Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke face to face for the first time in six months on November 28, but while Tbilisi is calling the meeting "beneficial," it is unclear what effect -- if any -- the encounter will have on the two states' largely acrimonious relations.
Neither side has released specifics about the conversation on the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Minsk, although Saakashvili has talked at far greater length about the meeting than President Putin, who only acknowledged that he spoke with the Georgian leader.
"We were able to discuss all major issues in Georgian-Russian relations both at the meeting [of CIS leaders] and one-on-one," Georgia's Imedi television broadcast Saakashvili as saying to reporters in London on November 29. "We had a truly one-on-one meeting without anyone else present. I think our discussion was beneficial."
The Georgian president, however, was quick to dispel any notions of Georgia as a Soviet-era petitioner for good will from the Kremlin. While a dialogue with Russia is "important" for Georgia, the country's future welfare depends on Georgia's own "script for the future," Saakashvili stressed. "[I]t is time for us Georgians to realize that we should not think day and night about what Russia thinks about us, what Russia says about us, even what actions Russia takes or what plans it has in relation to us, and that that is not of decisive importance."
Georgian and Russian relations deteriorated sharply after Moscow declared an embargo on Georgian wines in March 2006, and soured still further after Georgia's arrest of four Russian military officers for alleged espionage six months later. In response to the move, the Kremlin withdrew most of its diplomatic mission from Tbilisi, deported hundreds of Georgian citizens from Russia and imposed a blockade on all communication and transportation routes with the South Caucasus state. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Georgian media focused considerable attention on whether a Saakashvili-Putin encounter at Minsk, a Georgian government proposal, could help restore a degree of normalcy to those ties. But, for now, the impact of the conversation cited by various local media outlets as lasting anywhere from five to 40 minutes remains in doubt, commented one analyst.
"You can't talk about it as a victory for either side," said Giorgi Khelashvili, deputy director for the Center for Social Sciences in Tbilisi. "It was just a step undertaken by both sides that allows both to evaluate what they will do next." (The Center for Social Sciences receives funding from the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute in New York City.)
One of the most sensitive remaining questions for both the Georgian and Russian governments are the hundreds of Georgian citizens deported from Russia in the weeks following the spy scandal. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.] Exact figures about the number of deportees are unknown, but official sources estimate that more than 1,000 Georgians were removed from the country, and as many as 500 may still be held in Russian detention centers.
A 14-member parliamentary commission has been tasked with examining the political implications of the deportations and any related alleged human rights violations. The commission is currently drafting a statement about the deportations, which it expects to complete by the end of December. No plans, however, yet exist for what action will be proposed to the Georgian government to take in response to Russia, said Manana Nachkebia, a commission member from the opposition New Rights Party.
The commission's work is intended to complement that of the Georgian Ministry of Justice, which is preparing a case against Russia for the Council of Europe's European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The ministry has declined to release any information about the case or when it will be brought to court.
Out of the nearly 1,000 reports from deportees the parliamentary commission has received since it was formed on October 24, ten have been chosen to date to be presented before the commission.
While the government's response to cases from this emotional issue could seem likely to affect its standing with voters, analyst Khelashvili states that the deportations so far have had no political significance for President Saakashvhili since they have not been presented as "a party issue."
"I think it's been presented by the president as a unifying cause... it's a national cause behind which the country is rallying," Khelashvili commented.
The goal, according to Lali Papiashvili, a commission member for the majoritarian United National Movement Party, is to broadcast information about the treatment of Georgian citizens to a global audience. "The problem is that even international organizations, parliaments
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.