Category Archives: EU

God Engaged: Orthodox Christianity in the “Big Game”

On January 5, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the global Orthodox Church and the first among equals, signed a decree “Tomos” in Istanbul granting the Ukrainian Church autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church (alternatively, the Moscow Patriarchate, abb. ROC) and recognizing its autocephaly (independence). The event was attended by the head of the Ukrainian government, President Petro Poroshenko and other high officials. Earlier, Bartholomew called on leaders of other autocephalous churches, most importantly in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, to support his initiative. The decision to remove the Ukrainian Church from the subordination of the ROC which had existed as such for centuries was highly criticized by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate, as a rude violation of religious laws and an obvious political step leading to religious strife and a division in the global Orthodox community.

And while supporters of Bartholomew’s historic move both in Ukraine and abroad, especially in Georgia, react according to how they perceive the victory over the corrupt Russian Orthodox Church controlled by Putin’s regime, it is obvious that there is much more than just the right of Ukrainian people for religious independence at stake here. The Orthodox Christian god has been officially engaged by all sides in the so-called “big game” now: political and ideological rivalry where religion is used for concrete goals. The absolute majority of the so-called pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian analysts and experts fiercely defend Bartholomew’s step as fair and logical, bringing forth arguments about historical justice and more. At the same time, there are those who are not so positive about it. This pessimism comes from a few extremely puzzling moments that are mainly, frequently intentionally, overlooked and neglected.

Orthodox Christianity and Politics

Unlike other Christian denominations, Orthodox Christianity was and still is extremely involved in domestic and foreign politics. Political actors actively attract religious institutions into various state, political and ideological activities to gain electoral support, legitimacy and to justify their activities, while local churches are keen to use this “dependency” to influence political decision-making and, sometimes, even pursue a harsh policy of proselytism. This mutual interdependence and interconnection make it impossible to build a stable secular state without interference from religious institutions and persons in state affairs.

And so, here is perhaps the biggest question that puzzles experts and analysts: was Bartholomew’s initiative purely a religious one? It is pretty questionable that Ecumenical Patriarch would have dared and/or decided to push the topic of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church in the midst of the fight between Kiev and Moscow and, in general, the West and the East, without any serious political back-up; especially if we take into consideration that Bartholomew, in theory, holds sway over more than 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, from which the majority are Russian and when the biggest Orthodox Christian Church is the Moscow Patriarchate.

The second important question regards the strong bond between political elites and local religious institutions that have a place in almost all Orthodox Christian countries. We can easily outline at least three exceptional cases: Russian Federation, Ukraine and Georgia.

The Moscow Patriarchate seems to be a continuation of the Russian state (ad notam, historically given condition) and is being actively used by the Kremlin to pursue its domestic and foreign policies through support and justification from the religious institution and its representatives. At the same time, the State acknowledges the Moscow Patriarchate’s support and backs its frequently questionable domestic (the law on protecting religious feelings) and foreign (dominance over global Orthodox Christian community) initiatives. The same could be seen in Ukraine. Until it received “Tomos,” there were three Orthodox Church branches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or Kiev Patriarchate (independent), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (independent) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (abb. UOC, subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate). After accepting autocephaly, the first two independent churches formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (abb. OCU) that, by initial design and primary mission, was to counter and oppose the UOC that was and still is the leading Orthodox institution in the country. So far, the OCU, a priori, is being considered by all sides and, most importantly, by Poroshenko’s government, as a political tool against the Kremlin; and we may argue that the Ukrainian state will do its best to put the newly formed local autocephalous church at the service of political elites. It is also highly questionable whether the OCU can really counter the UOC without political, ideological, administrative and financial support from the government and affiliated individuals.

Where the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine are being used by political elites, the Georgian Orthodox Church (abb. GOC) is intelligently manipulating the Georgian elites; where in the Russian Federation and Ukraine we are witnessing the existence of so-called “pocket churches” that lie as a huge burden both on governments and societies, Georgian society is easily “pocketed” by the Georgian Orthodox Church. As still the most trusted and influential institution in the country, the GOC interferes in almost every single aspect of everyday life in Georgia. This frequently harmful practice restrains the country from transforming into the Western-type secular state it claims it wants to be.

Orthodox Christianity at a Crossroads

The establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church not only officially involved Orthodox Christian god in global politics, but also led to historic strife; and if decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was somehow a logical retaliation, other autocephalous churches suddenly appeared to be at a crossroads, with only two options – follow Bartholomew or support the ROC. We may argue that no one would want to be involved into this dispute; furthermore, for some autocephalous churches, such as those of Serbia and Georgia, this decision is highly sensitive and is directly attached to important political issues.

It is no secret that Serbia holds strong political, cultural and religious ties with the Russian Federation. Furthermore, Serbian officials openly re-iterate the importance of these ties and are still extremely thankful to the Kremlin for the support given during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Additionally, Moscow was in the vanguard of those states that did not support the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and Russia is still the main and most important ally of Belgrade in its attempts to bring the partially recognized state under its jurisdiction. It seems the Serbian Orthodox Church will definitely think twice before backing Bartholomew’s decision and by default directly oppose the Moscow Patriarchate.

