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.
On August 13, 2017 a prominent Russian scientist on post-Soviet issues, Sergey Markedonov participated in a radio show, Geopolitical Cuisine, with Igor Shatrov aired by MediaMetrics Radio, dealing with the August 2008 War. During the broadcast both, Shatrov and Markedonov raised some very interesting and significant issues that were presented in scopes of Russian political agenda. We will try to balance the analysis and offer a Georgian narrative.
Three topics can be identified: a) a debate on the possible transformation of Georgia’s political system into a federal or confederal model; b) allegations of treaty violations; and c) assumptions of unchanged Georgian society and unanimity regarding the August 2008 War in general.
Federalism and Confederation
Since the beginning of the conflicts, Russian diplomats actively promoted an idea of ‘Georgian Federation’ or a possible confederation that could have included Georgia, Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This approach was especially prevalent in the late 90s and early 2000. Even nowadays, Russian experts and scholars argue that Tbilisi should have chosen these options to deal with separatism. during the radio broadcast, Igor Shatrov argued that Georgia was historically a multi-national union and its government should have reflected this background in the country’s political architecture. Additionally, some comparisons were made between Russia and Georgia.
While these arguments may look attractive they do not show the whole picture. The topic of possible formation of federal or confederal union has two challenges.
The first of these challenges are the associated, security issues. As prominent Georgian expert, Mamuka Areshidze argues, Georgia might think about the confederal model but it is crucial to ensure that respective regulations are set in place to avoid unrecognized regions getting away from the metropolis with international approval. Moreover, there is a strong belief among various local actors that Kremlin’s final aspiration is to dominate over Georgia as a whole rather than its secessionist regions. So far, the federal or confederal models can be used by Moscow to undermine their neighbor’s sovereignty and influence Tbilisi via a pro-Russian agenda in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.
Secondly, Georgia was never a multi-national kingdom or state as, for example, Canada or even Russia itself was and still is. So far, a comparison between Russia’s federal political model and Tbilisi is probably a stretch. Undoubtedly, the state has a history of cohabitation of various ethnical groups. Even though Georgia is a home for approximately ten ethnic groups, they represent only 14% of the whole population. Moreover, while the case of Abkhazia is complicated and Mikhail Saakashvili, former president of Georgia (2004–2013), even offered to recognize Abkhazian as a second state language, the situation in so called South Ossetia is another case. Ossetians that are residents of Tskhinvali region settled there only in XIX–XX centuries and they arguably never reflected a multi-national nature of Georgia. Lastly, the comparison between Moscow and Tbilisi is a nonsensical due simply to the historical background.
Representatives of Georgia’s separatist regions and the Kremlin frequently blame Tbilisi for attempts to undermine the so-called Sochi Agreement, a ceasefire agreement that marked the end of Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. This document was signed in Sochi on June 24, 1992 between Georgia and Russia, the ceasefire with Abkhazia was marked on July 27, 1993.
And while this is factually accurate, we should bear in mind that political realities have changed and they must be reflected; the principle that Kremlin is promoting globally. For example, Vladimir Putin frequently argues that the current political order does not represent the redistribution of powers in global politics. Particularly, it is outdated due to the fact that America is still seen as an undisputed political force while the highly increasing role of such countries as Russian Federation, China, India and Brazil is simply overseen. Furthermore, Moscow has already re-negotiated more or less every significant document that was signed during Boris Yeltsin’s governance when the country was politically and economically non-competitive. The same story is applicable to Georgia. The Sochi Agreement was negotiated and signed when Tbilisi was unable not only to handle the separatist regions but even such simple and fundamental tasks such as budget management. However, since then, Tbilisi has made a giant step toward political, economic and social stability and prosperity. Hence, it is logical and is totally suitable to the framework offered by Moscow that Georgia was and is determined to re-settle some aspects of the agreement and balance it according to national interests.
All in all, Russian scholars and experts should decide whether their ‘reality-match’ approach to legal documents is universal, generalizable, or unique, meaning that it is only applicable to big countries, and small states must get used to doing what they can.
2008 August War
One more issue was raised during the broadcasting. Igor Shatrov argued that after the events of the 90s, the residents of the so-called South Ossetia thought that Georgia had changed as a result of democratic reforms. But, the August 2008 War led to a dramatic disillusionment when they realized that Georgian society remained the same.
