An alternative view of Georgia’s European identity and past history


Georgia intends to submit an application for membership of the European Union in 2024. Whilst most Georgians assert the country’s European identity, alternative views are emerging. In this op-ed, GIPA doctoral student Archil Sikharulidze challenges the concept of Georgian “Europeaness”, and those who promote it.

Georgia has wholeheartedly set its course toward NATO/EU membership. This aspiration to become an inherent part of the Western civilisation – frequently termed as ‘civilisational choice’ and/or to re-join the ‘European family’ – comes not only from political, social and economic considerations but also from academia. In November 2003 the country experienced the so-called Rose Revolution when an allegedly pro-Western trio of local politicians, Zurab Zhvania, Nino Burjanadze and Mikhail Saakashvili, ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze and assured the country’s Western allies that they would put Georgia on a “democratic track”. This coloured revolution led to dramatic shifts in local academia. In particular, a renewed higher education system and respective educational institutions – many supported by various external Western donations, grants and scholarships – focused on the American and, especially, European dimensions and frameworks. This led Western scholarly approaches and literature to become absolutely dominant.

Nation-Building Perspective

Tradition, historiography, and history, as key pillars of a nation-building process, have been externally influenced in Georgia. Motivated and educated abroad, modern Georgian scholars were determined to revise the so-hated Soviet legacy and rethink Georgian history; to reconsider Georgia as a phenomenon in the history of humankind. So far, we are witnessing ongoing efforts by both international and local scholars to rewrite Georgian history from the Western-oriented, and to be more precise, European-oriented nation-building perspective. This is the perspective which represents the generalised West as a ‘historical homeland’, Russia as the ‘evil empire’, and Turkey and Iran as strategic partners with complicated pasts that should be left in the past. Georgian history as a whole is the subject of studies and emendations on the country’s path toward Westernisation-Europeanisation.

Apart from rethinking Georgian history in general and focusing on Russia’s long-lasting ‘war on Georgian sovereignty’, there are time periods which only became widely researched and actualised recently.

A new wave of mainly young leftist Georgian scholars in collaboration with foreign colleagues actively study and promote the so-called First Republic timeframe. In 1918 Georgia gained independence from the collapsed Russian Empire and became a sovereign state, chaired by Noe Zhordania, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic party. Arguably, at that time, the Georgian government aspired to strengthen ties with Europe, especially Germany, and escape from Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’. Despite harsh opposition, Georgia was captured by the Red Army in 1921 and was integrated into the Soviet Union, thus, losing independence and sovereignty to Moscow yet again. Seemingly, researchers of the First Republic are trying both to restore the damaged reputation of the Georgian Social Democratic party on the one hand, and its political ideology more generally on the other. They emphasise the continuous strife of local elites as well as the whole Georgian nation for self-determination overall, independence and sovereignty from Russia in particular, and the idea of a European future as an integral part of Georgian history.

Another heavily researched issue is the so-called great purge or massive Soviet repressions of the 1930s. Inspired by Germany’s approach to ‘denazification’, researchers from the SOVLAB (Soviet past research laboratory), amongst others, are pushing for de-Sovietisation by exposing the brutality and merciless nature of the Soviet regime and remembering the victims of its terror by setting-up memorial tables. There are also calls on local government to grant access to confidential archives hiding detailed accounts of both victims and abusers, and so-called collaborators. Using the so-called German model for Georgia in combination with the comprehensive lustration approaches implemented in the Eastern European countries is being considered as a path towards political and historical redemption – liberation from the nasty Soviet legacy.

Being remembered and discussed annually, the so-called 9 April 1989 events represent a ‘historic anchor’ for Georgian elites to draw the line between “us” and “them”, Georgian patriots and Soviet/Russian murderers – a ‘red line’ between Georgia and Russia. This tragic incident, which led to deaths of more than 20 people in Tbilisi, is probably the most widely recalled and observed, especially by local researchers and experts; and, paradoxically, is still less studied, transparent, clear and objective due to the high level of emotional sensitivity and politicisation around it. Any kind of ‘non-patriotic’ revision leads to a harsh academic reaction due to a prevalence of so-called ‘scientific patriotism’.

