On September 9-10, the Washington-based the McCain Institute (MCI) and the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC) held the 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference titled “Now What?”. It would have been another international happening in the capital city of Georgia, where local and international experts exchange “wishes,” if it had not erupted in scandal when a member of the oppositional party, Alliance of Patriots Ms. Irma Inashvili, currently deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament, expressed her dissatisfaction at the fact that organizers invited representatives of all parliamentary parties as speakers except her. She further criticized the event for lacking real debates, a diversity of voices and called it a “platform for members of the former criminal regime,” the United National Movement and European Georgia, to restore their damaged political prestige with the help of friendly-oriented American political groups represented by former US officials David Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at MCI, Matthew Bryza, board member of the Jamestown Foundation, and Michael Carpenter, the Atlantic Council’s Senior Fellow.
Undoubtedly, Ms. Inashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and provocative behavior is not the way political protest should be expressed but there are some strong arguments in favor of her statements. Unfortunately, such international happenings actually have transformed into “closed group” meetings or, as we can argue, an elite supper – where “friends” and “allies” discuss local and international developments without being interrupted by external actors; moreover, the same people debate the same issues with the same outcomes all over again not offering new ideas or critical thinking at all.
Now What? Nothing…
The 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference that took place in Tbilisi is not the only platform designed to promote discussions and, generally, raise sensitive issues among various officials, scholars and experts. There is also the well-known South Caucasus Security Forum that takes a look at security challenges in the Black Sea region. But in both and other cases, the main obstacle is not to bring respective people to panels but rather to provoke really fruitful debates. It cannot be done through highly politically correct statements and speeches, where NATO-EU integration is considered as inevitable and representatives of Russia are not invited at all; furthermore, basic aspects of international relations abandoned and panelists arguing that the Kremlin has nothing to do with the Black Sea region or global politics, that members of the Alliance do not grant Tbilisi the so-called MAP because of a lack of democracy and not threats from Moscow. Such detachment from real global politics makes these events, on the one hand useful in the sense of re-iteration of support from Georgia’s strategic partners but, on the other hand, absolutely useless from the standpoint of establishing the country as a serious well-respected regional discussion platform rather than a concentration of bravado speeches.
There is also one issue that does not let these conferences evolve: the extremely small group of states and professionals invited. Unfortunately, organizers rarely take the care to consider participants and panelists; decisions are made basing on “politically correct” and “fit to mainstream” approaches to avoid verbal confrontations and “unnecessary” statements. Thus, while discussing the Black Sea region, you may find that there are no representatives from such important countries as the Russian Federation or, in the South Caucasus case, not enough accent being made on Armenian, Turkish and Azerbaijanian scholars/experts; instead, we have professionals from European countries and the United States of America who sometimes have nothing to do with the region at all but merely have the right “message box” and, of course, can criticize Moscow without being challenged. At the end of the day, you have a small number of scholars/experts who attend these events on a regular basis with the same rhetoric, the same narratives and mainly matching standpoints to global affairs – the elite supper – where critical thinking and opposite views are not presented or even welcomed.
Kramer vs. Inashvili
Of course, we cannot avoid the direct verbal confrontation between David Kramer and Irma Inashvili. As said, Ms. Inashvili’s aggressive and provocative behavior is not something that should be accepted by Georgian society, but Mr. Kramer’s response was even more damaging. He not only rudely confronted her, calling her to leave the event, but also in the same manner behaved with Georgian journalists; furthermore, after leaving the country he wrote an extensive op-ed article for the Washington Post arguing that “friends” of Georgia were and are now being attacked.
For representatives of the so-called liberal elites and their followers, these steps were considered as respective, but factually Mr. Kramer made a few very important mistakes. Firstly, he gave himself the right to lose nerve and engage in a verbal battle with Ms. Inashvili, who is currently deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament; by doing so, he showed disrespect to woman (very important for local society) and to a democratically elected Georgian parliament member. Mr. Kramer is an experienced diplomat and former high official who perfectly knows the so-called diplomatic protocol, which he undoubtedly broke. Secondly, Mr. Kramer showed the same level of disrespect to representatives of media that would not have been tolerated neither in the US nor in any more or less “civilized” country. And, finally, instead of trying to settle the misdeed, he wrote an aggressive article attempting to justify himself, knowing that the opposite side would not be able to counter his arguments.
Regular Georgian citizens thus witnessed the former American high official, “friend”, showing disrespect to woman, to a democratically elected parliament member and finally blaming modern Georgia for attacking allies; probably not the best way to represent your country and friendship.
Georgian Politics Explained
Nowadays, Georgian political, economic, social and military dimensions are in deep crisis, significantly caused not by the willingness or unwillingness of any particular government to act but, most importantly, due to a lack of new critical approaches and standpoints, generally, the non-existence of various critical schools of thoughts that can engage in debate and produce innovations. Georgian elites are stuck in old school views of the world, unable to overstep these concepts, with every single political actor offering the same political, socio-economic and military models of development with some extremely minor differences; those who do not fit into the mainstream and argue for opposite ideas (such as military neutrality, left-wing ideas) are by default considered retrograde elements, enemies and pro-Russian forces, despite the availability of evidence to the contrary. This critical situation is worsened by political crises of the West and Western institutions and the damage being done to the West-led post-Cold War global political order. As a result, Georgian elites fight each other using populism, labeling, insults, baseless allegations and various “friendly-oriented” groups from abroad to gain more votes and legitimize actions, while failing to offer anything innovative or realistic. Among such “old stories” are the NATO-EU integration and, of course, turbulent relations with the Russian Federation.
Dreams of NATO-EU
There is no mainstream political power in the country that does not reflect NATO integration and EU membership as key goals and merits of governance success. During the post-Rose Revolution regime of Mikheil Saakashvili and his political team United National Movement, every single reform served to these grand aspirations.
Initially, integration to these Western institutions had particular political, geopolitical and economic purposes but quickly transformed into an end in itself, an obsession of the Georgian elites that does not consider the changing political environment at all. Hence, these elites are pressed between harsh reality and created narratives, “wishful thinking”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message to Georgian society was pretty clear and direct when during her South Caucasus tour in 2018, she argued that there are no pre-requisites for NATO enlargement in the region. But unable and unwilling to face this harsh reality, Georgian mainstream elites are still using the “possibility” of integration in various set ups (the latest, without Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region under Article 5) as responses to continuously changing regional and global political environment. In this context, international events are frequently used by the groups to re-assure and calm Georgian society that the country will become a NATO member “very soon”. Such a scenario was used in 2018 when the same McCain Institute held a conference where retired US generals and other officials tried to overshadow the Chancellor’s messages with their own bold rhetoric and assurances.
By and large, Ms. Inashvili’s intervention at the 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference proved that the Georgian political culture is still in need of further development. On the other hand, it raised the issue of international conferences becoming a concentration of useless verbal bravado instead of being platforms for real debates on topics of global politics; furthermore, these events are enslaved by wrongful approaches when only politically correct and mainstream professionals are invited to avoid “unnecessary” debates and statements. The recent conference was also extremely harmful for the McCain Institute and, personally, for former American high official Mr. David Kramer, who broke diplomatic protocol and brought more harm than good to the Georgian-American friendship. Lastly, Georgia has no alternatives except to further push for NATO-EU membership but both local and international experts, scholars and officials must be sincere while discussing the challenges. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the political opposition have anything to offer Georgian society except elusive dreams of NATO and European Union.