This situation is even more challenging for the Georgian Orthodox Church. Despite fierce support for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from local pro-Western forces and parts of Georgian society, which perceive these events as the restoration of historical justice, it is obvious the situation is much more complicated. Georgia has two separatist regions (Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia) which were recognized as independent states by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. Despite supporting Abkhazian “sovereignty,” the Russian Orthodox Church does not officially recognize the Abkhazian Orthodox Church (abb. AOC) and it is, de jure, still subordinated to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Representatives of the GOC are afraid that by recognizing the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church, they may directly push the Moscow Patriarchate to recognize the AOC. Some may argue that the ROC has de facto already done so and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church are working secretly on the ground, and yet there is a huge difference between official recognition and masked activities. Finally, Georgia has been surrounded by non-Christian nations for centuries with the Moscow Patriarchate its only neighboring religious ally; thus, this historical memory is also present.

Useless Independence?

Without doubt, the Ukrainian people deserve the right to have religious institutions that reflect their attitudes and aspirations. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the reception of autocephaly was and is something that Ukraine really needed. Will it solve the country’s challenges and lead to the unification of society? Unlikely.

As said above, the Poroshenko’s government sees autocephaly as a pre-election campaign project that should, in theory, raise support among the local electorate and help its leader to keep his presidential post. This is despite the unpleasant fact that Poroshenko failed to lead the state into a better future. Particularly, we may argue that Ukraine was always and still is in dramatic need of independence from its own oligarchs and other questionable figures rather than autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate. The reasoning that the inability of every single pro-Western revolutionary movement and leader to handle the corruption and other anti-state practices lies in the dependence of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate is highly dubious. The reception of autocephaly will not lead to a dismantling of the corrupt political system that exists in Ukraine, as that is just how Poroshenko wants it to be.

Secondly, frequently both international and domestic observers overlook the issue of social divisions in Ukraine. Approximately half of the eastern population are ethnic Russians, and these will most likely not transfer from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, especially taking when taking into consideration the political context. Furthermore, even among Ukrainians there are plenty who are devoted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church subordinated to the ROC. Thus, the establishment of an autocephalous church may further deepen the social divisions that have developed due to various questionable decisions made over time by the political elite, such as the controversial language bill restricting and downgrading use of the Russian language in Ukraine.

In conclusion, the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church can be perceived as an official engagement of the Orthodox Christian god in global politics, where all involved actors try to use religious institutions and affiliated individuals for their own political and ideological interests while local churches try to grab their own benefits. Other autocephalous churches, especially in Serbia and Georgia, now find themselves at a crossroads that may lead to some extremely interesting political developments in the future. If the Georgian Orthodox Church backs Bartholomew’s initiative, we may witness the appearance of another partially recognized Church, the Abkhazian, which will result in the further deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations. At the same time, the Ukrainian autocephalous Church may be not the answer that the majority of Ukrainians hoped for, as it is uncertain how it will help the country to finally escape its corrupt circle or build the modern prosperous and secular state that they seek.

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

“The Decline of Europe” a Hundred Years Later (Debate), Journal «The New Past», №2, 2018

Questions for Discussion are following:

  1. Is there a “decline of Europe” as a conceptual model today? What are its characteristics?
  2. Can we talk about the specifics in the perception of the “decline of Europe” from the inside and outside? And if so, what are the differences in conceptual approaches to this problem?
  3. Can we assess the migration crisis, regionalism, identity crisis and solidarity in Europe as an “evidence of the decline of Europe”?
  4. Are the integration projects of the Eurasian Union, the New Silk Road (One Belt — One Road) a symptom of the extinction of European civilization in the post-war format familiar to us from the 1940s?
  5. Did Oswald Spengler’s forecasts come true?

Disputants:

Archil Sikharulidze, co-founder, Center of System Political Research (CSPR), editor of the Georgian Journal of System Politics (GJSP), Georgia;

Thomas Kruessmann, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c., LL.M. (King’s College), School of Politics and International Relations of University of Kent (Great Britain), co-ordinator of the Jean Monnet Network “Developing European Studies in the Caucasus” with the University of Tartu / Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies and Senior Expert in the EU Technical Assistance Project “Strengthening Teaching and Research Capacity at ADA University” in Baku (Azerbaijan);

Rustem Davletgildeev, Doctor of Law, Academic coordinator of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in European Studies VOICES+, Vice-dean of the Faculty of Law on International Activity, Kazan Federal University, Russia;

Bryan Christiansen, Chief Executive Officer, Global Research Society, LLC, USA;

Goran Ilik, PhD, Faculty of Law, “St. Kliment Ohridski” University — Bitola, Republic of Macedonia;

Aijarkyn Kojobekova, PhD in Philosophy, Associate professor, Senior Adviser on Research, UNUM, Training, Research and Analytics Company, Kyrgyzstan.

«Закат Европы» Сто Лет Спустя/“The Decline of Europe” a Hundred Years Later

Georgia’s Culture of “Breakthrough” Celebrations

This year, Tbilisi celebrated the EU’s decision to pursue an “open-door” policy and give Georgian citizens the right to enter the Schengen zone without visa. The decision was highly praised by various political actors and proclaimed as a significant political victory for the post-Soviet state.

At the same time, some experts have doubts about the visa liberalization policy. Moreover, the notion of a “great victory” reminded many of a few similar stories that have been celebrated by local political elites as grand achievements that later turned out to be a part of political populism and simple exaggeration; an attempt to overshadow a domestic political, economic and/or social crisis.

