Georgia’s June crisis

Tensions remain high in Tbilisi after Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov occupied the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament last month.

On July 20th, it will be almost one month since Georgia experienced one of the deepest and longest open political crises over the decade. Insulted by Russian deputy Sergey Gavrilov’s behavior during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy when he occupied the chairman’s seat in the parliament of Georgia, some part of local society, in cooperation with political opposition, took to the streets to call for the government to bear responsibility, protest against occupation and remind the western partners that 20 per cent of the country is still under the control of the Kremlin. The initially peaceful protest turned violent and ended with massive clashes between protesters and riot police. Hundreds were injured, including security officers, while some lost their eyesight. As a result, the government was forced to fire the chairman of the parliament, introduce a proportional electoral system and free everyone detained during the unrest. At the same time, a small group of protesters are still demanding the resignation of the head of the ministry of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. On July 7th, Georgian society experienced further frustration after Rustavi 2 TV journalist Giorgi Gabunia, on his show P.S., verbally insulted the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.

This initially provoked universal public outrage, which raised fears that the Kremlin could have initiated additional economic sanctions. Fortunately, Georgia and Russia managed to avoid further escalation of interstate relations. This incident is important for two reasons. Firstly, Rustavi 2 is one of Georgia’s leading TV channels that is capable of shaping and forming public attitudes. Secondly, this channel represents itself as a highly pro-western (and thus, anti-Russian) media agency that strongly supports the parliamentary opposition and June protests. So far, Gabunia’s absolutely provocative and non-journalistic behavior stigmatises the so-called pro-western movement and strengthens the attitudes of Georgia’s larger civil society that parliamentary opposition and the protesters are politically irresponsible and untrustworthy. Furthermore, it may create the false perception that irresponsible journalism is acceptable for the west and fits into western journalistic standards.

We may easily argue that the most critical stage of the protest has passed and the ruling party managed to avoid a further escalation of the situation for now. The political protest that is present on a regular basis in the city center is slowly fading and will probably be in vain. Putting aside the emotional part of the issue, this incident reflected Georgia’s deepening political and economic crisis; furthermore, a lack of alternatives and, most importantly, unreadiness of the youth to bear respective responsibility for its actions. And it seems that this irresponsibility became widespread, which affected Georgian media too.

The “full picture”

If you go through various local and international publications, you may come to conclusion that the Georgian youth were peacefully protesting against Gavrilov’s visit and the long-lasting occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions by the Russian Federation. But factually, these people were peacefully protesting only for a while, and the reasons were much more complex; stagnation of political will and creativity among them. The visit of the Russian Duma deputy was just a trigger that initiated processes on the ground. Georgia is stuck between the past (the parliamentary opposition) and the present (ruling party) and is probably incapable of leading the state into a better future. Debris of the post-revolutionary government, the United National Movement and European Georgia, are lost in the past with an absolutely outdated political agenda, while the ruling party is seemingly unwilling to handle the significant issues that trouble Georgian society, including the status of the judiciary. Additionally, none of these political forces have a clear vision of how to deal with the economic crisis, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges. The status-quo pushes general Georgian society, especially the youth, to look for alternatives that are simply missing at the table. The non-existence of alternatives totally depreciates elections and leads to nihilism.

Provoked by the visit of representative of the “occupant state” and actually driven by despair, some part of Georgian society, including youth, went to the streets to unleash accumulated anger and dissatisfaction. This absolutely fair movement was acceptable for larger Georgian society until political opposition and their devoted activists decided to raise the stakes; the direct call from one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Nika Melia, to “peacefully” relocate the protest into the building of the main legislative body, turned into an attempt to forcefully seize this state institution, the “heart” of Georgian statehood. Police officers and representatives of other security forces were calling on protesters to stop and attempted to prevent them from taking the building for approximately two hours. By the end of the day, Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, ordered the dispersal of the already non-peaceful and anti-constitutional protest. Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by the abuse of power and misbehavior by some members of the security forces that led to hundreds of people receiving various injuries, including the loss of eyesight. Georgian society got a new scare.

Shared irresponsibility

It is obvious that the government is usually guilty of both success and failure. The ruling Georgian Dream party made dramatic mistakes, including agreeing to hold the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian parliament and its failure to be responsive to the protesters demands and anxieties. Undoubtedly, the government failed to protect those peaceful and unarmed individuals who were attending the protest. At the same time, it has already suffered serious consequences and will feel significant impact during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020. But what about the actors who played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest? Should the political opposition and the protesters also bear some responsibility for the events? We may definitely argue that Georgia cannot transform into a real democratic state unless we introduce the concept of shared responsibility, meaning the government is not always the only actor to blame—every engaged actor must bear its share of responsibility for its own actions and outcomes of these activities. And here we are experiencing serious problems.