One should separately emphasise the phenomenon of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia’s historiography. Gamsakhurdia, a prominent Soviet dissident and the first president of an independent Georgian state, has for a long time been simultaneously considered as a founding father of modern Georgian statehood as well as the most notable Georgian nationalist. The politician was a ‘freedom fighter’ who fought against Soviet/Russian imperialism on the one hand, and an example of destructive Georgian nationalist sentiment on the other hand. Interestingly, we are witnessing a dramatic shift in this well-established framework, with local researchers turning Gamsakhurdia into a ‘role model’ in the scope of a larger European-oriented nation-building historical perspective.

And lastly, the lion’s share of research is focused on a period after the so-called Rose Revolution which is, in accordance with a general framework, considered as a continuation of Georgia’s historical strife to become a member of the “civilised world” and “Western family” by joining NATO and European Union. It should be noted that the US, as a crucial political and military ally, is extensively represented. Georgia’s entire modern existence is being analysed and narrated through the prism of West-East rivalry, where Georgian people are desperate to re-join with the ‘historical homeland’ while the Kremlin aspires to destroy, demolish, and shatter its dreams.

A ‘new Georgian’

Arguably the best expression of the role of Europe, Europeanness, and the European identity in the modern interpretation of Georgian history are in the words of the prominent Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania, who declared “I am Georgian, and therefore I am European”. This formula, which was probably more of a slogan shared among a narrow group of local elites rather than regular citizens, became a symbol of the Georgian nation-building framework. According to the main narrative, Georgia is not going to ‘become’ a member of the European family; rather it is the oldest European nation, forcefully ripped out – arguably, by Russia – of its ‘civilisational space’ and is now doing its best to re-join it. Europe, according to the storyline, historically unwilling to recognise Georgian ‘Europeanness’, is finally ready to lay aside geopolitical and other considerations and accept Georgia; thus, Tbilisi has a unique opportunity to make a centuries-old dream come true. The concept of ‘Europeanness’ – introduced by Korneli Kakachia and others, as a combination of European-minded elites on the one hand, and preference of liberal political order on the other hand – is at the forefront of any agenda in the country. Thus, local political, academic, business and other elites do consider EU-Georgian relations as a key pillar of Georgian existence; a grand mission that other dimensions of the state’s domestic and foreign policies should serve. The ‘Europeanness’ that has already turned to ‘radical Europeanness’ is continuously overshadowing a dramatic need for Tbilisi to pursue more pragmatic and down-to-earth political approaches both at home as well as beyond its borders. ‘Europeanness’ or ‘radical Europeanness’ fits an idea of a ‘new Georgian’ repeatedly expressed by Mikhail Saakashvili and representatives of his political team. Saakashvili, the third president of Georgia, openly argued that a grand idea of the so-called Rose Revolution – thus, a grand idea of him and his supporters – was to deconstruct the corrupt, unattractive Georgian mentality and create a ‘new Georgian nation’. And the European identity is the kernel of that concept.

Georgian academia, which is often a precise reflection of the Georgian political agenda, is respectively focused on creating the necessary historical and ideological foundations for a European-oriented, nation-building perspective. Being extensively ideologically, financially and logistically maintained and supported by American and European grants, many of local scholars and researchers follow agendas offered by the state’s strategic partners; putting the Georgian ‘European identity’, ‘Europeanness’, ‘civilisational choice’ and other pro-American/European narratives as the logical conclusion of every single research project. Interestingly, despite pushing the concept of Georgia as the oldest ‘European nation’, there is a clear understanding that this assumption is barely reflected in European historiography. Thus, Georgian and American/European scholars actively collaborate to “cut a window to Europe” by uncovering a heretofore unknown European nature to Georgia’s past.

