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President Saakashvili’s exit promises more Georgia-Russia civility, but will ties thaw?

Retiring President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose electoral successor was announced today, has long had a tense relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin.

An era ended in Georgia Sunday, when voters overwhelmingly chose oppositionist Giorgi Margvelashvili to replace retiring President Mikhail Saakashvili, the former leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution who had sought to tear Georgia from Moscow’s orbit and align it with the European Union and NATO.

But despite the departure of Mr. Saakashvili, whose almost comic-opera personal hostility with President Vladimir Putin has dominated Russo-Georgian ties, experts see little indication of substantive changes in the relationship between the two neighbors.

With almost 100 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Margvelashvili of Georgian Dream was declared the winner Monday with over 62 percent, more than enough to avoid a second round with his main opponent, David Bakradze of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, who trailed far behind with 22 percent of the votes.

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Saakashvili, who led Georgia into a disastrous war with Russia in 2008, had been a lame duck since the opposition Georgian Dream party led by Russia-friendly billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili took control of parliament just over a year ago. Mr. Ivanishvili became prime minister, pledging to work for more normal relations with Moscow, but in practice there has been only a negligible thaw around the edges of the Russo-Georgian diplomatic deep freeze.

Russia has been cautiously welcoming of the political changes in Georgia, and there has been a slight easing of tensions; for instance a Russian ban on Georgian wines and mineral water was lifted last year.

Yet the main sources of discord between the two countries remain. Diplomatic relations, broken off after the war, have yet to be restored. Ivanishvili has maintained Saakashvili’s priority on integrating Georgia with the European Union and NATO, and, much to Moscow’s chagrin, Georgia hopes to sign a major free-trade pact with the EU next month.

The two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia and Georgia fought over five years ago, remain a fundamental bone of contention. Russia recognized both as independent after the war (though few other nations have) and is unlikely to back down from that position. Georgia regards both as its own sovereign territory and no Georgian leader is likely to ever say otherwise.

“For Russia, it’s going to be easier to cooperate with Georgia now there’s no more of Saakashvili and his flamboyant escapades,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. “Georgian authorities are more pragmatic now, and that’s good. Things will be calmer.

“But I doubt that relations will change cardinally. After all, Ivanishvili has the same policy toward South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Saakashvili had. I can’t even see diplomatic relations being revived anytime soon,” he says.

Shorena Lordkipanidze, a political analyst with the International Center of Conflict and Negotiations in Tbilisi, agrees. “Saakashvili held the firm position that it was impossible to negotiate with Moscow, and hoped that world pressure would change Russia’s behavior. Ivanishvili has brought a principled difference, in that he is willing to engage Moscow directly. That’s a major change. The Georgian government is now open to cooperation and dialogue with Russia.”

“But in practice, it’s hard to see how anything significant is likely to change in the short term. The two sides are locked into positions that can’t be easily reconciled,” she says.

The one wildcard might be the as-yet unknown successor to Ivanishvili, who may be named soon. Ivanishvili stunned many Georgians recently by announcing he will step down as prime minister, perhaps as early as next week, and appoint an as yet unnamed successor. Recent changes to Georgia’s constitution slashed presidential powers and made the country a parliamentary state, in which the prime minister is the key executive figure and president acts as more of an arbiter and symbol of stability.

Ivanishvili, who made his estimated $5.3 billion fortune through Russian-based businesses, has been both paymaster and chief decider for Georgian Dream until now, and it’s not clear what will happen if he disengages from politics. His explanation for leaving is that the political transition he planned has been achieved and he now wishes to retire to the role of “active citizen.” As for who he will select to replace him, he’s said only that it will be “a very interesting person.”