The defeat in Georgia’s parliamentary polls of Russia’s bitter foe President Mikhail Saakashvili may remove some poison from venomous bilateral relations, but Moscow should not expect major policy changes from Tbilisi.
Despite opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s former Russian business interests, the head of victorious Georgian Dream party will be no outright cheerleader for the Kremlin, analysts said on Tuesday.
While a new personality will give Moscow an opportunity to mend some bridges with its small neighbour following their brief 2008 war, “Russia will not get much from the opposition’s victory in the polls,” said analyst Alexander Konovalov of the Institute for Strategic Assessments.
Once post-Soviet allies, Moscow and Tbilisi drifted apart following the 2003 rise of Saakashvili to power, and have been arch-enemies since the 2008 war.
The war ended with a crushing Russian victory and Moscow recognised two impoverished Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, to the fury of Saakashvili and the Georgian population.
“The problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will forever remain in the relationship between Russia and Georgia. No Georgian leader will recognise their breaking away, and Russia will never renounce their recognition,” Konovalov said.
Georgia’s richest man Ivanishvili, a likely prime minister after victory of his party in the polls, offered on Tuesday a carefully balanced strategy of both “normalising relations with Russia” and “becoming a Nato member.”
Such a strategy of pleasing everyone may turn out to be overly cunning, given that Moscow watches any moves by ex-Soviet states to join the Western military alliance with the greatest suspicion and as anything but normal.
Unlike Western-educated Saakashvili, Ivanishvili has left an extensive Russian trail: he was known in the country by the Russian name Boris, and held Russian citizenship until relinquishing it in late last year.
His fortune grew from an electronics firm in Moscow in the early post-Soviet capitalism years, to a vast empire spanning across Russia which included assets in banking, pharmaceuticals and mining.
Saakashvili’s campaign frequently painted the tycoon as an agent of Russian influence, a label Ivanishvili fought hard to shake off by selling all Russian business ahead of the vote to prove his domestic credentials.
While his Russian allegiances were “campaign legends”, Ivanishvili is still more likely to be approached by Moscow than Saakashvili, said Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy head of the Moscow-based CIS Institute.
“Ivanishvili is more approachable for talks,” he said, expecting this factor to cause a slight “thaw” in relations.
Both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have denounced Saakashvili as a criminal and refused to ever meet with the man.
A new face in Georgia’s leadership may lead to easing trade and visa barriers, which have hurt Georgia’s economy and its vast diaspora in Russia, analysts said.
Visibly absent on Russian supermarket shelves are Georgia’s prized mineral water and wine exports, which Moscow has banned on the grounds of health at a huge cost for the Georgian economy.
Medvedev, who was president at the time of the 2008 war, on Tuesday made friendly overtures to Ivanishvili, saying his party’s victory “seems to mean that the parliament is filling with more constructive and responsible forces.”
“Something will change: Ivanishvili is no stranger to Moscow,” said Alexei Malashenko of Moscow Carnegie Centre. Still, the status of Georgia’s breakaway provinces will remain a “hopeless” sticking point, he said.
“Some things are irrevocably lost, pieces of Georgia were hacked off,” he said. “Two or three generations will need to pass to smooth this out.”