More than 4 months have passed since the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia cancelled the deal with the Anaklia Development Consortium for the construction of the Anaklia deep-sea port. (Istrate 2020) The official reason invoked was non-compliance with financial accountability. (Istrate 2020) There has not yet been a new tender announcement for companies to take over the project. The decision has been surprising for local and international political and expert circles since the Anaklia Port could bring immense economic as well as strategic benefits for the country, and boost Georgia's prospective regarding membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions. (Larsen 2017) However, it has the potential of becoming another “apple of discord” between Georgia and the Kremlin.
The thaw of relations to avoid possible aggression
Since Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, following Saakashvili’s authoritarian rule, the party has pursued both Euro-Atlantic integration as well as the stabilisation of relations with Russia. Transport communication and trade turnover between the two countries resumed and the number of Russian visitors to Georgia soared. (Administration 2018) This shift in foreign policy discourse towards Moscow was due to the 2008 war, which brought severe humanitarian devastation and the loss of Georgia’s jurisdiction over 20% of its territory. (Paul 2018) Additionally, the government softened the official language towards Moscow. For instance, the head of the ruling party and richest man in Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili who is widely considered to be the informal decision-maker in the government, refused to criticize Putin’s policy, (Kaylan 2016) regardless of “the creeping occupation” coming from Russia-backed separatist Tskhinvali, violating human rights and freedom of movement of the local Georgians. (Robakidze 2019)
The potential thaw between the two countries motivated Russian official figures to further enhance the Kremlin’s presence in Georgia. Thus, in June 2019, a Russian Communist Party member, Sergey Gavrilov visited the Georgian Parliamentary Chamber in Tbilisi. (Lomsadze 2019) Not sharing the government’s vision towards Moscow, citizens started mass protests in the streets of Tbilisi, which were violently dissolved by the police, injuring more than 200 people and blinding two. (Chikvaidze 2019) The crackdown was conducted by Minister of Interior Affairs Giorgi Gakharia, a former Russian citizen, which after the crackdown was promoted to the position of Prime Minister by the leader of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili. (Lomsadze, Eurasianet 2019) These events demonstrated that the government’s preference is to keep the Kremlin’s anger at bay even at the cost of straying off the democratic course it has pursued.
The Anaklia port - an opportunity which challenges
The Black Sea and the South Caucasus have always been in the focus of Moscow since the times of the Russian Empire. However, after the enlargement of NATO and the EU in 2004 and 2007 respectively, both the Black Sea and the South Caucasus region became a new ground of contestation between the Kremlin and West. (Spechler 2007) Moscow interpreted these developments as a Western intrusion into its special interests area. At the 2007 Munich NATO Summit, Vladimir Putin clearly expressed frustration towards these developments, stating that Moscow was not going to put up with NATO’s interference in its sphere of influence. (Aslund 2008) In addition, the Bucharest summit gave hopes to Ukraine and Georgia concerning the future potential membership of NATO, which further irritated the Kremlin. (Brunnstrom and Cornwell 2008) This was followed by the Russian military aggression towards Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea (Ukraine) in 2014. Hence, Russia explicitly demonstrated that it would not compromise with the soaring Western presence in the region. (Aljazeera.com 2019)
As a response to the existing disbalance with Russia, NATO has started to conduct exercises in the Black Sea, in which the Georgian military forces have been participating (NATO 2019), (NATO 2019) One of the training locations is the largest Georgian port in Poti, yet with no adequate capacity to accommodate large vessels. (Chichua 2019) Therefore, the much larger Anaklia deep-sea port has a pivotal role to play for the development of these military activities, further enhancing the country’s strategic significance for NATO. However, it is noteworthy to point out that Georgia has not received any guarantees regarding the membership from the organisation. (Pertaia 2020)
The Dilemma between benefits and security
The project of Anaklia deep-sea port has been seen as risky by the Georgian government since it contradicts Moscow’s interests regarding the Western engagement in the region. In addition, the Anaklia Development Consortium consists of Georgian as well as American companies. The Kremlin has not made official statements concerning the port with the exception of a speech by Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Georgy Karasin, stating that the project goes against Russia’s interests (Buziashvili 2019) (Pertaia 2020). Furthermore, the activities Moscow pursued during the same year, such as the announcement of the RosMorPort Consortium to construct the Taman deep-sea port, aimed at weakening the potential significance of the Anaklia Port as a transit corridor between the Caspian basin and the EU. (Avdaliani 2019)
Bidzina Ivanishvili, regardless of its immense potential, referred to the project as “complex” due to “the lack of potential benefits” and “the difficulty of its implementation”. In addition, prior to the cancellation of the project deal, the government issued permissions with the purpose of extending two other Georgian ports: Poti and Batumi. (Agenda.ge 2019) (Agenda.ge 2020) Although these ports are not deep-water and cannot accommodate Panamax-type large vessels, they challenge the potential and relevance of the port in Anaklia. (Kiria 2019) Hence, the government took steps to indirectly hinder the project, which does not comply with the Kremlin’s “privileged interests”. (Jensen 2013) Georgia’s willingness to warm relations with Russia since the 2008 war thus played a pivotal role in the decision to cancel the project.
The Anaklia deep-water port has a huge potential to enhance Georgia’s importance for NATO. The 2008 Russian aggression demonstrated that the West is not going to risk an open confrontation with Russia. While Tbilisi vigorously pursues a pro-Western foreign policy, it has not yet received any guarantees on NATO membership. The price to take steps which significantly contradict Russian interests in the region remains extremely high. Therefore, Georgia’s willingness not to anger the Kremlin and invoke another aggression played a pivotal role in the government’s decision. Recently, some of the US senators and congressmen published official letters highlighting their concerns about the Georgian government’s close relations with the Kremlin and attempts of expulsing the US companies from the Anaklia port project. (Radio Liberty 2020) It is interesting to see whether this pressure will lead to new developments around the port project, which has been postponed for an unknown period of time
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