From George W. Bush to the 2008 August War

There are three prominent cases that have been re-thought: George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia, the NATO Bucharest Summit and the 2008 August War.

For such a small country as Georgia, which at both the internal and external level significantly depend on support from strategic partners, it is a great honor to host high-ranking officials. The US President’s visit was the highest victory for Georgia, especially when taking into consideration the fact that this was the only time a US president had ever visited South Caucasia. George W. Bush gave a speech in the city center of Tbilisi on May 10, 2005 and proclaimed Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the region. Moreover, he argued that his administration had drawn a ‘red line’ over Caucasia, meaning that Russia should not try to intervene in the State’s affairs. Only, during the 2008 August War, Georgian society realized that the visit was more about PR rather than real politics. Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili used it to legitimize his government’s aggressive “zero tolerance” policy that led to power abuse and frequent cases of human rights violations that Bush’s administration mainly ignored. Bush himself considered the Tbilisi trip a political step to boost his political popularity at home by showing the “success story” of his foreign policy, which was under fire over the Afghanistan and Iraq operations. Finally, neither Saakashvili nor Bush thought about the impact the visit would have on Georgian-Russian relations. While the leaders of both countries were trying to solve internal issues, the Kremlin perceived it as a direct threat to national security. Moscow’s approach became even more offensive which, in combination with Bush’s Tbilisi “assurances” and Saakashvili’s hot-headed nature, led to the 2008 August War.

The NATO 2008 Bucharest Summit is probably the most interesting case. At the end of 90s, the second president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, knocked on NATO doors. Saakashvili’s pro-Western government took all measures to finally integrate Tbilisi into the military organization; it even conducted a state referendum to officially prove the devotion of local society to the goal. In 2008, due to extreme support from the Eastern European countries (Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) and the US administration, Georgia was never before as close to acquiring the so called MAP (The Membership Action Plan). But despite this unique political back-up, the attempt failed and instead of received MAP, representatives of NATO member states expressed merely a commitment to integrate Georgia and Ukraine once they meet the respective criteria. This commitment was proclaimed by Saakashvili’s government as another strategic victory while American and European officials praised Georgia’s democratic development. And, once again, only the August 2008 War made it clear that the decision was a huge blow to Bush administration’s foreign policy and a reflection of the Saakashvili government’s failure to gain support from leading Western European countries. Nowadays, it is frequently argued that the Bucharest decision was a political miscalculation of the West that gave a green light to Putin’s regime to stimulate the August 2008 War, rather than a victorious moment for Tbilisi.

Finally, we cannot avoid assessment of the August 2008 events themselves. This war is important not only from a political and geopolitical perspective, but also as a clear example of state propaganda. While Moscow tried hard to persuade the local electorate that this was a big victory for the Russian Federation, Tbilisi aggressively promoted the idea of exposing the Kremlin’s real face. In fact, both states lost. While Russia managed to restrain Georgia’s aspiration to become a NATO member, it created two practically internationally non-recognized self-proclaimed states totally dependent on Moscow’s political, financial and military donations. In turn, Saakashvili’s government, to undermine the catastrophic results of the conflict on the country’s political, economic and social dimensions, focused more on Russia’s international prestige. Tbilisi argued that it had managed to expose the evil nature of the Kremlin’s regime. As Russian scholar, Ivan Kurilla, perfectly noted, it is questionable whether Georgia exposed something but it is definitely unarguable that Saakashvili put his country in a position where neither the West nor liberal groups in Moscow were capable of blaming with total confidence the Russian government for the outbreak of the war. Hence, the game wasn’t worth playing.

All in all, each “breakthrough” analyzed above was presented by the Georgian government as a grand achievement to hide some concrete political misdeeds mainly connected to an inability or unwillingness to pursue a logical, politically calculated and balanced policy at home and on the international arena or were simply highly motivated political exaggeration.

What is wrong with Visa Liberalization?

There are lots of taboo topics in Georgia that will by default lead to an aggressive response from local conservatists (LGBT community rights) or liberals (NATO membership). The new issue that will probably cost the status of the pro-Russian movement is the visa liberalization. From March 28, Georgian citizens holding biometric passports are free to travel to the Schengen Zone without a visa for a period of 90 days within any 180-day period for purposes other than work. The EU’s political decision to open the door for Georgians was warmly received by pro-Western movements and democratic governments worldwide. Proponents of the Ukraine ‘Maidan’ used this precedent to motivate local society to continue on its existing political course while liberal elites opposing Putin’s regime in Moscow tried to attract more voters. The Georgian government, as usual, went all out to celebrate this “breakthrough”. European and Georgian officials and members of civil society are pretty confident that visa free movement will bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Only a minority of international and local experts express doubts and point to the questions this “open-door” policy raises.

One of those is whether the move will actually promote pro-Western attitudes and make more Georgians familiar with European culture? Receiving a Schengen Visa was a challenging task due to a lack of financial resources rather than the unwillingness of the local population to visit the EU. Moreover, it was never problematic to travel Europe in the scopes of various international forums, conferences, school exchanges or other activities that are well-organized and funded in Georgia. Lastly, in comparison to other areas like the USA or UK, the Schengen Zone was always perceived as the easiest to enter. So far, the move, in practice, should create new opportunities for those Georgian citizens who had issues with affordability and this is practically impossible to achieve due to the poor socio-economic situation. Georgian society experiences comparatively high levels of poverty and unemployment. Furthermore, local salaries are largely far below the European ones, added to which the country is witnessing probably the worst socio-economic crisis for the last decade. Unless improved, these factors will keep Georgian elites that never had problems with visiting EU “in” the European dream and representatives of financially less-prosperous groups “out”.

