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 March 26, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Tbilisi and met high officials, including PM Giorgi Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili. During his “blitzkrieg” visit, Stoltenberg firmly re-iterated the Alliance’s official standpoint once again: Georgia will become a member of the military bloc and Russia has no rights or power to oppose it. Yet, according to mainstream media outlets, this time Secretary-General added “very soon,” wording that offered more concrete timing and raised hopes that the so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) will finally be granted to the small Caucasus country.
Unarguable, such high-level visits are extremely important to maintaining Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership and, generally, to keep spirits high on the ground. But Tbilisi has been hearing such promises of commitment on a regular basis for the last decade, with visits from NATO officials having become something of an annual tradition. We can easily argue that Jens Stoltenberg’s trip to Tbilisi was another example of NATO “small talk” without real outcomes for MAP issuance, but with more serious consequences for local society and its perception of the real ongoing processes in global politics.
NATO & Democracy
NATO has little to do with democracy. The Alliance is a military bloc based on ideology and with concrete geopolitical interests; in this case, democracy is just an additional advantage. These assumptions must be made clear when it comes issuing membership. It is obvious that, according to Western democratic standards, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are actually ready to satisfy such strong requirements; to say nothing of the 2008 period when Tbilisi and Kiev hoped to get MAP and had strong support from the US government. The promise given by the Bucharest Summit Declaration to open doors for these two states in the future was clearly the result of geopolitical calculations that dealt with strengthening the Eastern flank of the bloc and bringing NATO forces closer to the Russian border.
So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.
Russia, Rights & the Black Sea Region
Despite loud claims that Russia has no rights and no powers to oppose Georgia’s integration, it actually has. Moscow’s geopolitical interests stopped Tbilisi from getting MAP in 2008 and it is the only opinion that matters when it comes to the decision-making process. Putting aside political rhetoric, Russia does not need special rights to counter NATO’s policy on the Eastern flank. Every single political actor by default has the right to protect its own political, economic and social standpoints. Thus, the Kremlin has the right to defend its national interests without being granted “permission” from the West or any other actor. What actually matters is whether Russia also has the economic and military strength to back up any protest. Even though Moscow is no match for Washington in general, the state currently possesses enough accumulated power to counter the West, especially near its borders and geopolitically important life-space. Furthermore, the Russian policy of containing NATO enlargement is perceived as crucial by the majority of society; this is not constructed by Putin’s regime but a factual given. As such, the Kremlin will do its best not to let Tbilisi or Kiev be granted Alliance membership.
Whether officially noted or not, the highest and most influential political actors in the West are well-aware of Russia’s NATO fears; additionally, Georgia’s strategic partners understand that, historically, Moscow has always been keen to fight such threats by all means necessary. That is why they are not in a hurry to give a green light for the next stage of the military bloc enlargement. Even worse, NATO representatives are unsure whether bringing the organization to the Black Sea region will actually lead to more stability and prosperity or, by intervening in the so-called Russian “zone of interest,” instead lead to a direct or indirect military clash that will destabilize the whole post-Soviet space. Today, the West, and Western European states in particular, are not ready to be involved in such dramatic processes.
Negative effects of the NATO “small talk”
While looking at NATO’s annual “small talk” in Georgia, we need to raise another issue that deals with negative consequences. First, such harsh and provocative statements by high-rank officials create and maintain false expectations and perceptions of global political processes. Georgian society is being kept in a virtual reality where Russia allegedly has no rights and powers while Tbilisi’s NATO membership issue has been stretched over a decade due to unrealistic claims of a “lack of democracy.” Secondly, NATO has been transformed into a fixed idea, an obsession that clouds the judgement of local elites and regular citizens alike, while human resources are shifted from improving domestic challenges to the desperate effort to get that MAP. People have really started to believe that once in the military Alliance, democratic institutions will appear by default and the Russian threat will simply vanish. It’s a bitter pill that at the end of the day may lead to dramatic nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift, as happened with Turkey and its European integration dreams. Ad notam, that is why all main elitist INGOs and NGOs in Georgia tried hard to put the issue of foreign policy orientation into the new constitution. This is the third possible negative outcome of a short-sighted NATO policy.