This assumption is most likely inaccurate due to two facts: a) Georgian society tends to openly recognize its misdeeds; and b) the latest military confrontation was probably more avoidable than that of the 90s.
Of course, Georgia is far away from the Western style democracy but local society is slowly changing and clearly moving forward. As opposite to residents of the separatist regions Georgian society came to a state of condition in which it is capable of re-assessing political decisions and recognizing its share of blame in the conflicts. It has just realized that in order to clap you need two hands; a harsh reality that people in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are unwilling to take into account.
Secondly, the August 2008 War was probably more predictable and avoidable than those of the 90s. It is rarely mentioned that after political unrests in November 2007 and a questionable outcome of early presidential elections of January 2008, Georgian opposition openly warned about possible military campaign that Saakashvili’s government could have conducted to consolidate political power and increase electoral support. The same statement was made by former ambassador of Georgia to Russian Federation, Erosi Kitsmarishvili. in his memoirs, he stated that Saakashvili had aspiration to solve the Abkhazian issue with a military blitzkrieg (something, that Saakashvili and members of his government called a complete lie). Unfortunately, Matthew Bryza, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, assured the George W. Bush administration that these allegations were unfounded. Consequently, the state’s strategic partners that were capable of restraining Saakashvili and making some serious preventive steps were surprised when military confrontation unfolded (it should be mentioned that some Georgian and Russian experts argue that Bush’s administration was aware of Saakashvili’s plans and even supported him). At this point, there was no unanimity between the government and Georgian society that, we may argue, was in place during 90s.
By and large, Russian experts and scholars frequently blame the West for not taking into account Russia’s national interests. They argue that both, US and EU, must realize that Kremlin has its own political agenda and that Vladimir Putin’s government will follow and protect it by all means. Unfortunately, the same people rarely apply the same standards to Georgia and its national interests. And as soon as this is done, Georgian and Russian officials will undoubtedly find a common ground for mutually beneficial political agreements.
On March 9, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on the Russian Federation to initiate constructive dialogue. Moreover, he expressed readiness to start direct talks with representatives of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This initiative was a response of the local government to an incident involving Georgian citizen and former military staff member Archil Tatunashvili, who was arrested on February 22 by so-called South Ossetian KGB agents and transferred to Tskhinvali. He later died in the city hospital in dubious circumstances, supposedly “from a heart attack.”
Kvirikashvili’s statement had a double-effect. On the one hand, some praised it as a politically balanced and well-thought out decision while others, including the country’s leading oppositional forces, considered the call a total capitulation to the separatist forces and the Kremlin. Some even argued that the government is pursuing more of a retreat-approach than a cooperation-policy. Finally, there were allegations that direct talks with the separatist regions may lead to their international recognition and legitimization.
It is doubtless complicated to foresee the implications of the initiative in general, but the critical reactions from various actors once more prove that some members of local political, civil society and academic elites are unaware of the situation on the ground in terms of the Georgian-Russian confrontation. The critiques seem to be more political-ideological than a result of serious political analysis.
The Georgian-Russian Confrontation
First, we need to bear in mind that there is no Georgian-Russian confrontation. Mikhail Saakashvili’s grand goal was to involve the West in these inter-state relations, it being a significant political, economic and military power, in order to counter Moscow. He managed to do so and it is no secret that the so-called August 2008 War was and is still considered by Georgia’s strategic allies and the Kremlin as a confrontation between the West and the Russian Federation. Nowadays, Georgian-Russian relations are no longer considered only in the scopes of West-Russia affairs; but issues dealing with separatist regions and the unilateral recognition of statehoods of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia still fall under the West-Russia confrontation paradigm. This paradigm restrains Georgia as a political player, and its capabilities are miserable; pressed from all sides by actors whose ambitions and interests go far beyond Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Russian confrontation issues.