One more question that comes to mind is whether the visa free policy is about freedom of movement between Tbilisi and Brussels or is more about countering, as Georgian neoliberals actively argue, increasing pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments in the country today. It became a tendency after the collapse of the “Rose Revolution” government, to maintain an alarmistic approach regarding internal processes in the State. Former members of Saakashvili’s regime, then representatives of other non-governmental groups, started promoting the idea of a possible deviation from the Western course with the “enhancing of ties” between Tbilisi and Moscow. Such attitudes finally found reflection in the articles and speeches of various European experts, scholars and officials calling on EU member state representatives to acknowledge Georgia’s achievements and instead offer something that would keep Georgian society devoted to the western course. As soon as NATO and EU membership was off the table, the EU leaders decided to grant Georgian citizens visa free movement.

Georgia has a long history of “breakthrough” celebrations following various political decisions announced by the government as a great victory. Lately, to the dissatisfaction of local society, it has become politically motivated exaggeration and/or an attempt to overshadow the incapability or unwillingness of the state apparatus to handle existing domestic challenges or government-non-friendly processes. EU’s visa free travel approach is definitely a positive step for Georgia, but we need to be aware of its political, social and economic aspects in order not to give the government another opportunity to hoodwink Georgian society.

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

Scapegoating Russia

Twenty years ago, when the Russian economy was in tatters during the turbulent presidency of Boris Yeltsin, few could imagine that within a period of just two decades, Russia would be in the media spotlight as one of the West’s key troublemakers. Today, many opponents criticize Russia for its perennial human right abuses, assertive foreign policy and authoritarian regime. It is natural, at least because they can score political points: Russia has become a global player that is worthwhile and politically expedient to lambast.

Without doubt, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy is very controversial, but this is not the only reason why the West has seemingly launched a crusade against the Kremlin. Some experts and politicians tend to point their fingers at Russia no matter what has happened: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hidden machinations are everywhere, his influence is omnipresent.

It remains to be seen whether it is true or not, yet this should be addressed via thorough and competent investigation and the court, not through allegations. No matter what, but one thing is clear: behind this campaign against Russia is the West’s natural need to find a real adversary who might pose an existential threat.

It is no secret that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western free and liberal world came up with the idea of “the end of history,” promoted by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama. NATO members started believing that they were invincible, with their values and views becoming more viable with every passing day. Thus, the West rigorously encouraged other countries to accept its system of values and sometimes tried to impose its rules.

The military operation in Afghanistan was only the beginning; when that was completed, it turned into another campaign – in Iraq. The West’s attempt to expand its influence in the post-Soviet space was interpreted by the Kremlin and its like-minded supporters as attempts to orchestrate a “color revolution,” be it in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) or Kyrgyzstan (2005). The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in 2011 was another stage of the West’s endeavor to spread its values abroad. Finally, the apex of the Western crusade became the attempts to overthrow the political regimes in Syria and Libya, both of which turned into bloody and never-ending civil wars.

Ironically, the West didn’t achieve its results and plans in most cases, and all its noble attempts to “export” democracy abroad only backfired. Far from becoming more democratic and stable, the countries and the region was faced with a severe crisis. It became obvious that the Western scenario could not keep up with the harsh reality. Naturally, this discredited democratic values and democracy itself (as a tool of foreign policy).

When Barack Obama came into the Oval Office, the image of the United States had been already tainted and the new president had to shoulder this burden. Yet he was not able to deal with it — he didn’t fulfill his pre-election pledges to close the notorious prison in Guantanamo or withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, regardless of his plan to shy away from an assertive foreign policy, he didn’t stop U.S. attempts to interfere into the domestic policy of other countries. This also hampered America’s reputation as well as the image of Obama’s Democratic Party in general. This created a fertile ground for the emergence of populist forces and the rise of flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump, who finally won the U.S. presidency. He promised to stop the democratic crusade abroad and focus more on domestic problems.

In this situation, oddly enough, Russia might play a very important role in returning the Western liberal forces back to power. Paradoxically, Russia has already started bringing the West’s politicians together — but not as a positive factor, but rather, as a threat. As indicated by the 2017 Munich Security Conference, the West does understand the need to unite and refute anti-democratic and populist forces.

The mainstream narrative, which is actively circulated in America, is crystal clear: Putin and, specifically, Russia’s hackers, contributed to Trump’s victory in the presidential election and Brexit; Russia’s intelligence rigged the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia to bring to power pro-Russian parties. This narrative is consistent even in the context of the upcoming elections in France and Germany: the media and pundits are mulling over a possible victory of pro-Russian candidates Francois Fillon or Marine Le Pen; they speculate about the possible failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, well-known for her tough and intransigent approach toward the Kremlin.

However, one relevant question comes to one’s mind: Did Russia really have such an impact on all these political processes? Why Russia, not China or some other country, let’s say? If Russia is so powerful and omnipresent that means that the U.S. is no longer a superpower — it has been replaced by Russia, as Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Derek Averre of the University of Birmingham ironically implied during one of the 2016 meetings with Georgian pundits, who warned about Russia’s increasing influence.