Narratives expressed by members of the parliamentary opposition and the protesters simply avoid this issue; they are trying to turn a blind eye to it as if there were no direct attacks on security officers, destruction of state property, attempts to forcefully seize parliament building and general anti-constitutional behavior. John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. The best thing that the protesters and especially the youth could have done for the country was to remain peaceful, but they failed. Today, the best thing they can still do is to share responsibility for June 20th with the government and parliamentary opposition. Unfortunately, neither the opposition nor the youth is ready to do so. This unreadiness for responsibility raises serious questions among larger Georgian society about whether the youth is actually prepared and can be trusted to lead the country.

By and large, Georgia suffers from a political and economic crisis that neither the ruling party nor the parliamentary opposition are probably capable of handling. There is dramatic need for new approaches and creativity through the establishment of alternative political forces and schools of thought. Unfortunately, Georgian society is simply not ready to satisfy this demand and some parts of the society, especially the youth, unleash their anger with political protests. The local parliamentary opposition and protesters are trying to represent the June 20th events as a peaceful protest that was brutally dispersed by the government. This narrative has little to do with the actual facts. Of course, the ruling party made a few significant mistakes, but both the political opposition and protesters played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest. Thus, all sides should bear some part of the responsibility. Georgian society must realize that the responsibility for the country must be shared among all engaged actors and not only the government. Finally, this recklessness also affected the Georgian media environment. Giorgi Gabunia’s “demarché” against Vladimir Putin was, by all means, extremely damaging non-sense that sent the wrong message regarding Georgian values and journalistic standards and stigmatised political opposition and the protesters as politically irresponsible and untrustworthy actors.

The article was initially published by New Eastern Europe. It is available here.

Georgian LGBTQI+: Story of the Wrong Tactic

On May 17, international society witnessed the celebration of the so-called “Family Day” in Tbilisi. Rep­resentatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church, with many members of local society, marched from the city center to the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi (“Sameba”), where they expressed devotion to traditional family values. This totally overshadowed another important event, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia that was publicly commemorated by only a few. Representatives of human rights groups and the LGBTQI+ community, afraid to organize a public event on this date, only dared to rise the “rainbow” flag, but had it quickly removed. Instead, they spoke of holding the first Tbilisi Gay Pride march with some other activities, such as concerts, in late June, but these aspirations were shattered when the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia officially informed them last week that due to the high possibility of violence, they could not guarantee the safety of pride participants should a public march take place. Instead, they suggested a closed venue, such as the stadium.

Various local and international analysts expressed their dissatisfaction to see the direction of rights and freedom of sexual minorities in Georgia so significantly derailed; derailed so much that in comparison with previous years, representatives of these groups are again being forced into a corner. And while, undoubtedly, the Georgian Orthodox Church has played its role in shaping this state of affairs, it is obvious that supporters of the so-called “liberal values” made a few unforgivable lapses that crucially contributed to the victory of “Family Day”.

A Clash of Narratives

To be fair, both events appear pretty artificial to the state. International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia wasn’t presented to local society until 2012 when the LGBTQI+ movement tried to celebrate it for the first time, while Family Purity Day (full name: “Family Strength and Respect for Parents”) was established by the Georgian Orthodox Church and, in particular, by the spiritual leader Ilia II, to counter attempts by some INGOs and NGOs to re-think traditional concepts of “love”, “marriage” and “family”. We may argue that there was factually no firm demand from general Georgian society to introduce either of these. As it stands, as Georgian historian Nukri Shoshiashvili argues, these are initiatives by two totally different institutions that aim to pursue the right to control, develop existing and create or shape new political, cultural and social narratives. Consequently, by offering these holidays, supporters of “modernity” (liberals) and “traditionality” (conservatives) have clashed for this privilege and initiated a fierce rivalry for the hearts and minds of Georgian society.

Due to its historic achievements and contribution to building-up the Georgian state and nation, the Georgian Orthodox Church was, by default, in a superior position; it held and still holds an important position in the daily lives of regular Georgian citizens. Hence, representatives of the so-called liberal groups should have carefully planned and structured their policy and tactics to outmaneuver these rivals and persuade local society that International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia was never about abandoning and/or disrespecting traditions bur rather about giving an opportunity to members of the LGBTQI+ community to speak up and defend their rights and freedoms.

