Georgian Energy Policy and Political Divisions
Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze said May 7 that the country could potentially resume natural gas imports from Russia, adding that Georgia should not be dependent on its lone supplier of gas, Azerbaijan. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili then refuted this statement, saying that to consider Russia as an energy supplier "means fundamentally reviewing Georgia’s independence.” These statements are symptomatic of the current divisions within the Georgian government between Saakashvili on the one hand, and the camp of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on the other.
The two sides advocate significantly different foreign policy paths, particular on relations with Russia. Upcoming presidential elections in October will be important in determining which path Georgia will take. Since the emergence of Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream movement in 2011, Georgian politics have seen a significant transformation. While Saakashvili had dominated the country's political landscape since coming into power via the Rose Revolution in 2003, Ivanishvili presented the biggest challenge to the president's nearly decadelong hold on power.
Ivanishvili was able to win parliamentary elections in 2012, defeating Saakashvili's United National Movement in the polls to gain a majority in parliament. This has had the effect of creating deep divisions within the Georgian government. Since gaining the premiership, Ivanishvili has strengthened his position in numerous sectors in the country, including the judiciary, military and industry. Several Saakashvili loyalists in these sectors have been purged or detained, as Ivanishvili has been attempting to consolidate his position in the country ahead of presidential elections in October.
These divisions have also translated into the foreign policy front. The main difference between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili's camp during the campaign leading up to parliamentary elections was their policy on Russia. Saakashvili had overseen a complete freeze in ties with Russia, prompted by Georgia's assertive pursuit to join NATO and the ensuing Russia-Georgia War in 2008. Ivanishvili, who before entering politics was a retail tycoon that made his fortune in Russia, instead advocated for a normalization with Russia in the economic sphere. Since getting elected, Ivanishvili has followed through with his intention to improve economic ties with Russia.
The two countries have agreed to resume the export of key Georgian goods to Russia that were cut off under Saakashvili, such as wine, mineral water and agricultural products. Ivanishvili has also hinted that he would consider reopening a railway to Russia that has been cut off since the early 90s. And while tentative, the energy minister's comments that a resumption of Russian natural gas exports to Georgia should be considered would be yet another significant shift in Tbilisi's ties with Russia. This is a worrying prospect for not only Saakashvili but also for Azerbaijan.
Georgia is a key transit state for the Southern Corridor energy route, which takes Azerbaijani oil and natural gas supplies to Turkey and on to Europe. Georgia's role as a strategic transit country for non-Russian energy has been a key pillar of Saakashvili's Western-oriented foreign policy. Even the consideration of resuming ties with Russia in the energy sphere, which has in the past been used by Moscow for political purposes, represents a significant shift in Georgia's policy on the matter. The upcoming elections will therefore be a critical factor in determining not only the trajectory of Georgia's energy policy but also its broader strategic orientation.