Analysis

Phantom Promise: The Ruling Party’s “Reunification” Bluff Splutters

Faced with the political crisis, the ruling party implies it could restore territorial integrity with Russia’s help. But this last-ditch promise falls flat, and the attempts at backpedaling look desperate.


The ruling party is facing a political crisis of its own making. By pushing the adoption of the deeply divisive foreign agents’ law ahead of the looming parliamentary elections, the party has antagonized a wide swathe of the Georgian population, including those who were not actively protesting before.

In this context, allusions to the possibility of restoring the country’s territorial integrity became increasingly frequent. This is not the first time that Georgian Dream has used territorial integrity to deflect from electoral pressures. Shortly before the 2020 parliamentary elections, Georgian authorities prosecuted two Georgian diplomats after accusing them of having ceded land to Azerbaijan. The obviously fabricated Cartographers’ case was shelved after the elections.

But in difference with the 2020 phantom issue, which was basically made up, the reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has long been the last resort trump card of the Tbilisi regimes in crises. Yet, bringing this matter up in the current context is highly controversial. The foreign agents’ law risks spoiling relations with the West, which consistently supported Georgia’s territorial integrity. It is Russia that maintains effective control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Yet, the Georgian Dream has been weaving its veiled promise of restoring territorial integrity into the broader narrative of protecting the sovereignty against the mysterious yet clearly Western “global war party.” The Georgian Dream officials insinuated that their rapprochement with Russia will lead Georgia to its ultimate goal. Yet, this promise sounds far-fetched, not to say delusional.

Generous “pragmatism” from the Kremlin?

Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s patron and honorary chairman, has long maintained that “pragmatic” relations with Russia may bring positive results. In some sense, this policy worked. A year ago, Georgian officials hailed Moscow’s decision to restore direct flights and abolish visas for Georgians as a direct result of this “pragmatism.” Some GD lawmakers then hinted that, ultimately, the pursuit of such a policy may lead to “bringing back” the country’s occupied territories.

With the foreign agents’ law controversy risking to fatally wound GD’s electoral prospect, the “reunification” narrative has been making its way up the food chain. Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze voiced the promise in his Independence Day speech, saying: “Our ‘promised land,’ our Georgian dream, is to live in a united and strong Georgia with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers and sisters, 40 years after the restoration of Georgian independence.” “In 2030, united and strong Georgia must become a full member of the European family,” he promised, fueling speculations that the government is trading the country’s Euro-Atlantic for the reintegration of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions.

This talk triggered unease among the Kremlin-backed leaders in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. Especially in Abkhazia, the commentators voiced fears that Moscow may “return” the regions to Tbilisi to score geopolitical points against the West, especially since the foreign agents’ law debacle marked the record law in Tbilisi’s relations with the West.

“The Kremlin could have promised to facilitate the reunification of Abkhazia and Georgia,” Abkhaz commentator Inal Khashig wrote in his opinion piece for JamNews, an online newspaper, on May 16, suggesting that the deal would return the region to Georgia “in the form of confederation.” Observers in Tbilisi began to express similar suspicions, fueled by statements by GD officials who hinted at the country’s “reunification” being a reason for their readiness to risk Western sanctions.

These rumors were further fanned by unconfirmed reports of Moscow urging its proxies in the occupied territories to refrain from reckless behavior toward Tbilisi in the run-up to the October elections. The Russian “expert community” was openly advising Tskhinvali’s proxies not to raise the issue of the referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Russian political scientist Vladimir Novikov wrote bluntly, that if such a referendum was held: “Either the current Georgian government will have to declare war on Russia, or it will be swept away by revanchist forces … Do we need this? No. Next, let’s be honest: Georgia, with all its pros and cons, is now one of Russia’s windows to the world and to circumvent the sanctions regime. Do we have to make such a decision now?”

Indecent – or Fake – Proposal?

Georgian government critics also bashed the possible covert deal to trade the country’s European future for some sort of settlement with the occupied territories. “Giving such levers to Russia would be a catastrophe,” historian Beka Kobakhidze (no relation to the Prime Minister) said about a potential “confederation” project during a talk show on Palitra News recorded before May 26. The historian argued the move would equal “selling out the country.” The historian said the deal guarantees nothing when it comes to the return of hundreds of thousands of ethically cleansed persons to their homes, and the potential “confederation” is likely to give Russian proxies a veto over foreign policy, thus burying Georgia’s European future.

But while the promise may have been potent while it remained implicit, its validity was promptly undercut the moment it came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth. The Russian officials, otherwise supportive of Georgian Dream’s “pragmatism,” have now drawn the line.

“No one can forbid their musings on how they want to live in one state with Abkhazia and South Ossetia or maybe with some other states there – this is speculation. Now the main thing for the Prime Minister of Georgia is to ensure that people who are paid by foreign states and engaged in political and informational activities are labeled in the law” Grigory Karasin, Head of Russia’s Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs and the erstwhile Russian participant in the Georgian-Russian dialogue told TASS on May 26. He added that all the rest of PM Kobakhidze’s speculations about the country’s reunification are “arguments [that come] from the Devil.”

Konstantin Zatulin, a Russian State Duma deputy and deputy chairman of the Duma’s Committee on CIS Affairs, also dismissed Kobakhidze’s remarks as the PM’s desire to “demonstrate his patriotism” in domestic political battles. Zatulin told the Russian media he didn’t understand “how by 2030 he [PM Kobakhidze plans to] return Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are developing as independent states, are under Russian protection and are recognized as such.”

PM Kobakhidze’s speech was predictably poorly received by the de facto authorities in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. Abkhazia’s “foreign ministry” called Kobakhidze’s statement on the return of Abkhazia to Georgia “absolutely futile,” arguing that “such populist statements are made on the eve of the next parliamentary elections and are aimed primarily at a domestic audience.” Tskhinvali’s “foreign ministry,” on the other hand, said (uncharacteristically reasonably) that “[Kobakhidze] and other ‘Dreamers’ [must come] back to reality, which lies in the ongoing serious internal Georgian political crisis and the approaching parliamentary elections in October.”

“It is not about Politics”

Moscow’s distancing of itself from Kobakhidze’s remarks led many in Tbilisi to believe that the statement was just another false campaign promise or a trick to justify the foreign policy course reversal to numerous civil servants and diplomats who may have defected under the pressure of protests.

The Georgian Dream leadership clearly feels that the very public breakup with those countries that have been consistently supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity for the phantom promise of “reintegration” with Russian support may yet blow up in their face. A simple question from the opposition recently triggered the officials’ angry overreaction, pointing at their latent unease.

On May 27, opposition MP Mikheil Daushvili asked whether Georgia’s growing isolation from its European and U.S. partners may also undermine these partners’ support for the policy of non-recognition of Georiga’s occupied territories, which has been vital. MP Anri Okhanashvili, chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee, cut the question off and asked MP Daushvili to apologize for his remarks.

Speaker Shalva Papuashvili also referred to MP Daushvili’s question during his briefing, saying, “When we talk about non-recognition, it is not about politics; it is about international law.” He added that the issue is not something to be “blackmailed” with and argued conspiratorially that the question came as “various groups” (supposedly in the West) were “making opposition forces voice “certain messages.

It remains to be seen whether anyone would buy this awkward conspiracy theory. Or whether Georgians care about such phantom promises at all: while the occupied territories remain one of the most sensitive political issues in Georgia, they have consistently lagged behind economic concerns in opinion polls.

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