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“Make Georgia great again”

The aftermath of the recent elections in Georgia has shown that it will be challenging to find a compromise in the current political environment in the country.

The historical parliamentary elections that took place in November in Georgia are now officially over. The Central Election Commission (CEC) recently issued the final results and the newly elected legislative body will soon meet for the first time. While the victorious Georgian Dream party is celebrating its third consecutive term in power, the opposition still refuses to recognise the results. Moreover, opponents of the government argue that corruption influenced the pre-election campaign and the electoral process as a whole. As a result, this group has demanded a repeat of the parliamentary elections with new rules and a reformed electoral administration. Despite this, Georgian Dream has made it clear that it will not reconsider the election results. Currently, the government and opposition are set to meet for the third stage of negotiations facilitated by European and American diplomats. Georgia is now very close to reliving the events of 2008, when the United National Movement gained a constitutional majority and simply decided to rule the state without even acknowledging the opposition. Georgia’s strategic partners have called on both sides to participate in parliament and contribute to the democratic transformation of the state.

Generally, the elections have shown that it is almost impossible to find compromise in the political environment of Georgia. There are only two real political powers in the country and all the main political actors have seemingly become victims of their own propaganda.

Elections (not) stolen

Obviously, some parts of Georgian society, including the academic, non-governmental and business sectors, are troubled by the fact that Georgian Dream won the majority of seats (90 out of 150). They believe that a third term will damage the state’s development and set a bad precedent for the future. For these groups, the adoption of a Western-style “two terms” rule is viewed as the best possible outcome for Georgia and its democracy. These actors tend to focus on the government’s failures and corrupt practices when discussing past elections. At the same time, another part of Georgian society considers these allegations simply to be a long-established practice during Georgian elections. They do not view such accusations as important or a reason to question the results. Interestingly, international observers, who were led by the OSCE/ODIHR, agreed with the second group’s understanding of the elections. This caused an outcry from many representatives of the political opposition. For example, Mikhail Saakashvili, the third president of Georgia, and members of other parties called the head of the electoral mission, Tiny Kox, an “experienced KGB agent”. In contrast to this, NATO, the American Embassy in Georgia and other European states agreed with the findings of these “Russian agents” from the OSCE/ODIHR.

Moving on from these labels, it is clear that Georgia’s strategic partners and international observers said nothing new about the country’s politics. Moreover, these actors are aware of the methods and approaches that almost all Georgian governments and political leaders use to stay in power and gain electoral support. Overall, it has been more important for these outside forces to make sure that Georgia did not challenge the “red lines” that were crossed in Belarus. Thus, the international assessment of the elections appears to match the reality of the situation. Whilst the process was competitive and voters were capable of fully participating in the elections, its fairness was questionable. However, due to the fact that elections in Georgia continue to possess the same flaws and failures as past votes, there is no real reason to question the legitimacy of this year’s contest. If we express doubts over whether or not the government has been elected in accordance with all democratic standards, then we will be forced to question all the elections that have ever been held in Georgia.

Georgia’s American model

Both local and international actors are trying hard to develop traditions of coalition government and, more generally, a pluralistic political culture in Georgia. In order to achieve these goals significant reforms were put in place regarding issues such as the electoral threshold. Before, it was as low as one per cent. Despite these changes, however, the outcome remained the same. Voters are always forced to choose between either keeping the same political establishment in charge or replacing it with another. There is no strong demand for coalitions and complicated formulas. Instead, there is just one party, one power, one ideology, one outlook and one force ruling the country. These traditions show the unwillingness of the Georgian people to compromise and acknowledge the achievements of their opponents. The best examples of this are the narratives expressed by the leading Georgian Dream party and the United National Movement. Members of the ruling party rarely remember the successes of the former government. On the other hand, Saakashvili and his allies do not even recognise that they lost power in 2012-13, blaming “Russian agents” and “Russian hackers” for the defeat. It is subsequently crucial for this group to end Georgian Dream’s control of the state and “make Georgia great again”. Such rhetoric makes it impossible to organise coalition governments and even engage in peaceful dialogue without the “supervision” of American and European actors.