As yet, it is pretty questionable as to whether we can demand from Kvirikashvili’s government a “proper” reaction to the significant misdeeds done by representatives of the separatist regions and/or Moscow; questionable because Georgian officials are put simply, strangled on the ground to such extent they can be considered more as observers than members of a fully-recognized political actor. We can argue that the negative assessment of the initiative from the main local political opposition forces is merely a PR campaign, but what seems most disturbing is the inadequate reaction from civil society and academic staff members, who called for the taking of “respective measures;” this being more a reflection of lack of awareness and, of course, a perfect example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.
Modern Georgia does not possess the respective political, economic or military mechanisms to influence either the West nor the East (Russian Federation) or even the separatist regions. Generally, the game is on totally another level and the only thing that local government can do is to try and keep the existing status-quo.
The West-East Confrontation
Political processes that are in place in the separatist regions of Georgia and Ukraine (including military confrontation in the Eastern part) are crucial for the West, especially for the American establishment. This importance is due to the effect they have on the existing global political order; the fate of the international system depends on the outcomes of these processes.
It is no secret that the global world order established after the Cold War by the West is under serious assault. The Russian Federation, China, India, Brazil are countries already making significant steps to put forward their own national interests that erode the post-Cold War system and threaten its integrity and stability; furthermore, the states are working hard to finally balance America’s political, economic and military power on an international level. Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia as independent states, as well as the annexation of Crimea, are important parts of this erosion process. Moscow is trying to break crucial laws of the system established by the West and prove that it can unilaterally decide and handle global political tasks itself. In Georgia’s case, these topics deal with such fundamental principles as sovereignty and territorial integrity.
One of the main pillars of the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the undisputed nature of member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. An exception can be made if there is a consolidated decision inside a society supported by international law and with approval from the West. The Kremlin broke this sacred formula and without “approval,” crafted two new “sovereign” subjects of the international system. For the US and its allies, this is very dangerous precedent that may firmly lead to the rise of a new wave of separatism in general. But, most significant, this is an open appraisal against the system and the rules set by the West, and if Russia succeeds, the global world order’s stability and integrity will be broken and will start to unravel. Ultimately, the West will lose its privileged position and US its status of the world’s “sheriff.” The American political establishment is aware of the apocalyptic picture and will do its best to avoid this undesirable scenario.
Hence, Kvirikashvili’s initiate to start direct talks with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia will definitely not lead to recognition of the unrecognized regimes by the West and international society as a whole. This is simply impossible because the issue is not about Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity anymore; it is already about the stability of the system. And Georgia’s strategic partners will not provide us with respective triggers to make decisions that may somehow initiate dramatic developments. The West will not recognize either Abkhazia, or the so-called South Ossetia while the processes on the ground are kept out of the scopes of international law; something that will never be good for the Kremlin. At present, it matters not whether the Georgian government will have a direct or indirect dialogue with Sukhumi and/or Tskhinvali. This is another example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.
The Kvirikashvili Initiative
Basing on the judgements given above, it is questionable whether we can accuse Giorgi Kvirikashvili of treason and/or concessions. We may argue that the Georgian government is using all accessible means to handle the conflict. Moreover, it once more proclaimed readiness for open dialogue and, according to the same Western standards, showed political maturity. Kvirikashvili has opted for a pragmatic and balanced policy based on careful analysis of the power balance on the ground. By making a reserved statement, despite the painful incident with Archil Tatunashili’s death, Georgia gained the so-called ‘moral superiority’ over governments of the separatist regions and Moscow, too. Tbilisi proved that it is still the only constructive political actor in the conflict.
With regards to statements made by the United National Movement and Movement for Liberty, we should keep in mind that these oppositional parties are built around the Russian narrative. Radical opposition to Moscow is the only thing that makes them different from other pro-Western groups. Thus, they cannot go beyond this ideological platform, beyond the “Russian framework”.
Georgia’s political, economic and military powers are miserable. Nowadays, Tbilisi lacks the mechanisms to influence processes in the conflicting regions at all. Moreover, the zone of Georgian-Russian confrontation is, in practice, a field of West vs Russia rivalry where the fate of the existing political order is being handled. So far, Georgia is more an observer than an actual political power. The only thing that local government should do is to cooperate with strategic partners, remind them about its national interests and hope for a better future; and, of course, to try to maintain the status-quo on the ground. The Kvirikashvili initiative perfectly reflects these realities and is an attempt to use all accessible means to bring stability and peace to civilians.