By and large, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi is important for the country to feel the Alliance’s support. But it could have been even more positive if the organization’s high-officials had held back from giving false promises and “small talk” about granting MAP to Georgia; especially using the argument that Russia has nothing to do with NATO enlargement. These assumptions mislead local elites as well as society. Georgia has achieved a respectable enough level of democracy to appeal and to start slowly becoming an inherent part of the military bloc. But this aspiration will not be satisfied unless the Kremlin stops opposing it. Moscow does not need permission to defend its national interests; moreover, it has enough strength to do so. At the same time, NATO’s annual “small talk” has significant negative outcomes for Georgia. People are being kept in a bubble of falsehood where the basic laws of global politics are abandoned; secondly, the issue itself has become so politicized that it clouds the judgement of decision-makers on the ground who put more effort into becoming a NATO member than into building democratic institutions. And finally, the absence of real outcomes of Georgian-NATO cooperation may push for more nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift.
On 28th of October 2018 Georgia will hold the last direct presidential elections. Currently ongoing pre-election campaign once more proves that the most effective and widely-used political narrative deals with the so-called pro-Russian forces working on the Kremling to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This political mechanism of mutual libeling, discrediting and stigmatization is a part of securitisation process of Russia in Georgia. The article examines basic principles of securitisaion theory and its appliance to Georgian political culture.
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)
For the majority of Georgians, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are only about Russia. The only way out of this stalemate is to start paying attention to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian experience.
On 27 September, Tbilisi and Sokhumi marked the 24th anniversary of an event with two contradictory interpretations. Tbilisi marked the anniversary of the ‘fall of Sokhumi’ and the end of the war in Abkhazia, while Sokhumi celebrated the anniversary of the ‘liberation of Sukhum’ and its independence from Georgia.
For years, both sides of the conflict have demonstrated entirely different perceptions of the dramatic events of early 1990s. And even though on an official level, Georgia has always pointed to Russia’s role in the conflict, there has been a consensus in Georgian society that the reasons behind the bloody confrontation lay in the miscalculations of both Georgians and Abkhazians, radicalism, and an unwillingness to find common ground.
Over the last decade we have witnessed a nationwide shift away from this narrative, to instead stress the role of Russia in the conflict. Increasing numbers of Georgia’s civil society, political elites, and media have began presenting the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts as political tools created by Moscow. A new concept of ‘Georgian lands without a people’ has gained prominence, according to which the disputed territories are waiting for their real owners to return. In this fantasy, it’s only the Russian Federation preventing the dream from coming true for more than 230,000 internally displaced persons in the country.
Russia’s ‘hidden hand’
Over the past few years, it has become a widespread trend in Georgia to openly analyse the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts mainly through the prism of Georgian–Russian relations, completely forgetting the importance of inter-ethnic relations.
This shift started around the mid-2000s during former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule. The government attempted to distance itself from Moscow and to integrate the country into Western institutions. Georgia’s drive to join NATO especially put Tbilisi and the Kremlin on a road to a direct political, economic, and military confrontation.
Significant internal pressure in combination with external challenges radicalised local political elites at the time. This process was accelerated by the increasing role of Russia’s ‘hidden hand’ in Georgia’s domestic political affairs. Russia was frequently used as a scapegoat. The legacy of this tendency is still alive today, continuing to affect the perception of the conflicts.
Mutual misunderstandings and serious historical grievances as triggering factors for armed conflict were placed on the fringes of the public discourse, while Moscow’s intervention has come to the debate’s forefront. Downplaying the importance of inter-ethnic relations has resulted in the assumption that these are Georgian lands without a people, which are occupied by the Kremlin. According to this thinking, the removal of Russia from the geopolitical chessboard will by default lead to conflict’s resolution.