Past elections have shown that voters unite around Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, while smaller parties that promote themselves as “alternatives” win a small amount of seats. The electoral threshold is set to be increased again for the next elections and this will probably see the parliament dominated by these two leading powers. This could result in the formation of Georgia’s own ‘American’ political model, where voters effectively choose between their own versions of the Democratic and Republican parties. In a rather ironic twist, any acceptance of the opposition’s demands by the government would only speed up this shift to a more American system.

Gone with the propaganda

A strong belief in propaganda continues to be the biggest challenge for all political actors in the country. The ruling administration, deceived by its own media, still believes that the electorate hates the representatives of the former government and is afraid of their return. As a result, the government believes that the people will always vote for Georgian Dream and that they will always be thankful for being ‘liberated’ from Saakashvili’s regime. These statements are at least partially misleading. The United National Movement is more active than ever before and is benefitting from the mistakes of the government. Sooner or later, the past will not help Georgian Dream stay in power. It will need to offer something new, which is a difficult task in Georgia’s political system.

There is political opposition, with the UNM at its core, naïve enough to argue that Georgian Dream has done nothing positive for the country. Moreover, Saakashvili has created an alternative reality in which the people dream of his return to power and the restoration of a national “greatness” that has never actually existed. In this political narrative, the former government of Saakashvili never did anything wrong or broke any laws. It is viewed as a generally democratic, pro-Western regime that was overthrown by the Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and his followers. Unfortunately, other opposition parties, such as European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy Agmashenebeli and Girchi, are not strong enough to break this illusion and act in an independent manner.

Consequently, political actors in Georgia remain detached from wider society. They believe that the population unilaterally supports the ideas of the government or the opposition. In reality, what people actually want are clear and well-structured policies that deal with poverty, unemployment and other important socio-economic challenges.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgia Beyond “Radical Europeanness”: Undiscovered Directions of Foreign Policy


Abstract

Georgia’s turn to the West signifi cantly aff ected its geopolitical and foreign policies. The author shares the view expressed by Georgian scholars that the country’s continued commitment to the Western vector is a direct consequence of ideas expressed by political elites (constructivist theory) and their self-identifi cation as “European,” coupled with Western-style liberal democracy as a social order preference (liberal theory). Georgia’s political elites are driven by the concept of “Europeanness” and thus focus primarily on the state’s aspirations to be integrated into the “Western world,” which is pushing the state towards European and North-Atlantic integration. Georgian elites believe that institutional reunifi cation with “European family” under the NATO defence shield will not only deter Moscow but will fi nally put an end to Moscow’s attempts to bring the post-soviet state under its control. Moreover, due to the tensions between the generalized West and Russian Federation, the Kremlin’s aspirations to stop what it perceives as a geopolitical expansion of the West to the east, Georgia’s approach has become even more radical. The paper argues that the concept of “Europeanness” has been transformed into “radical Europeanness,” meaning that the political elites maintain economic cooperation with non-Western countries, but there is no proactive foreign policy beyond that, even with its most important strategic partners, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. In spite Tbilisi enjoys trade relations with these countries, the existing level of political and military cooperation between them conceals signifi cant bilateral challenges. Additionally, this approach is perfectly refl ected in Georgia’s relations with China, when the country’s political elites pushed for free trade, without attention to the political and geopolitical aspects of economic cooperation. Thus, Georgia – China relations are also the part of research interest in this paper, as the free trade regime between the two countries is subject to serious scrutiny after the Donald Trump administration made it clear that Washington would not welcome Chinese economic and geopolitical expansion in Georgia.

Keywords: Georgia, “radical Europeanness”, identity, foreign policy, elites, social order.