To follow such logic, only a country that is economically, politically and militarily equal to the U.S. might have an impact on America’s domestic policy. But Russia is far from this level at the moment. The hacking attacks were commonplace, they have been undertaken and they will be carried out from both sides in future. And this is natural.

Regarding Brexit and the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, these events indicated that the local political elites and their strategic partners were not able to recognize the indignation of voters as reality. In the case of Georgia, the authorities were reluctant to admit that its former President was authoritarian in his nature.

Likewise, if the liberal and politically correct forces in France and Germany fail, their defeat will be a result of the domestic political processes in these countries. For example, the refugee crisis might play a significant role: Merkel’s noble, if utopian, plan to shelter many refugees in Germany and immediately integrate them into society might backfire.

Naturally, in such an environment it is politically beneficial to lambast and point fingers at Russia. By the same token, the Kremlin is the best candidate to blame for all Western woes. The choice is rational for a good reason: It fell on Russia because the Kremlin annexed Crimea, intervened in Georgia and now is reported to be conducting subversive activity against the Western world.

Moreover, historical memory of why the West scapegoated Moscow is also important: Everybody remembers the Red Scare. Thus, it is quite easy to nurture mistrust toward Russia in such an environment by dredging up old memories. Furthermore, the West can criticize Russia without expecting serious implications for its long-term interests, because the list of its key strategic partners includes Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel and Turkey — but not Russia.

In other words, criticizing the Kremlin doesn’t necessarily undermine the West’s strategic interests. That might be the reason why Riyadh and Doha can keep bombing civilians in Yemen without expecting sanctions from the West. That might be why Israel continued to build settlements in Palestine despite the large-scale Muslim protests. That might be why Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels impunity when he lawlessly imprisons thousands of Turkish citizens throughout the entire country.

Finally, Russia is powerful enough to be a bogeyman. It can pose a threat to the West, yet it is possible to deal with. That’s why the West chooses the Kremlin, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia (which allegedly finances terrorists and has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks against America), not Hungary with Victor Orban, not Ukraine with its political disorder, not even China with its global economic clout. However, Russia is big enough and, at first glance, very strong. With its weak economy and oil addiction, it is a good target to contain.

Summing up, the West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests.

The original article was published by RussiaDirect on February 22, 2017. It is available here.

Euphoria hits the Western media

On October 9, the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the members of his political team met with president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili, marking the moment in which the Georgian Dream would take reins of power over the country, thus forcing the UNM (United National Movement) to step aside and become the parliamentary minority after governing the state for the last eight years.

The defeat of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 represented a drastic shift in the political, social and economic environment in Georgia, and at the same time it was the marked a precedent in the region when the ruling force recognized its defeat in the elections and allowed the political opposition an opportunity to lead the state.

Such dramatic events were considered by some domestic as well as foreign experts as an important step away from Georgia’s post-Soviet era towards democracy. This transition was symbolic of the positive changes occurring not only in Georgia itself, but in the whole region. Therefore, the worldwide media just couldn’t turn blind eye on the ongoing developments in Georgia. The BBC, CNN, RIA Novosti, Foreign Policy, The Times, Sunday Times – all these prominent magazines and newsmakers kept tabs on the vote itself, as well as the post-election events in the country.

Three main issues are under discussion in the international media: the reasons behind the UNM’s defeat, the incoming government, Georgia’s democratic transition and the country’s relationship with Russia.

What led to the loss?

“Indeed, defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him [Mikhail Saakashvili] and his country’s reputation,” notes James Nixey, Manager and Research Fellow, at the Russia and Eurasia Programme.

In his article ‘Georgia: Post-Election Analysis’ that Chatham House published on October 2, James Nixey concludes that the recognition of defeat was the only and the best way for Mikhail Saakashvili and his political team to “ensure that his [Mikhail Saakashvili] legacy is not entirely in tatters.” The reason behind total loss, according to him, lies in the “disappointing economic picture, the centralization of power and the small matter of partial responsibility for the August 2008 war.”

In the short paper published by the Georgian Journal on October 3, Mark Mullen, the former Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Georgia from 1997 until 2004, emphasizes two fundamental reasons behind Misha and the UNM’s decreased popularity among citizens of Georgia: “the punishment of those in Shevardnadze’s government and the amendment of the constitution on 6 February 2004.”

Defining the first reason, Mullen notes that “so many great things happened: the administrative reforms, the end of petty corruption, fixing roads and in general creating a real state. But at the same time, a large part of [that] was based on punishment. On treating people as if they were a problem to be rolled over rather than a constituent group to be listened to.”

The international media as well as local experts agree that Mikhail Saakashvili definitely played a role on improving democracy in Georgia, but the main problem of his was “accusations of authoritarian behavior masked as democracy.”

In the article ‘Democracy wins as Rose Revolution admits defeat in parliament elections,’ published in The Times Europe, Roger Boyes exclaims that “Bidzina Ivanishvili’s victory in the parliamentary elections has astonished the region.” According to the journalist, it seems that Georgia is on its way to shaping real democracy in the region where before the Rose revolution, no one could even imagine such a possibility.