The concept echoes a phrase associated with the early Zionist movement — ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ — calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In both cases, in Palestine and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the lands have never been uninhabited. Just as an Arab population has lived in Palestine for over 1,000 years, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia there are non-Russian populations whose interests should also be taken into account.
A reality check
Georgian political elites are so obsessed with Russia and its ‘phantom menace’ that they forget or are turning a blind eye to many important aspects of the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian confrontations.
Probably the most prominent manifestation is the radical Georgian nationalism that flourished at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his followers were calling to ‘expel’ from the country various ethnic groups that have been considered as ‘unnecessary elements’.
At the time, there was already serious dissatisfaction among ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetians with their status and rights in as part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Georgian archives, one can find open letters to the central committee of the Soviet Union from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, calling for their autonomy, the population’s safety, ethnic minority rights, and their cultural identity all to be protected.
The same archival materials prove that there were instances of Georgian oppression of Abkhaz people during the Stalin–Beria period. Even though we may argue that the crimes took place under Soviet dictatorship, the majority of Abkhaz possess a strong historical memory and point out that both Stalin and Lavrenti Beria (the head of the Soviet secret police) were ethnic Georgians.
This history, together with other factors — such as Russian interests in the region — triggered conflicts that affected people on both sides. The Abkhazians and South Ossetians who fought against Georgian ‘aggressors’ haven’t suddenly disappeared amidst the Georgian–Russian confrontation. They live in the disputed regions and we may easily assume that these people have different stories to tell than the Georgian leadership.
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 ancestors and relatives took part in the ‘freedom fight’ against Tbilisi.
With or without the Kremlin, these people may have ideas about their future which differs from the Georgian one. These are informed by their history, and have not been artificially constructed by Moscow.
Going forward, it would be more rational for Georgia to rethink its mainstream narratives and pay attention to the complexity of the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts. We need a narrative that goes beyond the Georgia–Russia framework.
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.
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.
Georgian security officers might have been complicit in the abduction of Afgan Muktarli, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist, which took place on May 29th in Tbilisi. Later on, Mukhtarli was found in a Baku detention facility. Local opposition and non-governmental organisations argue that the country is retreating from its democratic path and that the ruling Georgian Dream is supporting the regime in Baku.
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 brand is slowly being dismantled, as the country is increasingly failing to hide the real political processes underway within its borders. This in turn, has led to a painful disillusionment on the part of the local population.
Georgia’s political brand
Mikhail Saakashvili’s time in office was full of hope, reforms, achievements and, of course, misdeeds. Whether or not one positively assesses his two terms, it is clear that he was a well-educated politician and a brilliant PR campaigner. While in power he started building a new political brand of the country, which evolved over the years, reflecting the attitudes of the governing elite. The more Saakashvili’s political team was falling into authoritarianism, the weaker the brand was becoming. By the end of the Rose Revolution government’s time in office, when a new political grouping – the Georgian Dream coalition, defeated the president’s party in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, the brand began to lose its appeal.
There are several reasons for this loss. First, the brand was based on the perception that the country is a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus surrounded by close friends and strategic allies (Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and oppressed by its northern neighbour, the Russian Federation. Moreover, it was meant to be protected by the red line that Russia supposedly could not cross, drawn by the former US president George W. Bush. Second, Saakashvili managed not only to build a well-structured political brand but also to persuade the majority of local actors that it reflects the reality. In practice, however, this was only an illusion used by the Georgian elite, both governmental and non-governmental, to keep society misinformed and to attract foreign political and financial resources.
What has been beneath the perception is a harsh political, social and economic reality where Georgia is a relatively democratic state in a very complex environment and a geopolitically sensitive region. All the neighbouring countries are falling into authoritarianism, often trying to further their own national interests with the help of Tbilisi. Finally, in their actions, the ruling elite has to take into consideration the existing regional tendencies and political climate. Georgia, as a political actor, does not possess any significant political, economic or military power and, so far, is highly dependent on its Western strategic allies, especially the US.