Titile: Georgia Beyond “Radical Europeanness”: Undiscovered Directions of Foreign Policy
Author: Archil Sikharulidze
Type: Peer-Reviewed
Pages: 91-108
Publisher: MGIMO
Journal: International Analytics
Year: 2021
Place: Moscow, Russian Federation
DOI: https://doi.org/10.46272/2587-8476-2020-11-2-91-108 

Citation: Sikharulidze A.Т. Georgia Beyond “Radical Europeanness”: Undiscovered Directions of Foreign Policy. Journal of International Analytics. 2020;11(2):91-108. https://doi.org/10.46272/2587-8476-2020-11-2-91-108

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Georgia’s ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy


Georgian Dream could become the first party to retain power for a third consecutive term. What would this mean for the country’s foreign policy?

On October 31st, Georgia is likely to experience historic parliamentary elections. On the one hand, the country may witness its second peaceful transition of power. On the other hand, the ruling Georgian Dream party could become the country’s first government to retain power for a third consecutive term. At the same time, Georgia is closer than ever before to achieving a coalition government. This possibility is welcomed by both local pro-Western forces and the country’s European and American partners. Despite this, rivalry between the parties remains fierce and is more focused on internal issues such as economic prosperity, equality, equity, poverty and unemployment. But there is also an external dimension in the form of Georgia’s foreign policy. Overall, it is interesting to question to what extent these elections may affect the state’s position in the region. This is especially true with regard to relations with Russia. Overall, it could be argued that the state is yet again facing a ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy in relation to its links with Moscow.

A brief history

After the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, the newly elected government of Mikhail Saakashvili and the United National Movement tried to reset Georgia-Russia relations. However, they failed to do so due to conflicting foreign policy goals. Whilst a pro-Western government in Tbilisi tried to integrate into institutions such as the EU and NATO, Vladimir Putin’s Moscow hoped to maintain a grip on its so-called “near abroad”. As a result, the Tbilisi-Moscow ‘honeymoon’ ended almost as soon as it began. Influenced by this development and the neoconservatism of America’s Bush administration, Saakashvili decided to compete with Moscow. This turned Tbilisi into a pro-Western stronghold within both the South Caucasus and post-Soviet space as a whole. Georgia’s ruling elites were certain that the West, represented most importantly by America and NATO, would be willing to stop the Kremlin from using military force against its valuable ally. These dreams were shattered during the conflict in August 2008, when it appeared that neither Brussels nor Washington were ready to actually counter Moscow’s interests in the South Caucasus. Georgia’s foreign policy, therefore, was in need of revision and so the Georgian Dream party, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, made an offer to the electorate. The leader suggested that it would be better to ‘deter’ potential Russian aggression through a change of language. Tbilisi subsequently discouraged anti-Russian sentiment and military rhetoric. Instead of war, there would be reconciliation. Saakashvili lost power and this new policy was introduced as official policy. However, this attempt to reset relations did not lead to a breakthrough. During this period, Moscow started its ongoing process of ‘borderisation’ and even kidnapped Georgian citizens. Such cases of kidnapping have often involved torture and murder. Many former officials, as well as some representatives of Georgian civil society, have subsequently described this desire to not irritate Russia as a betrayal of the country’s interests.

The effect of elections

Currently, Georgian society is being offered two distinct approaches to the Kremlin. The opposition, led by the United National Movement and European Georgia parties, wish to return to a form of military engagement and ‘fight back’ against the Kremlin. At the same time, Georgian Dream continues to support a policy of ‘deterring’ Russian aggression in order to avoid a potential repeat of the catastrophic events of the 2008 war. Despite this, it is indisputable that Georgia’s general foreign policy orientation will remain largely the same, with the country continuing to focus on EU-NATO integration. In particular, Tbilisi is striving to become a member of the West at the expense of a proactive policy in the South Caucasus.

