By Eka Janashia (03/04/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Kremlin continues Russia's annexation of Georgia's breakaway regions and at the same time warns Tbilisi to cease its effort to integrate with NATO. On February 18, breakaway South Ossetia signed a "border treaty" with the Russian Federation, and declared its intention to strike an "Alliance and Integration" deal with Moscow shortly.
The agreement mirrors the "Alliance and Strategic Partnership" agreement inked between Moscow and Sokhumi in November, though envisions a deeper integration of the South Ossetia's defense, security, and customs agencies with those of Russia. An already signed border agreement dictates the abolishment of the border crossing point at the Roki tunnel connecting the South Ossetia to Russia.
The border eradication initiative was first aired by Vladislav Surkov, the Russian president's aide in charge of supervising Moscow's relations with the two de facto republics, on February 17, during a meeting with Abkhazia's de-facto president Raul Khajimba. "There must not be a border between us," Surkov said and added that Russia's financial support for the two breakaway regions would be upheld in the face of Russia's current economic troubles.
The border agreement between Moscow and Tskhinvali is a swift implementation of this initiative. After signing the border treaty, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed the Kremlin's readiness to avert the "negative effect" of "never-ending attempts to drag Tbilisi into NATO."
The Kremlin's apprehension is directed towards the establishment of NATO's "Training and Evaluation Center" (TAEC) in Georgia which, in the words of Russia's permanent representative in NATO Alexander Grushko, provokes Moscow, escalates tension and worsens regional security.
At the recent NATO summit in Wales, Georgia obtained a "substantial package," which along with other supportive tools, aims to enhance Georgia's defense capabilities through launching the TAEC, which could obtain a regional dimension in the future.
As part of this policy, NATO's Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow visited Georgia in January 2015. Vershbow assured that despite the Kremlin's nervous reaction towards the planned NATO-Georgia training center, the alliance will make a resolute effort to create the facility before the end of this year.
He underlined that the TAEC will be "the most visible element of a NATO presence in Georgia." While it will primarily focus on command post exercises, field exercises with participation of foreign troops as well as live and simulated trainings for allied military units committed to the NATO Response Force and Connected Forces initiative might also take place, Vershbow said. He also announced that periodic military exercises involving NATO allies and partner countries will start in Georgia this year.
The Kremlin's reaction to the high NATO official's statement was soon reflected in the border removal initiative and strict declarations on Russia's counter-measures to deal with the undesirable implications of NATO-Georgia cooperation. Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian Prime Minister's special representative for relations with Russia, commented that Moscow, Brussels and Tbilisi all are well-aware "that Georgia's membership to NATO today and tomorrow is not on the agenda" and that Georgia-NATO cooperation "in no way aims at deploying NATO military infrastructure in Georgia."
Later, Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze restated that Georgia has no plans to host a NATO military base and that only the TAEC, aiming to enhance the professionalism of Georgian servicemen and with no additional military functions, will be established. The parliamentary minority immediately slammed these official remarks. The former state minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration issues, Free Democrat Alexi Petriashvili dubbed Abashidze's statement another proof that the country's Euro-Atlantic course is under threat. The Free Democrats, led by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, quit the ruling coalition Georgian Dream (GD) in November with the same motivation.
The United National Movement (UNM) party, in turn, argued that Abashidze had voiced the government's position. The party's leader David Bakradze said that instead of distancing himself from Abashidze's statement, the defense minister had justified it.
Abashidze's statement came a few days before his meeting with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague. The Karasin-Abashidze format is the only channel for direct communication between Tbilisi and Moscow, established by former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. The previous government led by Mikheil Saakashvili government did not engage in direct negotiations with the Kremlin and preferred dialogue in an international format with the participation of representatives from partner countries.
While Russia's anti-NATO policy hardly surprised anyone, Abashidze's statement, which the opposition interpreted as appeasing to Moscow, was unexpected and triggered doubts about the consistency of Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Through the border removal initiative as well as the "amalgamation agreements" with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia signals that the establishment of a training center where the troops of NATO partners may hold military exercises is totally unacceptable to Kremlin. Georgia's incumbent government clearly seeks to avoid irritating Moscow, but it yet uncertain to what extent this stance will slow Georgia's NATO integration pace. However, ambiguous moves with regard to Euro-Atlantic policy not only cast doubt on Georgia's achievements at the Wales Summit, but also minimize its chances to reach any tangible success at the Warsaw Summit scheduled for next year.