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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Give the Pragmatists a Chance

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Last month, President Vladimir Putin and his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, were due to meet on the margins of the CIS summit in Minsk. They exchanged a few words but never sat down for a serious talk. Meanwhile, relations between Georgia and Russia continue to be in a danger zone. If the current situation is allowed to fester, the risk is that some hotheads might turn a diplomatic spat into a shooting war. Should bullets start flying, things would probably soon get out of hand. The conflict would no longer be about Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or even about Georgia and Russia. The ensuing crisis would have the most negative repercussions for the Caucasus -- both south and north -- and for Russia's relations with the West. This is surely enough to worry about.

In the run-up to the Minsk summit, Moscow and Tbilisi took a few steps away from the abyss. Putin publicly supported Georgia's territorial integrity and refused to recognize the independence referendum in South Ossetia, while Saakashvili replaced a hawkish Cabinet minister who had vowed to bring South Ossetia back into the fold before the year's end. Good, but hardly sufficient. To build firewalls against further deterioration, both sides must stop playing debilitating patriots' games. Hardheaded pragmatists should replace propagandists and be told to reinject a modicum of civility into a relationship that has hit an all-time low.

Two fairly urgent items on the agenda are Russia's de facto trade and transportation boycott of Georgia, and Georgia's objections to Russia's World Trade Organization entry. As the recent example of Moldova demonstrates, these knots can be untied more or less independently of other issues. Surely Moscow does not want to be shut out of the world trade body by Tbilisi.

Another item is confidence building in the areas of conflict, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. All those with forces on the ground must make sure that the situation there remains calm, nonthreatening and well-monitored. There is little likelihood of the resumption of hostilities over the winter, but it is necessary to exclude unwelcome surprises when spring comes.

An even more important step toward building confidence would be if Moscow came to terms with the political realities in Georgia. The notion of a regime change in Georgia should be abolished as a chimera. It looks like Putin will have to deal with Saakashvili for the next two years, and even when presidents change on either or both sides, the Georgian political universe is unlikely to be altered. In the foreseeable future, for the bulk of the Georgian elite the sun will be rising in the west, rather than the north.

This raises the issue of Georgia's bid to join NATO. The next Atlantic Alliance summit that can decide on the matter is less than two years away. Georgia may or may not be brought into NATO alongside three Balkan states -- Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. Russia will be unable to block Georgia's membership by simply opposing it. To make a more powerful statement, it would have to rake the embers of the conflicts and basically threaten war to keep NATO at bay. This would be playing with fire.

A more enlightened tack would be for Russia to change its overall approach to the frozen conflicts. Instead of clinging to the status quo in the zones of conflict in Georgia, Moscow needs to exercise leadership in helping resolve those standoffs, without prejudice to their outcome. Russia would thus help buttress stability and build prosperity on both sides of the Caucasus range. As a result, Russia would also acquire a much friendlier neighborhood along its southern border.

Just as the Georgian elites marvel about the West, they also need to realize that Russia continues to be their biggest neighbor. Brinkmanship is a poor policy recipe in general, and an entirely disastrous one when it comes to reintegrating the lands lost. On the contrary, focusing on domestic development -- economic, social and administrative -- would bring Georgia respect and recognition in the neighborhood and beyond. Tbilisi has made a few steps in that direction, but it needs to do much, much more.

2006 has been the worst year in modern Russian-Georgian relations. As Putin and Saakashvili prepare to see in the new year, each might spend a minute focusing on the painful lessons of the near-collision and make a resolution to banish that risk in 2007.

Tedo Japaridze, a former Georgian foreign minister, was national security adviser to former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Dmitry Trenin is deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.