Naturally, only the final outcome of the parliamentary elections will determine whether Tbilisi continues its current approach or switches to the previous one. If Georgian Dream is victorious, the state will further try to avoid direct confrontation with the Kremlin. This is considered the best guarantee of peace, not only for Georgia and Russia but for the whole South Caucasus region. However, a government made up of those who support an ‘engage’ policy will likely encourage increased confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow. Such aggressive rhetoric could end an already volatile status-quo. Even in America and Europe, there appears to be no shared agreement as to which side should win. Some Western actors openly support the political opposition, while others prefer Georgian Dream’s more balanced and peaceful politics. Despite allegations of interference, the Kremlin appears rather indifferent. This is due to the fact that Tbilisi will still remain oriented towards the West regardless of its government. Furthermore, it could be argued that Russia has done little to encourage Tbilisi to adopt an openly friendly policy. This only encourages beliefs that Moscow simply has no interest in avoiding conflict. Overall, it seems that the Kremlin has achieved its political and geopolitical goals and is satisfied with the existing status-quo.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgia’s wayward son


When it comes to Mikheil Saakashvili and his legacy as president, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously. His announced return should the largest opposition party win in upcoming elections should be seen through the lens of the local society, most of which would not warmly welcome such a homecoming.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced a “come back” to Georgian political life. In a short advertisement video, the prominent politician asked the local society for forgiveness and promised to complete reforms that he and his political party United National Movement (UNM) initiated before being defeated later in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013. Saakashvili, who chairs the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reforms Council, stated that Georgia is in total stagnation, returning to the so-called “dark” 90s as a result of a traitorous policy pursued by the government of the Georgian Dream. Soon after, the UNM, the main opposition party, stated that in the case of being victorious in the parliamentary elections set for October 31st, it will nominate its “founding father” as candidate for prime minister. Saakashvili, who actually has never really left Georgian politics, announced that, if victorious, he would occupy the post for two years and then continue his career in Ukraine.

While some parts of the political opposition, as well as civil society, expressed gratitude for the readiness to help liberate the state from, what they call, a Russian-controlled oligarchy represented by typhoon Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream, others expressed serious concerns. Giga Bokeria, a former high-ranking official under Saakashvili who established a new political movement called European Georgia, stated that Saakashvili’s aspiration is to return Georgia to the past.

Political rivalries aside, it is time to finally speak out on issues that make him a significant historic figure that will probably never “come back” again. Moreover, for the sake of Georgia’s democratic development, it would be best for Saakashvili to not return.

Georgian Che

Mikheil Saakashvili is extremely popular among American neo-conservative circles, Eastern European political figures and, of course, liberal and even non-liberal elites in the post-Soviet space. He is known best for being a highly successful reformer who transformed Georgia from a “rogue” state into a developing pro-western country. Most importantly, he is respected by some groups in the West for his harsh anti-Russian rhetoric. At the same time, he has been continuously seen by Russian liberals as a counter-example to Vladimir Putin; thus, his fall from power was well-celebrated in the Kremlin. Paradoxically, the former president of Georgia is also notorious among those considered pro-Russian elites in Armenia, as well as pro-governmental groups in Azerbaijan and Central Asia that are sick and tired of systemic corruption, violence and the inability to build a career beyond loyalty to existing political regimes.

All these actors, unfortunately, lack fully objective information when it comes to Saakashvili’s true legacy, overwhelmed by his tremendously well-performed PR campaign. So far, they often simply can’t understand why so many people at home praise and curse him at the same time.

To understand this inconsistency, we should accept, once and for all, that Saakashvili is not a reformist but first and foremost – a revolutionary. What’s more the former president truly believes in his own path – the “Misha Way”. In other words, he believes that he knows what is true and false; what is patriotic and what is unpatriotic. Generally speaking, there is only one right way, the “Misha Way” and Georgia, as well as the local society, should follow it whether they express willingness to or not.