Year of 2017 has come to its logical conlusion. Below there is a list of the most important and popular articles that have been published. Please have a look and we are looking for reasonable and well arguemented feedbacks/comments:
…if he is removed from the political rivalry, this will mark the end of the Georgian political influence on the Ukrainian policymaking…Yes, Saakashvili contributed a lot to the post-Soviet space, but many stakeholders are tired with him and want his show to come to an end…
…Russia is a political, economic, and military guarantor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence and statehood. But these Georgian lands are not ‘without a people’. There are also a variety of other ethnic groups living in the disputed regions, and their…
Rustavi 2 Case: “Georgian Dream’s” Sword of Damocles (RIAC), November 23:
…Рустави 2 – это один из сильнейших и влиятельных частных телеканалов страны. На протяжении двух десятков лет он влиял на политические события. Именно благодаря этому каналу революционное…
…на фоне отсутствия дипломатических отношений российская сторона активно продвигает идею публичной дипломатии. За годы работы сформировались разные научные, экспертные и молодёжные платформы сотрудничества…
…представители подрастающего политического и академического классов всё больше и больше задаются вопросом о надобности нахождения Грузинского контингента на Ближнем Востоке, если…
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…
The King is Law: Georgia’s Never Ending “Perestroika” (GeorgiaToday), September 11:
…the current government’s constitutional reform is highly criticized by various actors for being a unilateral decision not backed by society and lacking a common agreement among political actors. Some say it may even trigger the worsening of domestic processes, though, generally, this is a false statement. In fact, the reform is a continuation of Georgia’s never ending “perestroika” and will not significantly change the environment…
…Georgia’s political and other elites must stop using the ‘Russian framework’ to turn a blind eye to the challenges that such marches raise; they should work hard to start open debates to show their readiness for dialogue and awareness of the existing political, social and economic challenges…
…this event, just like the 2008 August War, the recent clashes during an anti-homophobia rally and various other events, reflects the existence of two parallel Georgias: Georgia as a political brand, created by the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, and Georgia as a political actor of international relations which has to maneuver in the global and regional political environment…
…the present research aims at examining issues related to the integration of Muslim communities, raising awareness of the wider public on these issues, and developing recommendations for respective stakeholders…
…restoration of Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations is not a grand question of ‘to be or not to be’ as it is represented by some, including in the Georgian media. It is an issue of necessity; whether Georgia needs it at all? From a practical point of view: barely is the answer….
…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…
Co-founder of the Center for Systemic Political Research (CSPR)
Editor of Georgian Journal of Systemic Politics (GJSP)
On July 13, members of various conservatist, nationalist and ultra-nationalist groups, alongside numerous regular citizens, marched in Tbilisi with pretty unpopular demands that irritated Georgia’s so called liberal elite. In response to the “Georgian March,” on July 23, a counter-strike was held by the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia that united representatives of various political powers and social movements protesting against what they believed to be an expression of fascist and xenophobic attitudes. The majority of international experts and actors condemned the Georgian March as a negative that could affect the country’s image and push away potential investors.
And while we may generally agree with the lion’s share of said allegations, there are very important issues that have yet to be openly discussed.
Beyond populist moves and statements, we can easily outline the three main demands the participants of the Georgian March made: 1) tighten migration laws; 2) deal with harmful practices in clubs/bars managed by migrants; and 3) restrict the activities of foreign-funded NGOs.
Migration is probably one of the most challenging issues that both developed and developing states face. Regardless of whether the targeted migrants represent a small group consisting the local population, or foreigners, what matters is that their number is obviously increasing. Foreign migrants mainly come from Asia or developing countries and work to occupy appreciable and “sensitive” areas – small and medium-sized businesses and the agricultural sector. In the wake of poor social and economic conditions, some citizens are feeling increasingly abandoned and “unprotected” by the government in the face of comparatively financially well-backed migrants. There is nothing more dangerous than this process, as it will undoubtedly lead to a xenophobic backlash, and it is unlikely that focusing on the significant number of Georgians illegally living abroad will somehow solve the problem.
