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Jan 19, 2010 | 18:15 GMT

4 mins read

Georgia: A Changing View of Russia?

STRATFOR sources in Georgia have said that the country could be on the verge of scaling back its traditionally strong anti-Russian sentiments. Georgia's opposition parties are not becoming pro-Russian, as opposition movements in other former Soviet states have; rather, they are pushing for Tbilisi to take a more pragmatic position when it comes to dealing with Russia.
In recent weeks, multiple events in the former Soviet Union have clearly indicated that Russia is solidifying the gains it has made over the last few years during its resurgence in its former domain. These events have included the Jan. 1 launch of a customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and the overwhelming success of pro-Russian candidates in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election Jan. 17. Now, STRATFOR is hearing that one of the most pro-Western countries in the Russian periphery could be on the verge of significantly cooling its traditional anti-Russian sentiments. Georgia and Russia historically have had a quarrelsome relationship, particularly so since the Rose Revolution in 2003 swept current Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili into power. Under Saakashvili, Georgia has firmly aligned itself with the West, declaring its ambitions to join Western blocs (particularly NATO). Georgia's position has created constant tensions with neighboring Russia — tensions that culminated in the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. The two countries no longer share official diplomatic relations, and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin refuse to even speak to Saakashvili. But Georgia's position on Russia could be changing. STRATFOR sources in Georgia say certain elements within the political opposition in Tbilisi are calling for a more pragmatic stance toward Moscow. Although opposition forces in Georgia have been notoriously fragmented — with 14 or more parties that have never been able to form a united entity — the opposition parties are starting to try to consolidate their position. This is not to say that the Georgian opposition is becoming pro-Russian as opposition movements have in other former Soviet states; rather, they are of the mind that when Russia finishes consolidating its influence in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, it could focus its attention overwhelmingly on Georgia. The opposition parties have concluded that it is better to work with Russia than become the Kremlin's target again. As a case in point, the opposition Conservative Party on Jan. 18 called for serious talks about the normalization of Russo-Georgian relations and even offered to drop Georgia's NATO ambitions as a step toward such normalization — the first time a Georgian party has seriously proposed giving up the idea of NATO membership. Certain opposition elements have initiated steps to officially reinstitute talks between Tbilisi and Moscow. STRATFOR sources have said former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli has been particularly active in this regard. Nogaideli visited Moscow several times in late 2009 and even held private meetings with Putin. Though there is no obvious leader of the fragmented Georgian opposition, Nogaideli could end up filling that role. It appears that for the first time in years a political force is emerging in Georgia that is ready and willing to cooperate with the Kremlin, but Saakashvili has not had much tolerance for the opposition or their divergent views. Widespread protests in 2009 were met with a robust security presence, and Saakashvili even had the military ready to intervene in case the protests got out of hand. Indeed, STRATFOR sources have reported that Saakashvili has been instituting moves of his own to counter the opposition's warming feelings toward Moscow. The Georgian government recently launched a Russian-language television station called First Caucasian — rumored to be funded by Saakashvili personally — that broadcasts across Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, parts of Ukraine and into the Russian Caucasus, as well as the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia that have declared independence from Georgia. The station largely carries anti-Russian messages; its first day of broadcasts included criticism of Russia for a lack of democracy and accusations that Medvedev is planning a war with Ukraine over Crimea. In addition, the station's main correspondent is Alla Dudayeva, the widow of former militant and Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Dudayev led Chechnya in a bloody guerrilla war against Russian forces in the 1990s. Dudayeva's position as First Caucasian's lead correspondent clearly is meant to provoke Russia. Georgia, therefore, appears to be headed on two divergent paths as Saakashvili increases anti-Russian rhetoric while the opposition appears to be aiming to strengthen relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia will continue consolidating its position and will try to make sure that the opposition, not the government, prevails in the end.

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