In another report, the BBC’s Damien McGuinnes notes that “it is [parliamentary elections] a momentous day for Georgia– a day which strengthens the country’s democratic credentials.”

In another article published by BBC, Georgia’s election is described as “a milestone for democracy in the ex-Soviet state.”

By and large, the peaceful transition of power was welcomed by the international media; this fact has demonstrated that a Soviet country can become a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space and particularly, in a strategically important region.

Russia or the West?

Doubts about Bidzina Ivanishvili’s political orientation– which included questions of whether Georgia will replace its pro-Western orientation with a pro-Russian approach, was prominent in the minds of many during the whole pre-election campaign. Considering the international reaction, the international community expects that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition will be loyal to the old pro-Western approach chosen by the former government of Mikhail Saakashvili.

On October 3, The Sunday Times published an article by Maria Antonova entitled ‘Georgian Dream to ease, not end Russia’s nightmare.’ In it, the expert noted that there won’t be drastic changes in the political attitude between representatives of two states; the only innovations that could appear may be an attempt to more or less place the Georgian-Russian relationship in the scope of the world’s widely accepted ‘game rules’; but there can’t be agreement on the main issues such as the fate of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia.

Bidzina v. Misha

It’s no secret that personal aspects are still important when it comes to political developments in any country.

“More than 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West has become familiar with a wide variety of leaders to emerge in this space — Soviet apparatchiks, fierce nationalists and K.G.B. trained strongmen. However, Bidzina Ivanishvili nominated Monday as Georgia’s next prime minister, does not resemble any of them, not even remotely,” writes Ellen Barry of the New York Times in the October 8 article ‘Georgian Leader Emerges as an Enigma.’

According to her, “Mr. Ivanishvili provides a contrast with Mr. Saakashvili, a cosmopolitan charmer who speaks fluent English and intuitively understands what the West expects.”

In order to portray Bidzina Ivanishvili, she cites Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, as saying that the billionaire politician is a novice, and that has its pros and cons.

“The bad side is he is quite unpredictable and says some quite eccentric things. The good side is he is still learning and corrects himself. He is receptive to advice,” Thomas de Waal is quoted.

Hence, it is clear that the international media, as well as foreign experts, are in some kind of euphoria over the parliamentary elections and probable developments in the country.

And still, there are serious challenges for democracy in Georgia and the euphoria which exists in the West may further prompt opportunities for the crisis. Last time the West was in such excited state about the events in Georgia was during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Consequently, Georgia’s strategic partners overlooked some misdeeds of the former government which finally led to the crisis of democracy in the country.

By and large, Georgia expects that both the domestic and the international community will overcome its euphoric condition and begin a sober evaluation of the developments. It is up to the people to start pushing the new government to be loyal to democratic institutions and values.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

OSCE points to increasing polarization

In its second interim report published on September 24, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says that the polarization of the election campaign in Georgia “has increased.” Aimed at evaluating general issues such as the campaign environment, campaign finance, as well as media and the participation of national minorities, the report covered a period between September 6 and September19. Overall, OSCE’s report is more summary of the facts than their actual analysis.The OSCE launched the observation mission on August 22 with a core team of 16 experts in Tbilisi and 28 long-term observers deployed throughout the country.

Campaign environment

“The polarization of the campaign has increased. The tone of the campaign messages from both the UNM and the Georgian Dream coalition senior leadership and majoritarian candidates is confrontational and rough” – exclaimed the OSCE Election Observation Mission assessing the general pre-election environment in the country.

According to the interim report, the main confrontation is going to have to take place between the ruling party (United National Movement, abb. UNM) and Georgian Dream Coalition (abb. GD) led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Both sides have chosen the policy of mutual accusations and charges. The UNM ‘questions the origins of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s assets and his political agenda in the case of victory’; meanwhile GD blames the ruling party for twisting the facts.

OSCE report emphasizes the facts of involvement of officials as well as public (administration) employees in the pre-election campaign of the ruling party. According to the document, the “UNM representatives, municipal authorities and at times the police, allegedly signal to such voters [public (administration) employees/recipients of social benefits] not to engage in opposition activities but rather attend UNM rallies.”

Campaign finance

Another important accent has been made by the OSCE on the ‘campaign finance’ issue. The report notes that about 35 cases of illegal donations [mainly in favor of the GD] were examined by the mission. In all instances, the OSCE has doubts about the fairness of the decisions taken by the Georgian courts.

“In some 35 cases examined in detail by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM, the courts have deemed the donations by such individuals illegal on the grounds that ‘the donor failed to prove the origins of the property donated,” – notes the mission and continues by pointing out that all citizens are obliged by the law to declare income and pay taxes. Still, the Law on Public Unions of Citizens doesn’t demand any documents proving the origins of the donated property to assess donation as legal; consequently, the facts of disagreement between the law and the reality create basis for criticism.

The OSCE interim report hadn’t avoided the issue of discretionary power given to the SAO (State Audit Office). According to the report, legislation grants the SAO as well as the courts “wide discretion in determining whether a donation is ‘justifiable’” which spreads doubts regarding objectivity of the institutions.

Additionally, the document complainss about the cases when “potentially illegal donors were summoned without being informed about their status as witnesses or suspects. They were body searched and deprived of personal belongings during lengthy interviews conducted in a manner that did not indicate due process.”

