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So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.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.
President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has finished her official visit to Armenia. She brought some important messages to Yerevan. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that Georgia has no real South Caucasian foreign policy.
Read more in Russian here.
President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has visited Baku with official meetings. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that key issue for discussion will be to keep Azerbaijan as a guarantor of Georgia’s energy security.
Read more in Russian here.
President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has visited Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan. She had meetings with local high officials. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that this visit will further strengthen interstate relations.
Read more in Russian here.
Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia signed military agreement that will strengthen cooperation between miitary institutions of these countries and, so far, ensure more safety in the South Caucasus region.
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.