in Prague is planned for May. Each meeting is low key, and Abashidze is quick to underscore the importance of "small steps" over "loud noise... without creating exaggerated illusions, expectations."
Food for thought
Trade tops his agenda, with next up that meeting with Rosselkhoznadzor in Moscow set for April 2, as well as easing visa restrictions for Georgians. "There are a lot of Georgian interests in trade and commerce [in Russia]... We produce wine - they love wine. We produce fruits and vegetables - they like such products. They are fond of sun and sea and having fun - and we intend to be such a country, a good touristic route," he says.
But Abashidze stresses that exports to Russia - including wine, mineral water, citrus fruits and greens - is just part of the potential: a better working relationship could encourage more investment. "The reduction of political tensions will also stimulate many people in Russia, many Georgians... Previously, they had political restrictions from both sides," he says. "Now this is changing and people are quite optimistic in this regard."
The dangers of high expectations and unchecked emotion are uncomfortably close, however: while Georgians overwhelmingly approve of improving relations with Moscow, the level of reengagement they support varies widely.
Even as wine producers embrace the process of reopening the Russian market for wine and mineral water, the decision to send a national dance group to perform in the Kremlin met with public disgust and protests. "There is still a fear, this negative experience in our history... and the recent events of 2008 are unfortunately part of this very bad experience," he says. "But we cannot live always in the past, we cannot live only in the regime of full confrontation with Russia. This is not sustainable... so that is why we are speaking about pragmatism, that is why we are trying to change the current state of affairs to build upon some positive elements."
Abashidze is well suited for the challenge. He served as Georgia's top diplomat to Russia under the former Georgian president (and Soviet minister of foreign affairs) Eduard Shevardnadze. A tall and understated man prone to quoting proverbs, Abashidze is focused on concrete, achievable steps. "We are trying now to identify now those common interests and trying to work on that. Afterwards we will see what is next," he says. "When we move, when we start walking maybe at some point we will see what is next, [what is] on the other side of the horizon... as we say in this part of the world one speaks one thing at the beginning of the road, and one speaks another language at the top of the mountain."
For over two centuries, relations between Georgia and Russia have fluctuated from friend to foe. But Abashidze warns against attempts to restore "friendship" with Moscow. "The [Russian] politics [concerning] Georgia are not only based on emotional values. There is pragmatism, there are principals, there are interests of course," he says. "I am not very fond of using this word friendship between two countries. There might be friendship between people, between groups of people, but states are usually linked with state interests. This is the word that links two states and not the collective friendships."
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