Unfortunately, defenders of “modernity” opted for an irrational and blunt policy that has suffered dramatic defeats again and again to date.

The Blitzkrieg Tactic

There is only one term that can define the policy pushed by LGBTQI+ movements and its supporters – a blitzkrieg. These groups hoped that an absolute political back-up from American and European institutions/agencies, in combination with an extremely high financial in-flow, would provide them the necessary tools to announce a new political, social and cultural reality; a reality that no one would dare to challenge. They hoped for a fast victory but were deceived by their own false perceptions and assumptions.

Undoubtedly, political and financial guarantees from the country’s strategic partners are significant but are not conclusive. Georgian society has developed its own agenda over the years, transforming into a crucial political actor whose trust and devotion must be gained; it cannot be achieved solely by referring to the West as a trademark as was done in the past. Recent surveys make it obvious that these groups significantly lack internal legitimacy and are mistrusted by the majority of Georgian society. Thus, their attempts to pursue a harsh and blunt policy that disregards existing political, social and cultural realities, including the Georgian Orthodox Church, led to a dramatic opposite chain reaction. Instead of building a safer and freer environment for the LGBTQI+ community, society became even more dangerous and intolerant. Georgian society aspires to become part of the European family but there are some “red lines” that it is not ready to cross.

We should also speak about the highly destructive and thoughtless behavior of some representatives of the liberal movement too, who, it seems have become so arrogant, selfish and self-confident due to external political and financial backing, that they don’t even bother to try and foresee or care about the consequences of their statements and steps. For example, Irakli Vacharadze, who chaired the leading LGBTQI+ organization ‘Identoba’ was keen to officially and publicly verbally insult the Georgian Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Ilia II; further, to label and threaten everyone who opposed his (Irakli’s) ideas and approaches. Other associated speakers had and still have a tendency to unmindfully pursue harsh rhetoric, including by labeling those against them as pro-Russians, “enablers” of Kremlin propaganda and ideology- all things that only serve to worsen the situation.

The history of the celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in Georgia is probably one of the best examples of an incorrect tactic that led to dramatic consequences and an absolutely opposite chain reaction. Political and financial support from abroad made Georgian activists both arrogant and unable to critically assess their capabilities. They opted for a straightforward and blunt policy that they were unable to factually implement. As a result, the Georgian Orthodox Church easily outmaneuvered them and took the majority of hearts and minds of Georgian society. Unfortunately, this further complicated the lives of the LGBTQI+ community in the country; and it will not change unless liberal forces re-think their approaches and push for a more sophisticated policy.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is accessible here.

“Yanukovich regreted about it”. Eastern Partnership countries took stock

Representatives of the so-called Eastern Partnership countries gathered in Brussels to celebrate 10th anniversary of the initiative. RIA Novosti journalist, Galia Ibragimova with support of local experts summarizes main achievements and failures.

Read the article in Russian here.

NATO’s “Small Talk”

On March 26, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Tbilisi and met high officials, including PM Giorgi Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili. During his “blitzkrieg” visit, Stoltenberg firmly re-iterated the Alliance’s official standpoint once again: Georgia will become a member of the military bloc and Russia has no rights or power to oppose it. Yet, according to mainstream media outlets, this time Secretary-General added “very soon,” wording that offered more concrete timing and raised hopes that the so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) will finally be granted to the small Caucasus country.

Unarguable, such high-level visits are extremely important to maintaining Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership and, generally, to keep spirits high on the ground. But Tbilisi has been hearing such promises of commitment on a regular basis for the last decade, with visits from NATO officials having become something of an annual tradition. We can easily argue that Jens Stoltenberg’s trip to Tbilisi was another example of NATO “small talk” without real outcomes for MAP issuance, but with more serious consequences for local society and its perception of the real ongoing processes in global politics.

NATO & Democracy

NATO has little to do with democracy. The Alliance is a military bloc based on ideology and with concrete geopolitical interests; in this case, democracy is just an additional advantage. These assumptions must be made clear when it comes issuing membership. It is obvious that, according to Western democratic standards, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are actually ready to satisfy such strong requirements; to say nothing of the 2008 period when Tbilisi and Kiev hoped to get MAP and had strong support from the US government. The promise given by the Bucharest Summit Declaration to open doors for these two states in the future was clearly the result of geopolitical calculations that dealt with strengthening the Eastern flank of the bloc and bringing NATO forces closer to the Russian border.

So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.