The second Georgian March demand deals with increased facts of prostitution and other dubious activities in various places of entertainment. It is a paradox that while so-called liberal elites advocate rule of law, they rarely recognize that illegal prostitution exists in Georgia and is a common practice in many Turkish and Iranian clubs. Furthermore, there have been cases of child prostitution. This is not the first time the topic has been raised. A few years ago, there were calls to check a number of buildings in the settlement of Gonio, near the border with Turkey, where allegedly illegal prostitution was taking place. The government hushed up the affair. Another challenge is the harmful practice of price exploitation used at the same entertainment venues with the aim of gaining maximum profit from tourists visiting Tbilisi. Such cases often end in threats and fights that can cause significant harm to Georgia’s tourism sector reputation. And while we do not need to focus on the ethnic or national belonging of the owners of said venues, we should recognize the problem and take respective steps before it is too late.
Finally, the march organizers demanded the restriction of activities of foreign-funded NGOs. Georgia’s non-governmental sector has played a crucial role in building democratic institutions and practices. We need to keep this in mind. But, at the same time, we should realize that the third sector has transformed over the years. Nowadays, some current non-governmental movements are so actively involved in the country’s everyday life and, in particular, political processes, that it is sometimes too complicated to draw a clear line between political party, private sector and civil society. The best example is the ongoing constitutional reform where it seems that every single actor, including NGOs and INGOs, is lobbying specific political and business agendas. The issue is even more addled if we recognize the well-established so-called ‘revolving door’ principle in the country (the movement of individuals between positions in the private and the public sectors). So far, it is logical that more and more questions are being raised about the total and absolute dependence of these movements on foreign aid. This issue is nothing new in academic debates abroad, but in Georgia it is still a taboo.
So far, the issues raised by participants of the march are pretty relevant and we need to start debates and discussions even if we do not share the general pathos of the movement. Further, it is crucial to avoid stepping on the same rake twice by avoiding clichés.
What We Shouldn’t Do
There are two important things that we should stop doing if we aspire to building a unified democratic society. First of all, we need to finally abandon the so-called ‘Russian framework’. Secondly, we must stop fragmenting Georgian society into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements.
The ‘Russian framework’
The Russian way has been a popular political method in Georgia for years. Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement started using it to consolidate society around a ruling government, slandering different “unnecessary” groups and blaming hidden forces for various conspiracy theories. Russia may or may not be involved, but it is evident that blaming the so-called fifth column, Moscow’s intelligence services and other covert organizations, for every unpleasant meeting or riot is guaranteed by default. Unfortunately, the Georgian March was automatically analyzed in the given theoretical framework. By doing so, the government and opponents easily managed to turn a blind eye to the topics raised and, generally, flaws within the existing political order. We may boldly assume that the counter march led by the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia on July 23 with the slogan “No to Russian Fascism” is a continuation of this process. Additionally, it is the reflection of the total inability of Georgian actors to think beyond the ‘Russian framework’ and analyze events based on the current local political, social and economic conditions rather than external factors. Briefly, there is nothing that Georgia’s so called liberal elites can offer except the old “corny” story about Moscow’s menace. We should learn from Russia rather than further contributing to our fears.
‘Desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements
There is widely-shared assumption among Georgian liberals that they are more tolerant than those who belong to conservatist or other movements. But, in fact, this is a more-or-less false statement. Georgian society in general is highly aggressive, non-tolerant toward approaches that to some extent significantly differ from the mainstream and has a tendency of continuous internal destructive confrontation. Furthermore, Georgian society fragments itself into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements. Local liberal elites are no exception as they automatically create humiliating labels for those people or groups of people who do not share their main postulates regarding NATO and EU integration, Russian politics, immigration laws, land regulations, etc. This is a self-protection mechanism which stimulates a counter-response. As a result, terms such as ‘fascist,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘traitor’ and other high-flying words are used on a regular basis by all involved parties.
Something similar happened with the Georgian March. Opposed to some arguments, the first unfriendly catchword was thrown by the members of so-called liberal elites and marchers were given a highly hostile reception before, during and after the event. Moreover, whether participants belonged to any particular group or were just citizens dissatisfied with the current state policy, was neither here nor there as they were all by default proclaimed enemies of the State. This was a huge mistake. We need to keep in mind that all that glitters is not gold- not everyone participating in the event belonged to ultra-radical groups with financial assistance from the Kremlin; and, consequently, do not represent ‘non-desirable’ state elements.
