Moscow has hailed the return of its ambassador to Georgia as a sign of Russian commitment to improving soured relations with the South Caucasus state, but many Georgian observers question whether the envoy's return will have any lasting effects. Some see the Kremlin's decision to return its Georgian envoy as motivated by a desire to avoid potentially embarrassing hearings on ties between Georgia and Russia originally scheduled for this week in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
Russia's ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, returned to his post in Tbilisi on January 23, four months after being recalled by the Kremlin following Georgia's arrest of five Russian military officers on charges of espionage. Relations between the two countries attracted particular international attention after Moscow shortly thereafter began to deport hundreds of ethnic Georgians from Russia. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Now, after months of criticism from the international community, Moscow has begun to emphasize its desire to start afresh with Georgia. In televised comments on January 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that Kovalenko "heads for a country that can claim not only special relations but good-neighborliness and friendship with Russia," the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported. The Russian leader presented Georgia's recent decision to buy gas from Russian energy giant Gazprom "in accordance with market principles" as "[t]he first such important step" in a joint campaign with Georgia to move "towards the normalization of bilateral relations." [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Putin's announcement came just five days before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) was scheduled to hold hearings on the massive deportations of ethnic Georgians from Russia following the officers' arrest and deportation, and on trade sanctions against Georgia that have resulted in the suspension of all postal and transport links with the country, as well as a ban on imports of Georgian mineral waters, wines and agricultural products. The Georgian government has argued that the Kremlin's actions are part of a campaign to subjugate the strategically located South Caucasus state to its political will. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The assembly announced on January 22 that it would postpone discussion of the deportations and sanctions until April. Two observers have been assigned to monitor the situation.
But while Russian media have presented the PACE decision as a clear victory for Russia, Georgian analysts cast the decision in a different light. Russia had no choice but to stand down and indicate its good intentions to the international community by returning its ambassador to Georgia, argued Dr. Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "They [Russia] looked a little bit stupid, a little bit too emotional for a super power [in light of the sanctions]," Rondeli said. "They had to show everybody the West that they did not do anything against us."
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Russian delegation to PACE and chairman of the Russian Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, has stated that the assembly's decision was the direct result of Russia's move to restore normal relations with Georgia. In an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax on January 22, he noted that Russia managed to "convince" the assembly that the planned debate would have "further politicized" the situation and caused "a new wave of mutual accusations."
Officially, Georgia has responded optimistically to the return of Russia's ambassador, but cautioned that much work remains to be done to restore Georgian trust in its northern neighbor.
"This is a very logical move by Russia and we welcome it," Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told reporters on January 23, according to remarks posted by the news bulletin service Civil.ge. "However, we expect more efficient moves by Russia that will demonstrate that Russia really wants equal relations with Georgia."
In a statement to the press on January 22, the head of the Georgian delegation to PACE, parliamentarian Giga Bokeria, a close associate of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, noted that "The decision of the PACE bureau indicates a chance [was] given to Russia, which must improve its attitude towards Georgia and demonstrate these improvements by April, the next session of the assembly."
The Russian ambassador is expected to meet with Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili following the Georgian official's return from a visit to Italy on January 25.
Not all observers, however, are convinced that a breakthrough in relations between the two states is in the offing. Vasily Tchkoidze, head of staff of the Georgian parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, argued that the Kremlin decided to return its ambassador to Tbilisi not to improve ties with Georgia, but to avoid what could have proven an embarrassing discussion of Russian policies in an international setting.
"[The timing of this] decision
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.