Russia, Rights & the Black Sea Region

Despite loud claims that Russia has no rights and no powers to oppose Georgia’s integration, it actually has. Moscow’s geopolitical interests stopped Tbilisi from getting MAP in 2008 and it is the only opinion that matters when it comes to the decision-making process. Putting aside political rhetoric, Russia does not need special rights to counter NATO’s policy on the Eastern flank. Every single political actor by default has the right to protect its own political, economic and social standpoints. Thus, the Kremlin has the right to defend its national interests without being granted “permission” from the West or any other actor. What actually matters is whether Russia also has the economic and military strength to back up any protest. Even though Moscow is no match for Washington in general, the state currently possesses enough accumulated power to counter the West, especially near its borders and geopolitically important life-space. Furthermore, the Russian policy of containing NATO enlargement is perceived as crucial by the majority of society; this is not constructed by Putin’s regime but a factual given. As such, the Kremlin will do its best not to let Tbilisi or Kiev be granted Alliance membership.

Whether officially noted or not, the highest and most influential political actors in the West are well-aware of Russia’s NATO fears; additionally, Georgia’s strategic partners understand that, historically, Moscow has always been keen to fight such threats by all means necessary. That is why they are not in a hurry to give a green light for the next stage of the military bloc enlargement. Even worse, NATO representatives are unsure whether bringing the organization to the Black Sea region will actually lead to more stability and prosperity or, by intervening in the so-called Russian “zone of interest,” instead lead to a direct or indirect military clash that will destabilize the whole post-Soviet space. Today, the West, and Western European states in particular, are not ready to be involved in such dramatic processes.

Negative effects of the NATO “small talk”

While looking at NATO’s annual “small talk” in Georgia, we need to raise another issue that deals with negative consequences. First, such harsh and provocative statements by high-rank officials create and maintain false expectations and perceptions of global political processes. Georgian society is being kept in a virtual reality where Russia allegedly has no rights and powers while Tbilisi’s NATO membership issue has been stretched over a decade due to unrealistic claims of a “lack of democracy.” Secondly, NATO has been transformed into a fixed idea, an obsession that clouds the judgement of local elites and regular citizens alike, while human resources are shifted from improving domestic challenges to the desperate effort to get that MAP. People have really started to believe that once in the military Alliance, democratic institutions will appear by default and the Russian threat will simply vanish. It’s a bitter pill that at the end of the day may lead to dramatic nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift, as happened with Turkey and its European integration dreams. Ad notam, that is why all main elitist INGOs and NGOs in Georgia tried hard to put the issue of foreign policy orientation into the new constitution. This is the third possible negative outcome of a short-sighted NATO policy.

By and large, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi is important for the country to feel the Alliance’s support. But it could have been even more positive if the organization’s high-officials had held back from giving false promises and “small talk” about granting MAP to Georgia; especially using the argument that Russia has nothing to do with NATO enlargement. These assumptions mislead local elites as well as society. Georgia has achieved a respectable enough level of democracy to appeal and to start slowly becoming an inherent part of the military bloc. But this aspiration will not be satisfied unless the Kremlin stops opposing it. Moscow does not need permission to defend its national interests; moreover, it has enough strength to do so. At the same time, NATO’s annual “small talk” has significant negative outcomes for Georgia. People are being kept in a bubble of falsehood where the basic laws of global politics are abandoned; secondly, the issue itself has become so politicized that it clouds the judgement of decision-makers on the ground who put more effort into becoming a NATO member than into building democratic institutions. And finally, the absence of real outcomes of Georgian-NATO cooperation may push for more nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Georgia’s North Macedonian Dream

On March 12, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the membership of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Prominent American politician and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright re-iterated NATO’s open-door policy and assured Georgia and Ukraine that they will become Alliance members once the two countries are ready. Earlier, on June 12, 2018, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia signed the so-called Prespa Agreement according to which the latter will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia while Greece will finally agree to support its long-standing aspirations of acquiring the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Currently, the Republic of North Macedonia is on its way to joining the military bloc. The latest happenings raised new hopes among the so-called pro-NATO groups in Georgia that their state is next on the list.

Meanwhile, there are serious doubts as to whether the offering of NATO membership to the Republic of North Macedonia is a real precedent for Georgia and Ukraine. These Eastern European states face far more serious challenges attached to global politics, geopolitics and confrontation between the West and the East. At present, it is unlikely the North Macedonian experience can be readily applied.

