President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration in Georgia is cautiously eyeing developments surrounding Kosovo's recent declaration of independence. There exists widespread concern in Tbilisi that international recognition for an independent Kosovo will prompt Russia to stir up diplomatic trouble in Georgia's secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Kosovo situation was high on the agenda during February 21 talks in Moscow between Saakashvili and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In comments made at the outset of those talks, Saakashvili sounded a moderate tone, seeking to encourage a thaw in Tbilisi's often confrontational relationship with Moscow. "We are obliged to normalize our relations, to overcome previous difficulties," the Civil Georgia website reported Saakashvili as saying. "If we do not start over with a clean slate, we should at least give new momentum to our relations, because we all want it, and pin hopes on it."
Putin said he was "glad" to hear that Tbilisi desired harmonious relations, adding that the Kremlin would "try to respond with reciprocity." Taking a step in that direction, Russian officials announced that they would allow the resumption of direct airline flights between the two countries. Direct air service had been suspended since 2006.
Kosovo declared its independence February 17, and the country's new status was quickly recognized by the United States and key European Union nations. The move, however, placed Tbilisi a geopolitical bind. Failing to endorse the US-backed independence effort could potentially vex Georgia's patrons in Washington. But if Georgia were to recognize Kosovo, such action could accelerate Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's efforts to make a permanent break with Tbilisi. Thus far, Georgia has refrained from expressing an opinion on Kosovo's declaration. Ironically, Tbilisi's silence tacitly puts it in the same camp with its long-time antagonist Russia, which is a steadfast opponent of an independent Kosovo.
"Georgia, being a small state, has to maneuver discreetly through these contradictory positions," Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze commented during Rustavi2 television channel's Primetime talk-show.
Tbilisi was particularly unnerved by the Kremlin's hinting that events in Kosovo can be viewed as a blueprint applicable to other disputed regions, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Amid heated debates in the media and parliament, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "[t]he declaration of sovereignty by Kosovo and its recognition will undoubtedly be taken into account in relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
Tskhinvali and Sukhumi viewed the Kosovo development as a generally positive development for their internationally stalled quest for independence. Immediately after Kosovo's declaration, leaders of the breakaway regions of Georgia called for similar international recognition of their status. Speaking at a joint news conference in Moscow on February 18, de facto Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity demanded a "universal approach" toward breakaway conflicts. "Abkhazia had done what Kosovo did 17 years ago," Bagapsh claimed. The leaders said they would petition for recognition of the two states with Moscow, the United Nations and the EU.
Later on February 18, Saakashvili vowed to rebuff any attempts to import "Kosovo scenario" into Georgia. "[I] want our society, as well as international community to realize that we
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter also based in Tbilisi.