Media

The Georgian media environment became an issue of concern as well. According to the OSCE interim report, the media is highly politicized and tends to be biased toward the ruling party or the opposition: “…the majority of broadcasters monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM appear to follow partisan editorial policies in their news and current affairs programs.”

The OSCE marked out the broadcasters mainly promoting the UNM and humiliating the main Georgian oppositional force GD: Rustavi 2, Imedi and TV Adjara. According to the report, despite the fact that all these channels are pro-governmental there are differences in their policies; in particular, Rustavi 2 is more focused on praising achievements of the ruling party; meanwhile, Imedi TV tries to humiliate the GD and spread mistrust toward Bidzina Ivanishvili and his political coalition.

On the other hand, Maestro TV as well as TV9 was recognized as the oppositional ‘mainly positive in tone, to the opposition GD bloc’. In the same time, Kavkasia TV well-known for its oppositional ‘soul’ has been considered as more or less neutral.

The only broadcaster recognized as fully neutral and who tends to promote media fairness was the Public Broadcaster (GPB). According to the report “GPB offered balanced coverage of the campaign. In the newscasts of First Channel (GPB1), both UNM and GD received similar proportions of mostly positive and neutral coverage… GPB1 has also devoted extensive coverage to further seven political parties’.

Other concerns

The OSCE mission is concerned that minority groups such as Azeri, Armenians mainly concentrated in border regions with only six MPs in the outgoing parliament are not able to fully integrate into civil society.

Finally, the OSCE responded to the latest developments in the country and exclaimed that the mission will be to further observe the political environment and assess the impact of the shocking videos [showing scenes of torture and the abuse of prisoners in prison number 8 located in Gldani, Tbilisi] unveiled by the broadcasters on 18 of September.

Responses

The representatives of the ruling party have not made any comments regarding the report. Meanwhile, the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, noted that the OSCE mission fully reflected the existing injustice in its interim report.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

The return of the OSCE Mission?

Member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Matteo Mecacci, and Chairman of the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, paid a three-day visited to Tbilisi in May. His visit sparked hopes regarding the reopening of the OSCE mission in Georgia four-years after its closing.

According to official information posted on the Italian Embassy’s website on May 16, Matteo Mecacci held various meetings in which he noted that “in the resolution approved in Belgrade last year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE has called for the reopening of an OSCE field mission in Georgia, and I believe that all OSCE Member States should support this goal with the aim of protecting the rights of the people who are still suffering after the 2008 conflict.”

Moreover, according to the Maestro TV report, while he visited Georgian and Russian checkpoints in Egneti, on the administrative border with South Ossetia, Matteo Mecacci announced the possibility of launching a new OSCE mission in Georgia by July 2012: “I am here due to the government’s invitation. I have met many people. I understand their condition and the OSCE will do everything to protect human rights. Recently, the Parliamentary Assembly discussed the issue of launching an OSCE office here, which will begin supposedly in July.”

The announcement made by the OSCE representative came as a surprise not only for the Ossetian side, but for Georgians as well. While the Georgian media was circulating information about the re-launching of the OSCE mission, the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry issued a special statement denying any talks or negotiations with South Ossetian authorities on the issue.

“Such nonsense is reported by the Georgian media. Currently, more than a year later, no negotiations about this issue are taking place. There were negotiations in 2009, 2010, and 2011 raised by the OSCE chairman. However, we did not accept their proposal, and neither did they accept our conditions,” said the head of the South Ossetian Presidential Administration, Boris Chochiev.

On May 16, The Messenger published an article reporting that Matteo Mecacci was confused about the Georgian media citing him about the information pertaining to the launch of the OSCE mission in conflict zone in July of 2012.

“With reference to the article published yesterday in our newspaper, S. Ossetia denies the return of the OSCE mission. Matteo Mecacci has kindly requested that we publish the following article, underlining that in his interview with Maestro TV, he never stated that the OSCE field Mission to Georgia will be re-established in July of 2012.” The article did not specify whether the Maestro TV report was simply a misunderstanding or purposeful misinformation.

The first OSCE mission in Georgia was established in late 1992 to facilitate the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Georgia’s South Ossetia region. In Tskhinvali, the region’s administrative center, the OSCE had eight unarmed military monitors. Military monitors were in charge of the monitoring of, and reporting of the ceasefire in the South Ossetian conflict zone. After hostilities resumed in the region in August 2008, they were pulled out of Tskhinvali.

With the obvious intention getting rid of the international monitors, Russia blocked the extension of the mission’s mandate, which expired in December 2008. As a result, the OSCE mission to Georgia after seventeen-years of being in the conflict zone was shut down on June 30, 2009.

Ever since this time, Georgia has tried to restore the mission. Despite the fact that European counties such as Finland and Greece were promoting the idea, Russia has been successful in its attempts at blocking the initiative. Moscow wanted the new mandate to reflect the post-August War’s “new realities” in the region- in particular, Russia’s recognition of the breakaway region’s independence.

The main question, however, is not the possible restoration of the OSCE mission, but the way in which the OSCE representatives would be settled in conflict zone. Therefore, the mandate, its obligations and effectiveness are more essential topics.

The OSCE mission in South Ossetia failed not because it ended up being closed; the mission failed because it has proven to be ineffective in promoting peaceful relations between Georgians and S. Ossetians, and has been ineffective in preventing the large-scale conflict that occurred in August 2008.The main reason for this was its lack of effective tools.

