Mikhail Saakashvili has a relatively simple and comprehensible vision of Georgia’s role with regard to regional and global challenges, including the resolution of the ongoing conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the NATO membership aspirations. These goals provide clarity in assessing how the current government is evolving and what it regards as the future priorities for its foreign policy.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that the tipping point for Georgian foreign policy was the 2008 August War with Russia, which decreased the hope among the population regarding the resolution of those standing conflicts. For its part, Georgia has not been blind to the post-war realities: relations with Moscow are now frozen and the axes of the conflict have shifted. Saaksahvili has never been challenged by an “outsider” like Ivanashvili; all of his political challenges to date have come from the old guard, members of the Eduard Shevarnadze government who have formed a new political elite. They include Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of parliament, former ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania and others.
Thus, Ivanisvili’s arrival on the scene has spawned various rumors. Some argue that he is a government agent, out to split the opposition, while others have accused him of being Moscow’s stooge. He has been publicly criticized for his lack of clarity on political philosophy and foreign policy. President Saakashvili’s Feb. 25 speech called upon political parties to be open about their foreign policy priorities. While there was no mention of his name, it seemed likely that Ivanishvili was the intended target. Saakashvili’s address to the opposition brought to mind John F. Kennedy’s remark that “domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.” While the opposition might have some success in the forthcoming election, their foreign policy will ultimately damage the country’s interests. Nonetheless, Ivanashvili is in a stronger position following the formal launch of his coalition on Feb. 21. The Georgian Dream includes Our Georgia-Free Democrats (OGFD), the Republican Party and National Forum. The crucial question, thus, is: What is Ivanashvili’s foreign policy? Is it as unclear as President Saakashvili claims?
It is certainly true that foreign policy doctrines often emerge after some time, when decisions and/or actions suggest a coherent pattern or philosophy. In this sense, it is impossible to determine the doctrine or philosophy of Ivanashvili’s coalition. Any assessment of it is based solely on Ivanashvili’s speeches, his actions and the personalities of his team.
Generally, Ivanashvili seems to believe that Georgia’s room for maneuver in the international arena has been restricted by the mistakes made by the current administration, and that Georgia should find its own position, outside of the US or Russian sphere of influence. There are also a few more identifiable strategies within his foreign policy vision.
Firstly, he gives no hint of a concrete plan for conflict resolution, but envisages a combination of three factors as key to resolving the problem: making Georgia attractive to Abkhazians and Ossetians, aligning with Russian interests and look for advantageous external conditions favor for Georgia’s national interest.
Second, he does have specific thoughts on relations with Russia, namely to establish closer ties with Moscow. In his eyes, Russia being Georgia’s largest neighbor is a reality that no one can change. Here he has the backing of Tedo Japaridze, a former foreign minister who joined Ivanashvili’s team and who advocates that the current anti-Russian rhetoric has become the main instrument for boosting Georgia’s international legitimacy. For this reason the party supports increased cooperation with Moscow. Even if it does not directly helps with regard to conflict resolution, they believe it will have a generally positive effect. They do not deny that Russia’s presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia equates to occupation; they simply argue that Georgia should not let this issue entirely dominate bilateral relations.
The other important matter is integration with NATO and the EU. Georgian Dream’s founding declaration states that the alliance seeks to “strengthen the country’s security and regional position, for which it will deepen integration with the European Union and NATO and participate in economic and peacekeeping processes at a regional scale.” The coalition stresses integration, as opposed to membership. Membership is contingent on changes in bilateral relations between the United States and Russia. The same is true of Europe-Russia relations. This is one of the main differences with Saakashvili’s vision, which sets out very clearly the aim of NATO and EU membership, in contrast to the coalition’s belief in “a mixture of realism and pragmatism.” On the other hand, Ivanashvili earlier believed in the importance of a strategic partnership with the United States, but now that he thinks that US interest in region has diminished he sees a need to maintain a balance to avoid relying too much on US help. Ivanashvili showed his new approach in the case of Iran. He emphasized that Georgia will not act a site for a possible US military operations against Iran.
Given these considerations, it seems that Ivanashvili’s foreign policy vision requires some additional momentum before his priorities become clear. At this point, no one can pin him down as pro-Western or pro-Russian. His balanced policy vision is further demonstrated by the people in his coalition, who are for the most part members of the elite -- former ministers, academics, lawyers, artists -- all of whom could win credibility with the wider population. Nonetheless, there remains little hope for the presentation of a strong political platform, and this brings back memories of the opposition’s ragbag coalition in the last parliamentary election, which was a fiasco. Moreover, public opinion weighs heavy on his alleged ties with Russia -- the fear of which is prevalent, whether justified or not. In addition, a large swathe of undecided voters are still not convinced Ivanishvili will bring something new to the stage and some members of the coalition are being regarded as Shevardnadze’s confidants, which may be too retrograde for the public. All in all, it’s still too early to predict “Georgia’s Dream” will truly become Georgia’s dream.