Georgia’s political and other elites must stop using the ‘Russian framework’ to turn a blind eye to the challenges that such marches raise; they should work hard to start open debates to show their readiness for dialogue and awareness of the existing political, social and economic challenges. Moreover, there should be no further attempts to split society into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ groups and elements. The fact that some issues may be or are brought up by questionable groups in a questionable manner does not undermine their importance. Issues expressed by the Georgian March have some logic as well as empirics behind them and we need to talk about them. If not, the existing dissatisfaction will undoubtedly increase and such marches will be seen on a growing basis.
The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.
Discussions over whether or not Georgia should restore diplomatic relations with Russia emerge time and time again. However, arguments on both sides of the divide are naïve, misleading, and ultimately pointless.
Plenty of topics have the potential to ignite Georgian society and provoke heated debates; but none like the Russian issue can divide it so clearly into ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-Russian’ sides, into ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’. Last spring, a controversial deal with Gazprom once again raised questions over the current government’s policy toward its northern neighbour. Local political groups and activists clashed over the possibility of restoring Georgian-Russian diplomatic relations.
Georgia has not had official diplomatic relations with Russia since in August 2008, Russia initiated a military campaign to ‘coerce Georgia to peace’. They then recognised the separatist regions of Tskhinvali and Abkhazia as independent states. In response, Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, unilaterally broke-off diplomatic relations with Moscow. After a decisive victory in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, the newly elected coalition government of Georgian Dream promised to improve Georgian-Russian relations. The restoration of direct official inter-state communication is seen by Russia as a logical step toward reconciliation; meanwhile many in Georgia have serious doubts and fears about the consequences.
Russia wants to clean up its image
Some experts argue that Russia’s attempts to normalise relations with Georgia is a direct result of its military conflict in Ukraine. They argue that Moscow is trying to find common ground with Tbilisi to avoid alarming other post-Soviet nations with their foreign policy of undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighbouring states. While this theory is certainly plausible, Russia needs a friendly Georgia on its doorstep regardless; it has political and geopolitical value.
There is now no doubt that Saakashvili’s aspiration to rapidly integrate the country into NATO has failed. The Kremlin not only managed to indefinitely postpone Georgia’s NATO aspirations, but took full control over Georgia’s separatist regions, establishing new military bases and strengthening their grip. Despite these advantages, and Tbilisi’s deepened vulnerability, Putin’s regime is losing the war for hearts and minds. Russia realises that the current situation precludes any scenario where Georgian society re-unites with their Orthodox Christian brother-nation.
The (overblown) threat of Russian infiltration
In the absence of diplomatic relations, Russia’s activities on the ground are very restricted. We can assume that restoring official links would create more opportunities for Russia to work more closely with Russian sympathisers within Georgian who do not see themselves as part of the Western world, and do not share the view that being Georgian means being European. However, even if they had these opportunities, it is doubtful that Russia would be able to compete with Western influence and somehow re-direct Georgian society toward the North. The Kremlin simply does not have the financial resources, knowledge, or even the will.
Georgian society is divided on the issue. Former members of Saakashvili’s government are the strongest opponents of restoring formal ties. For them there is no purpose in any direct dialogue with Russia (even under the current Abashidze–Karasin format) unless they withdraw recognition of separatist regions as independent states. They argue that Georgia must maintain its tough stance against Moscow to prevent the country from falling under the influence of the Kremlin again. Moreover, they consider the current government’s policy to be collaboration with an occupant country contributing to its increasing influence in Georgian regions.
Russia will not reverse its policy
On the other side, we have a group of people who believe that direct dialogue between the two states is essential. For them, Tbilisi should restore diplomatic relations to start negotiations with Russia, and to persuade Putin’s government to return Tskhinvali and Abkhazia regions in exchange for some concessions — Georgia’s political and military neutrality.
Both cases rely on some misleading assumptions. Opponents of diplomatic relations are politically motivated, and their fears are more self-imposed than real. For years Saakashvili’s government used Russia as a political tool to deflect attention from domestic challenges and to rally Georgian society around his regime. This exaggerated narrative of a looming Russian threat have become an inherent part of the political outlook of so-called pro-liberal forces in the country.