Names Matter

The name dispute is a long-standing confrontation with old roots. Macedonia is a historical region associated with Greece and Alexander the Great. Nowadays, ancient Macedonia approximately corresponds with the modern Greek region of Macedonia and has little to do with the Republic of North Macedonia. Athens blamed Skopje of trying to assign symbols and figures that were initially perceived as part of Greek culture. Furthermore, there were fears of irredentism. Millions of Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, and officials in Athens had concerns this might lead to some concepts of so-called United Macedonia threatening the territorial integrity of the state.

So far, the case of the Republic of North Macedonia is unique and inapplicable to Georgia and Ukraine due to its comparative simplicity. The only actor that opposed Macedonia joining NATO was Alliance member Greece. No global politics was involved. Furthermore, there was only one demand that Athens had for Skopje – to change its constitutional name. Generally speaking, the whole dispute surrounded the name of the state and the main challenge was to persuade local elites to negotiate and make a deal using a “win-win” approach. Former confronting sides belonged to so-called small actors that are more vulnerable to external pressure and influence.

The Georgia Case

Whether you perceive NATO as a military bloc, democracy promoter, hybrid organization or something else, it is obvious that modern Ukraine is not ready to join the club. This lack of readiness can be seen on every level of the state build-up. On the opposite side, there is Georgia, which has by all means managed to satisfy NATO requirements; Tbilisi does not need to be ready for Alliance membership because it already is. Thus, we need to abandon this frequently-used-by-various-Western-high officials argument and be clear about the real challenges, recognizing that they are much more complicated than Athens and Skopje.

Perhaps the biggest need is to acknowledge separatism and irredentism as actually-happened facts. Georgia has two separatist regions supported by its northern neighbor, the Russian Federation. Additionally, at least some actors in Tbilisi realize that, besides the Russian factor, there are also significant issues to deal with on the ground, especially when it comes to conflict in the Abkhazia region. An even more complicated situation is seen in Ukraine, where the Crimean Peninsula was integrated by the Kremlin into the state while self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk on the east receive military and financial support.

We also need to consider Moscow and its geopolitical agenda. Unlike Greece and Macedonia, Russia is a “great power”. Of course, it is no match for the USSR, US and/or China, but it still possesses enough accumulated military power, backed by a vast territory and natural resources, to promote national interests and counter any other global actor. The Kremlin perceives both Georgia and Ukraine as zones of influence, “living space” and “security belt” and so the integration of these two states into NATO is a direct threat to its fundamental interests. And there is no point presenting the Alliance as a Russia-friendly military bloc: the Kremlin will perceive it as a threat while NATO prospers and Russia is not a member.

Unfortunately for Tbilisi and Kiev, their separatist regions have become battlefields between the united West and the East, meaning Russia, China and all those actors that aspire to shake the existing global political order, with the US on top. This fact makes it even more complicated to solve disputes on the ground due to their transformation from local (especially in Georgia’s case) to global: global actors are involved, and their goals go far beyond simple conflict resolution.

The reasons outlined above are real challenges that Georgia and Ukraine experience on their way to NATO membership. And while on the ground, Alliance representatives may speak about an open-door policy, but factually these “doors” will be opened only verbally.

By and large, the so-called Macedonian precedent has nothing to do with NATO aspirations for Tbilisi and Kiev. The name dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia was comparatively simple, while Georgia and Ukraine face extremely serious challenges, including separatism, irredentism, the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda and, of course, war for the future of global politics.

Thus, Georgia will need to wait a while on the list. But it is highly important for these two countries to continue state building, whether with MAP or not; officials must finally understand and accept that the ongoing build-up is not for NATO but for the prosperity of the people on the ground.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

“Together we can be better” – messages that Zurabishvili brought to Armenia

President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has finished her official visit to Armenia. She brought some important messages to Yerevan. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that Georgia has no real South Caucasian foreign policy.

Read more in Russian here.

I was surprised by zhuzes in Kazakhstan – scientist from Georgia

Archil Sikharulidze, Georgian scholar in political science has been invited by one of the universities from South Kazakhstan to lecture local students and conduct master-classes for academic staff. He shared his experience and thoughts about time spent in Kazakhstan with 365info.kz

Read more in Russian here.

Archil Sikharulidze: Azerbaijan is a guarantor of Georgia’s energy security

President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has visited Baku with official meetings. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that key issue for discussion will be to keep Azerbaijan as a guarantor of Georgia’s energy security.

Read more in Russian here.

Archil Sikharulidze: Visit of Georgian president to Baku will further strengthen interstate relations

President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has visited Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan. She had meetings with local high officials. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that this visit will further strengthen interstate relations.

Read more in Russian here.

Center for Systemic Political Research (CSPR)