Of all countries, Georgia's relations with Russia were both the most important and the most ambivalent. Russia (and previously the Soviet Union) was deeply involved at many levels in the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in 1993 Ajarian leaders also declared Russia the protector of their national interests. Thus Russia seemingly holds the key to a resolution of those conflicts in a way that would avoid the fragmentation of Georgia. Trade ties with Russia, disrupted by Gamsakhurdia's struggle with Gorbachev and by ethnic conflicts on Georgia's borders with Russia, also are critical to reviving the Georgian economy.
Russia finally recognized Georgia's independence in mid-1992 and appointed an ambassador in October. In 1993 Russia's official position was that a stable, independent Georgia was necessary for security along Russia's southern border. The conditions behind that position were Russia's need for access to the Black Sea, which was endangered by shaky relations with Ukraine, the need for a buffer between Russia and Islamic extremist movements Russia feared in Turkey and Iran, the need to protect the 370,000 ethnic Russians in Georgia, and the refugee influx and violence in the Russian Caucasus caused by turmoil across the mountains in Georgia. Although Shevardnadze was officially well regarded, Russian nationalists, many of them in the Russian army, wished to depose him as punishment for his initial refusal to bring Georgia into the CIS and for his role as the Soviet foreign minister who "lost" the former Soviet republics in 1991.
In pursuing its official goals, Russia offered mediation of Georgia's conflicts with the Abkhazian, Ajarian, and Ossetian minorities, encouraging Georgia to increase the autonomy of those groups for the sake of national stability. At the same time, Russian military policy makers openly declared Georgia's strategic importance to Russian national security. Such statements raised suspicions that, as in 1801 and 1921, Russia would take advantage of Georgia's weakened position and sweep the little republic back into the empire.
Despite the misgivings of his fellow Georgians, in 1993 Shevardnadze pursued talks toward a comprehensive bilateral Georgian-Russian treaty of friendship. Discussions were interrupted by surges of fighting in Abkhazia, however, and relations were cooled by Shevardnadze's claim that Russia was aiding the secessionist campaign that had begun in August.
In September 1993, the fall of Sukhumi to Abkhazian forces signaled the crumbling of the Georgian army, and the return of Gamsakhurdia threatened to split Georgia into several parts. Shevardnadze, recognizing the necessity of outside military help to maintain his government, agreed to join the CIS on terms dictated by Russia in return for protection of government supply lines by Russian troops. Meanwhile, despite denials by the Yeltsin government, an unknown number of Russians still gave "unofficial" military advice and matériel to the Abkhazian forces, which experts believed would not have posed a major threat to Tbilisi without such assistance. Shevardnadze defended CIS membership at home as an absolute necessity for Georgia's survival as well as a stimulant to increased trade with Russia.
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