It is also naïve to believe that Georgia can simply negotiate terms of sovereignty and territorial integrity with Russia. The Kremlin will not and cannot change its current policy. To reconsider the decision it took after the August 2008 War would damage Russia’s prestige as a consistent political player and throw into doubt the correctness of Putin’s foreign policy.
Why do anything at all?
Restoration of Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations is not a grand question of ‘to be or not to be’ as it is represented by some, including in the Georgian media. It is an issue of necessity; whether Georgia needs it at all? From a practical point of view: barely is the answer. It would be fallacious to assume that putting a Russian flag over building and calling it ‘the Embassy of the Russian Federation’ would contribute in any meaningful way to inter-state economic turnover, or increase trade deals and cultural exchange programs. And it will definitely not solve topics crucial for Georgia, such as its territorial integrity, sovereignty, and security challenges. But it may legitimise Russia’s approach and further strengthen the political image of the current government in the Kremlin on both domestic and international fronts.
It would be far more politically prudent to simply leave things as they are. If Russia is seriously intent on improving relations with its South Caucasus neighbour it must make the first real step in reconciliation; a step we have yet to see any sign of. Russia considers itself the ‘big brother’ in this relationship, hence, it needs to play accordingly.
Parliamentary elections are coming to Georgia. This Saturday, Georgia’s electorate will go to the polls to define the country’s future for the next four years. While Georgian and foreign officials have been mostly positive in their assessments of the election environment (“the most democratic elections ever”), the tone and content of the election campaign makes it clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with Georgian politics.
This year, it is the absence of a “Messiah figure” who will “save the country”, as well as the obvious crisis of the country’s political party system. For years, Georgian society has been consolidated around the prospect of finding a “saviour”, which, in turn, has undermined the role of parliament, and left the country’s party system underdeveloped. Indeed, Georgia’s voters are used to choosing political figures rather than political blocs.
Nowadays, when Georgia’s “Messiah era” has come to an end and it is up to political parties to lead the state, the political establishment has nothing new to persuade voters that the old promises are still achievable. The electorate is confused. And this leads to an election campaign organised around mutual accusations, absurd initiatives, conspiracy theories and dangerous incidents.
A short history of Messiahs
The unexpected break-up of the Soviet Union left Georgia in dire need of re-shaping its domestic political culture. While there were attempts to make the transition to a “western political system”, political memory, in combination with the political, social and economic instability of the 1990s, led to the formation of a Messiah-centered presidential system.
Georgian society sought a “firm hand” from within the political establishment who would rescue the state from its deep political, social and economic crisis. In this situation, the main purpose of elections in Georgia was to consolidate society and find the “chosen one” who would oppose the existing repressive regime and rebuild the state.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-independence president, is a classic example. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia, an ultra-nationalist dissident, was elected by 87% of votes after campaigning on the grand goal of leading the nation. When he failed to meet his promises, Gamsakhurdia was overthrown by militants. The country was on the edge of a full-scaled civil war.
Soon enough, Georgian society found a new “saviour” — Eduard Shevardnadze, a representative of the Soviet nomenklatura, who was elected in 1992 with 77% of the vote. Later on, in September 1993, when rumors began to emerge that Shevardnadze was planning to leave, protesters gathered outside the parliament, kneeled and begged him to stay in power. Ilia II, Patriarch of All Georgia (and the most trusted person in the country), personally called Shevardnadze a “nation leader”. He was re-elected in 2000 by 79% of votes.
Much like his predecessor, however, Shevardnadze was unable to fulfill society’s aspirations and, by the end of 2003, Georgia was on the edge of collapse. State institutions were weak and corrupt. And this was the moment when another “saviour” appeared — Mikhail Saakashvili, who, backed by the US, initiated a new campaign to save Georgia. After pushing Shevardnadze to resign, Saakashvili was elected as president with 96% of the vote. Later on, his political team, the United National Movement, took a constitutional majority in Georgia’s parliament and he became the undisputed leader of the nation.
Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian nature pushed him to resign and set new presidential elections in 2008, which he won with a smaller majority. By 2012, Georgian society had come to a critical point, when United National Movement changed the constitution and turned the state towards a parliamentary system. This reform should have ended the era of Messianism in Georgia, but there were fears that Saakashvili was planning to continue governance by simply switching posts.
Once again, the electorate was looking for another leader to save Georgia’s fragile democracy. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian tycoon, appeared to be the last Messiah who managed to consolidate society once again, defeating Saakashvili’s government in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The transformation of Georgia’s political system from presidential to parliamentary model and the defeat of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government reflected the end of a long-lasting culture of Messianism. It was time for the political party system to take the lead.
Big trouble in little Georgia
Assessing the pre-election process in September, US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly noted: “I wish the election campaign to be as good in the United States as it is in Georgia”. Even though local government took the statement as a compliment, the election campaign that can hardly be called a success.
Indeed, the campaign started not with political debates or programmes, but a fistfight in Samegrelo. On 22 May, 2016, members of the United National Movement were attacked and brutally beaten by unidentified persons in the village of Kortskheli in western Georgia. While the participants were later detained, the UNM accused Georgian Dream of initiating the incident. The ruling party responded by publishing documents that verify close ties between the attackers and the UNM. The investigation is still in progress.
At the beginning of August, leaders of Georgia’s Centrist Party, Lado Bedukadze and Nikoloz Khachisvhili, hit the stage by offering “Russian pensions” (i.e. significantly higher payments) as an election promise to every pensioner in Georgia. Moreover, the party’s election campaign video footage promised to legalise the future presence of Russian troops in the country. Even though this initiative was absurd and unachievable, it got a wide-range reaction. The party was later expelled from the race.
An equally absurd initiative was proposed by David Usupashvili, a prominent Georgian politician who recently resigned from the position of parliamentary speaker. Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, promised to establish an “American base” in Georgia in the run-up to joining NATO. The idea contradicts the foreign policy that the coalition Georgian Dream government has pursued until recently. For years, Georgian Dream, in cooperation with US advisors, has tried to move Georgia-Russia relations out of the US-Russia relations context. The mere possibility that a US base would appear in the South Caucasus would definitely backfire and, of course, escalate the situation in the region.
By the beginning of September, the election campaign had come to entertain conspiracy theories, after an audio recording that allegedly reveals Saakashvili’s plan to overturn the election results was leaked to the press. The recording supposedly documents a conversation between the ex-president of Georgia and fellow members of UNM in which they plan for mass riots and political disturbances in the post-election period.
Moreover, Giga Bokeria, a prominent figures in the UNM and former secretary of the National Security Council, is allegedly heard to propose a “revolutionary scenario”, which is approved by Saakashvili. The security services have summoned the alleged participants for questioning, and an analysis of the tape’s authenticity is currently taking place.
The election campaign has now entered the stage of various local confrontations and serious incidents. On 2 October, three members of the youth wing of Georgian Dream were hospitalised after they were physically assaulted allegedly by UNM supporters (again in Samegrelo). The next day, shots were fired at a campaign meeting of Irakli Okruashvili, a past ally of Saakashvili, in Gori. While one of the former defence minister’s security team and a supporter were wounded as a result, Okruashvili claimed that responsibility for the attack lies with local Georgian Dream activists.
On 5 October, Georgia witnessed a terrorist attack. Givi Targamadze, a leading UNM official and former defense and security committee chairman, was lucky to survive a car bomb in Tbilisi. UNM leaders indirectly blamed the government. The ruling party immediately struck back. In an urgent address to the nation, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised to punish the initiators, saying that “foreign citizenship” will not protect them. Thus, Kvirikashvili indirectly accused Saakashvili, who accepted Ukrainian citizenship to avoid criminal charges in Georgia, of an attempt to destabilise the state prior to the elections. Saakashvili, of course, then promised his victorious return from Ukraine after the election.
The whole election campaign and the events of the past week reveal that there is a big mess in little Georgia. These “Messiah-less” elections make it clear that Georgia’s mainstream political parties have more or less the same “ideology” and the same goals, while parties with opposite approaches lack necessary financial and human resources.
What remains to be seen is how this crisis will develop and how it will influence the post-election environment. Currently, there is only uncertainty.