The harsh reality
Despite the well-organised and structured nature of Georgia’s political brand, the country is unable to hide the political processes taking place on the ground. The harsh reality often resurfaces and causes sincere astonishment and uproar. Probably the most painful disillusionment came when society realised that there have been no red lines in the South Caucasus and that Russia is capable of crossing any border. George W. Bush’s statement was just a part of his PR campaign in the wake of the growing dissatisfaction of American electorate with his presidency.
The 2008 August War reflected Tbilisi’s deep vulnerability to Russian military force. It also painfully showed that NATO’s was unable to provide support that Georgians had hoped for, that is military units on the ground fighting along Tbilisi against the aggressor. Furthermore, the recognition of Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by Moscow once again proved that the country has been as vulnerable as ever. Georgia might be politically and morally supported by the West, but it is still defenceless in the face of military and other challenges that global and regional processes may unleash.
Finally, Georgia’s allegedly established democracy is a myth. After coming to power, the pro-Western post-revolutionary government assured its strategic partners that it would put the country on a democratic track. The Western allies (especially, the US under George W. Bush) immediately began to praise Tbilisi’s democratic transition. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations were working hard to create the image of Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus.
Yet, a peaceful meeting of the LGBT community in the capital on May 17th 2013 to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia turned into a violent confrontation. Thousands of conservative ultra-Orthodox demonstrators broke through police cordons, clashing with gay rights activists. Georgia’s civil society reacted by gathering signatures under a petition calling the government to punish religious figures involved in the incident. But the newly elected Georgian Dream Coalition turned a blind eye, which showed that while the country may be democratic in comparison with its neighborhood, it is still far from the type of democracy it aspires to be.
Allies and enemies
The political dichotomy of Georgia’s allies and enemies built by Saakashvili is slowly vanishing too. In this scenario, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are presented as the country’s close allies and strategic partners, while Russia as the only threat to Tbilisi’s sovereignty, democracy and institutional stability. In reality, however, the dichotomy reflects rather the political correctness of Georgia’s elite and their attempts to avoid further escalation of the political situation in the region. The state is surrounded by authoritarian regimes that are trying to use Tbilisi to further their own national interests.
Istanbul, for instance, is pushing its neighbour to close all schools and organisations connected to the exiled Turkish politician, Fethullah Gülen. Following Turkey’s request, the Georgian government detained the manager of the private Turkish Demirel College. Moreover, at Turkey’s request, the authorities halted discussions in the Georgian parliament on making Didgoroba – the celebration of the 1121th anniversary of the victory of the Kingdom of Georgia over the Great Seljuk Empire, a public holiday. According to official sources, the Embassy of Turkey in Georgia asked that the parliament stops the proceedings over the legislative proposal because the day marks a great defeat for Turks.
The case of Afgan Mukhtarli’s, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist who was abducted by members of Georgian and Azerbaijani security forces and sent to a detention facility in Baku, is another great example of Tbilisi’s vulnerability. Human rights activists argue that the Georgian government collaborated with Azerbaijan due to the pressure from SOCAR gas and oil company. It is not a secret that Saakashvili’s early attempts to free the country from Russia’s Gazprom leverage led to a dramatic dependence on Azerbaijan’s energy resources.
Finally, Armenia with its Russian military base located in Gyumri, constitutes another veritable Damocles’ sword hanging over Tbilisi.
All in all, while Georgia needs a brand that would help to promote its national interests, the local elite should not get deluded. The country is on the path to democracy, but one that is still far from the Western definition. Moreover, the situation in the region is fragile and Tbilisi must realise that an existing dichotomy of allies and enemies is no longer relevant. The neighbouring countries will continue to put pressure on Georgia to defend their authoritarian ends. This becomes clear, when the brand faces a reality check.
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.