Vienna Talks “Georgia-Russia-West Triangle, Shared and Conflicting Interests” – A New Hope?

The Russo-Georgian relations are even more complicated than it looks at first glance. There are no diplomatic ties between these two countries which makes the Georgian case indeed unique since even Ukraine has not broken off diplomatic relations with Moscow. At the same time ordinary Russians and Georgians normally show respect for each other and enjoy rather warm and cordial relations. Despite the fact that Russia is called aggressor and occupier in Georgia, ordinary Russians are welcome there. This paradox is telling. Apparently, there is some potential for normalizing relations between these two nations – potential that their respective governments so far have failed to exploit.

It so happened that Russia was often neglected by most of Georgian experts and security analysts. They always acknowledged Russia as a threat but did not try to look deep into the Russian interests and motivations that has driven Moscow’s official policies. Similar must be true about the attitude of Russian experts and security analysts toward Georgia. The fact is that there was a severe lack of communication and interaction between Georgians and Russians even on the level of experts. This led to deepening of mutual mistrust and suspicions ending up (unfortunately) in a logical outcome.

Only after the 2008 war some international organizations started to facilitate a dialogue between Georgian and Russian experts. Beneficial as they were (they helped at least with establishing personal ties) they still fell short of establishing a regular format for dialogue – something that would enable the participants not only to exchange information and impression but also generate ideas for improving bilateral ties having in mind opportunity of integrating these ideas in official policies sooner or later. Dialogue hardly makes any sense unless the personal ties are cultivated, unless bold ideas are discussed and unless creative projects are elaborated, so that one day when the political window of opportunity opens, these projects are implemented by respective governments. This is arguably the only way, or rather the only roadmap for reconciliation.

Such kind of a format takes a long-term commitment, great deal of time and patience. No matter how warm and cordial relations between ordinary Georgians and Russians are overcoming the difficulties accumulated over the last 25 years will not be easy, especially that already too much time has been lost. But the fact is that these difficulties hardly will be solved without regular interaction.

Vienna Talks “Georgia-Russia-West Triangle, Shared and Conflicting Interests”

The format established recently in Vienna aims these very goals – build and deepen regular ties between Georgian and Russian experts with involvement of their colleagues from Europe and the USA. This is a regular expert workshop called “Georgia-Russia-West Triangle, Shared and Conflicting Interests”, organized by the Georgian think-tank Partnership for Social Initiatives (PSI) and the Vienna-based think-tank Institute for Security Policy (ISP) with friendly support of the Research Cluster for Polemology and Legal Ethics (University of Vienna) and the Austrian National Defense Academy. Informally the format is called Vienna Talks.

There are a few things that makes this format look both unique and strong. Most importantly, the fact that the workshop is trilateral. The involvement of experts from Europe (mainly based in Vienna) and the USA is invaluable.  The West, as an indispensable factor in bilateral relations, is interested in stability and peace in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, so far hardly any serious attempts were made by the West to play a constructive role in the process of reconciliation. The only format where it is involved is Geneva International Discussions. This format was launched following the 2008 war and it deals with the most problematic issues on official level. So far, no breakthrough results have been achieved in Geneva, mainly exactly because it addresses the consequences of the 2008 war. This is one of the few lessons to learn from this format: Russia and Georgia are destined to discuss and solve the issues concerning Georgia’s territorial integrity but they should not start dialogue with those issues. There are plenty others to start with, easier to solve, and only after solving them, after accumulating some positive experience and momentum, the parties should turn to the most sensitive and difficult topic. Another lesson learned is that officials will find it extremely difficult to come to any understanding (let alone, solution) as they are less flexible (than experts) and as they are accountable to their political leadership. These difficulties will persist until the political window of opportunity opens.

In contrast to that expert workshop offers a format of free exchange of information and ideas. The participants have luxury of regular interaction that helps with trust building – very important factor in conflict resolution. Vienna Talks combine two important factors: they establish a regular format for dialogue (or rather trialogue) having the luxury of long-term commitment, they offer the participants necessary flexibility and enough time for addressing the given issues.

It goes without saying that Vienna Talks will still face serious challenges given the ongoing developments. The recent protest rallies in both Moscow and Tbilisi have demonstrated that things may change rapidly. Too much time has already been lost for peacemaking and with time this task will get increasingly difficult. New generation grows in Georgia almost completely alienated from Russia, considering Russia nothing but an enemy. New generation grows in Russia that is completely unaware of the issues that caused the war with Georgia. Therefore, peacemaking process has to start as soon as possible.

Finally, Vienna, as a symbol of reconciliation during the Cold War, looks to be a natural choice for a venue. The recent history of Austria offers lessons to learn, success stories and encouraging examples that could be adopted by the post-Soviet countries. The future of Western-Russian relations as well as the implications on the security situation of the South Caucasus were the topics that have been covered during the first round of Vienna Talks that took place on May 13-14, 2019 and recent developments in Russia and Georgia were the topics that have been covered during the second round of Vienna Talks that took  place on September 16-17, 2019. The third round of Vienna Talks is scheduled for December 2019.