No doubt, the possibility of re-establishing the OSCE mission in the region is crucial for Georgia. Substantially, the OSCE mission differs from the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) by functioning directly inside the conflict zone. Therefore, the presence of an international mission inside the conflict zone will surely push the conflict towards the internationalization process. This in turn ensures that Georgia won’t stand alone against Russia. This also ensures that human rights problems would be taken into account and the process of demilitarization will become more rapid. This is the goal for which Georgian government has been fighting for years. But still, without effective instruments of mediation and influence, the OSCE mission loses its huge importance.

In the paper entitled The Failure of the OSCE Mission to Georgia – What Remains?- Center for OSCE Research analyst, Silvia Stцber, called the August War of 2008 “the major turning point” in the mission’s fate.

“The locus of this military conflict was the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict area. In nearly two decades however, it proved impossible to achieve a viable agreement that was acceptable to all sides – an agreement that would resolve the differences not only between the South Ossetians and the Georgians, but also between Georgia and Russia,” Stцber notes in the research.

By and large, the presence of the OSCE monitoring groups in the breakaway South Ossetia would be an immensely positive step forward in terms of internationalizing the conflict and preventing further escalation. However, without providing the mission with effective mechanisms, any mission would be doomed to fail.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

Who is telling the truth? Alasania or Dmitrov?

At the special briefing on March 20, Irakli Alasania, leader of Our Georgia-Free Democrats, which is part of the Bidzina Ivanishvili-led opposition coalition called the Georgian Dream, announced that the Georgian government is preparing armed paramilitary groups to be used in case of defeat in the parliamentary elections of 2012. Three weeks later the EU ambassador to Tbilisi, Philip Dimitrov, Head of the EU delegation in Georgia was a guest on the TV show ‘Direct Talk’ hosted by journalist Eka Beridze on the opposition-minded Maestro TV. On the same day, the Georgian news agency Interpressnews published a piece emphasizing that the EU ambassador considers the talks regarding paramilitary groups as fiction. The next day, Alasania accused Interpressnews of spreading misinformation and for the misinterpretation of Dmitrov’s words. All these developments confused many, leading them to ask where was the truth?

According to Alasania, the Georgian government is gathering armed paramilitary groups in the Western part of the country, particularly in Samegrelo, to use them in civil clashes. The clashes he believes, are likely to take place if the national movement loses the parliamentary elections in October, 2012. Alasania sent the documentations to the Georgian Security Council and warned foreign diplomats to carefully research the issue.

On TV show ‘Direct talk’ on April 11, Eka Beridze asked the EU ambassador to Georgia Philip Dmitrov: “Irakli Alasania said at a meeting with diplomats that the government is setting up illegal paramilitary groups in the regions and that it might be in preparation for civil war in the case of defeat in the elections… In your opinion, is such a signal a subject to pay attention to in fact?”

Dmitrov answered: “The EU has a respectable presence in Georgia, this is not only the delegation which I lead, and these are also 200 people who are monitoring on a daily basis everything that is happening at the ABL, especially on this side of the ABL. If anybody tried to prove to us that there are processes there that we cannot see, this would mean that we, the EU are not very reliable and I cannot accept this.” The analytical conclusion of the Interpressnews journalist is a perfectly accurate interpretation of the EU ambassador’s statement. Philip Dmitrov shared the position of Georgian officials: they say that the rumors regarding setting up any paramilitary groups are a lie; therefore, Irakli Alasania is just peddling misinformation.

So, who’s lying: Alasania or the EU ambassador?

On the one hand, it is hardly believable that Irakli Alasania, one of the leading political figures of ‘Georgian Dream’ could use the issue of paramilitary groups for political scores. Neither strengthening tensions in society, nor misleading the diplomatic missions would be effective in getting political and economic support at a domestic or international level.

At the same time, it’s clear as day that in elections held in Georgia it is decisively important to have approval from the West. Without external support of the US and the EU and unbiased parliamentary elections, the ‘Georgian Dream’ won’t be able to challenge the government. Consequently, ungrounded speculations irritating the Georgian public and Western partners could lead to diffusing voters and external support. Therefore, spreading information of paramilitary groups without having some serious facts on hands is reckless and irrelevant – a politically grave error.

On the other hand, based upon the fact that Georgian democracy is the last ‘issue’ of the ‘democracy spreading project’ launched by the Bush Doctrine, the fact that the US and the EU were supporting the Georgian government in spite of lots of misdeeds; the general policy approach of the EU ‘neutrality’ and the upcoming elections, it is more likely that Dmitrov may be holding something back, preferring not to talk about it.

The upcoming elections are an exam not only for Georgian democracy, but also for the US and the EU, which wholeheartedly supported it; the prestige of both Georgian strategic partners is open to the question.

The Caucasus expert Thomas De Vaal once noted that the main goal of the West in Georgia is to maintain peace and stability. Therefore, it is logical that proving the information given by Irakli Alasania – of which can raise questions regarding the success of the EU missions, Georgian government and the whole project of Georgian democracy – can lead to regional disturbances and in general, break the fragile peace and stability.

On this note, Philip Dmitrov can be holding something back in order to “fix” the issue in diplomatic ways. Of course, it is hardly possible to know the truth. But the judgment day will come in October 2012.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.