The 5th anniversary of the Georgia-Russia War, the visit of President Putin to Baku a few days ago, and continued debate about Armenia's new relations with the EU have increased focus on Russia's role in the Caucasus Region. In the first in a series of commonspace.eu interviews and articles about Russia and the Caucasus, Marion Kipiani spoke to Giorgi Kanashvili, Director of the civil society organisation Caucasian House, about the future of Georgian-Russian relations.
Your organization, the Caucasian House, has been involved in Russian-Georgian dialogue projects particularly for young experts in the field of politics, human rights, and journalism. Can you briefly tell us about the scope and aims of your activities?
The project aims to raise awareness of Georgian-Russian mid-level experts about Georgian-Russian relationships and establish platforms of cooperation among them. Caucasian House for the last two years has already organized nine meetings between Russian and Georgian experts. Most of them were held in Tbilisi, but we were also able to organize one in Moscow. The main target group of the project is a new generation of experts. We think that problems and a lack of confidence are observed on all level of expert society. However, the nonexistence of channels for direct communication and cooperation between the new generation of experts makes this group especially vulnerable toward state propaganda. That pushed us to concentrate on this segment of our societies.
How do you evaluate the potential of dialogue initiatives (both those conducted by Caucasian House and by other organizations) to influence the broader Russian-Georgian relationship? In which areas do you see particular impact?
We don't have any illusions toward the influence of such dialogue process; it is very difficult to measure direct outcome of such type of projects. Still, we think that a multilevel dialogue between various groups of experts will bring results. Maybe these results will often not be directly felt, but still both in Georgia and Russia some circles of politicians are taking in account information they get from the expert society. Of course not every recommendation crafted in policy documents developed by the expert society will be "translated" into state policy. Nevertheless I am deeply convinced that part of such documents are read and noticed.
How do you assess the sentiment within the Georgian population toward the Russian Federation? Can you say anything about the reciprocal feelings of Russians vis-à-vis Georgia?
Georgian society lives in illusions toward Russia and about a "Georgian-Russian brotherhood"; the same applies to one small segment of Russian society. The "brotherhood" narrative is less popular on the level of Georgian youth, but quite popular amongst older generations, especially in rural areas. Even the war 2008 has not radically changed this narrative. Under the rule of [President Mikheil] Saakashvili this discourse was marginalized. Under the new ruling power [the "Georgian Dream" government led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili], we see a reincarnation of these myths. But on the level of elites and politically more educated society we don't observe this tendency.
Despite an improvement in bilateral relations since the August 2008 war, and particularly since the change of government in Georgia following parliamentary elections in October 2012, progress on the most contentious issue between the two countries - Russian recognition of state independence of and military support to Abkhazia and South Ossetia - appears to be completely stalled. Do you see any possibility in the short to medium term to move beyond deadlock?
For the moment we observe even a worsening of the situation on the ground; I think it is not linked to any "weakness" of the new Georgian government. The main pillars [of Georgian-Russian relations] for the moment are: the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014, which directly affect Georgian-Ossetian and particularly Georgian-Abkhazian relations and leads to a "closing" of both entities; and also the lack of readiness of all three actors - Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia - with regard to the change of the ruling party in Georgia. Nobody was expecting that the "Georgian Dream" would come into government, or the subsequent change of policy on the Georgian side towards the conflicts. The Georgian government proclaimed the policy - "Everything but Recognition"; which represents a radical change in policy, and nobody was ready for such a proactive and cooperative policy from the Georgian government. I think during the next year we will observe a process of elaboration of new attitudes on all sides. I am quite sure there will be changes on the grass-root level, regarding humanitarian issues etc which in the medium term have a capacity to improve the degree of mutual confidence both on the level of elites as well as on society level. Nevertheless I do not envisage any breakthrough regarding political and statues related issues.
How do you evaluate the efforts of the Government of Georgia, particularly the Prime Minister's Special Representative for relations with the Russian Federation, in improving bilateral ties? What would be your recommendations to take these efforts further?
Cautious optimism and rational approaches both from Georgian and Russian sides must be only welcomed. I cannot remember any negative events for that last nine months, except the situation about the so called "borderization" process. [The process of demarcating and installing border barriers along the Administrative Boundary Lines, especially with South Ossetia, ed.] The new [Georgian] government inherited difficult Georgian-Russian relations, and we should not have illusions regarding this process, this very slow and painful process. Any speed-up can cause serious problems and disappointment.
I could recommend more focus for engagement on educational institutions, establishing contacts on the level of universities. Of course trade related issues are also very important. Nevertheless the Georgian government must not forget to work with the international community and organizations, explaining the motives and aims of Georgian-Russian normalization [in relations], particular steps are necessary regarding our closest allies such as Poland and Baltic Countries. Perceptions towards this process are especially ambiguous in these countries.
Of course the so called "borderization" issue must be raised on every meeting between [Special Representative Zurab] Abashidze and [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy] Karasin, and within the Geneva talks [the internationally mediated talks for stability and security in the South Caucasus, initiated after the August 2008 War, ed.]. Normalization is one thing, but another thing are our "red lines", which must not be forgot.
In your view, how could the international community support the improvement of relations between Georgia and Russia? Are there any initiatives, programs, or policies you find specifically helpful, or do you see a lack of adequate policies?
I think the international community could work as on societal, also on the governmental level. First of all the international community must send clear signals. The new Georgian government internally is very seriously criticized by the opposition because of its "soft" positions towards the Russian occupation [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia], in this context the voice of the international community has utmost importance. On the other side our international partners have to observe the process of normalization pro-actively and give recommendations to the Georgian government in an off-the-record regime. On the level of civil society there is still much to do. One format is solely Georgian-Russian meetings, but there is potential to engage expert and civil society representatives of these two countries within other formats and configurations.
Marion Kipiani interviewed Giorgi Kanashvili for commonspace.eu.