As the revolutionary, Saakashvili is ready to pursue and fight for his ideas and goals till the end. This disposition was perfectly reflected during his governance when there was no dialogue, no debate and no exchange between the state and the people. Furthermore, after the constitutional amendments introduced in 2004, Georgia’s political system became hyper-presidential, in which parliament played no role while Saakashvili ruled over the state almost as a sheikh.

Soon after, the state developed its media platforms as well as the business sector. As a result, the processes in the country were driven solely by the will of its leader, Saakashvili, and a small group of individuals. Moreover, democratic values such as human rights, freedom of speech and the press and private property were largely abandoned for the sake of revolutionary breakthroughs – a modernisation which by all means has not been coordinated and harmonised with the Georgian people.

Yet another factor that we should emphasise is the unique PR skills of the former president of Georgia, as he manages to exaggerate achievements, on the one hand, while being able to fully overshadow the negative sides on the other hand. For example, police reform was tremendously successful in fighting “petty corruption” and ensuring the fight against crime, while being a total failure in defending local society from elite corruption and state abuse or the impunity of the security services that were involved in hundreds of criminal cases including killings, tortures and other grave misdeeds. This state reform protected Georgian society from crime but was incapable of doing the same when the state behaved as a criminal itself.

Thus, at the end of the day, Saakashvili gave the local population much-needed hope for a better future but, at the same time, sacrificed a desirable, democratic institutional development. Logically, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously, depending on what was and is more important for each particular citizen.

Despite this paradox, all sides agree that Saakashvili is a historic figure – the “Georgian Che” who motivated Georgian society to continue its state-building process. Yet, the “Misha Way” was unable to live up to the strong desire for nation-building fully in line with democratic values.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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On the West we rely


The Georgian parliament has adopted constitutional changes that have been applauded by their international partners. As a result, the Georgian Dream government might struggle with an even more alienated opposition.

On June 29th 2020 the Georgian parliament finally adopted constitutional amendments that have been praised by an absolute majority of local and international actors as “historic”. The new electoral system, which introduces a mixed model consisting of 120 members of Parliament proportionally elected and 30 majoritarian MPs, is seen as an opportunity for Georgian democracy to build a culture of collaboration and coalition governments. And while this statement may be seriously challenged, there are issues that are more relevant and important in Georgian society.

Particularly, members of the political opposition, Irakli Okruashvili and Gigi Ugulava, had been previously pardoned by president Salome Zurabishvili. These individuals, arguably perceived as criminals by the majority of Georgians, were released as a result of international pressure from some representatives of European Parliament and American Congress. Local oppositional parties praised the decision, calling it a step towards less political turbulence; more justice and peace is expected in buildup to the upcoming parliamentary elections set for October 2020.

Meanwhile, the majority of the electorate of Georgian Dream is most likely shocked and astonished as they simply cannot understand how former members of the ruling government who directly participated in building a semi-authoritarian regime while oppressing media and human rights can be protected and lobbied by the state’s strategic partners in the EU and USA. This is especially relevant as it relies on judgements by the ECHR and International arbitrage in The Hague. Moreover, there is an apparent embarrassment due to the behavior of Georgia’s allies who directly intervened in internal affairs and pressured the government, or even threatened it.

Terrorists or freedom fighters

It goes without saying that the biggest issue here is the alleged existence of political prisoners in Georgia. Some members of European Parliament as well as American Senators and Congressmen are extremely keen to refer to almost all the members of political opposition who went to jail as political prisoners. Of course local judiciary and prosecutor offices are far from Western standards and need to be further strengthened and distanced from the state’s grip. At the same time, all statistical data shows that these institutions are freer and more independent than ever before. Thus, Georgians can be sure that their rights will be better protected than in the past. This fact is sometimes even challenged despite clear evidence.

Secondly, it is up to local and international legal institutions to give final judgement on whether a person has been persecuted due to political views and activities or not. But what bothers regular citizens of Georgia is that there are active attempts by some Western officials to whitewash members of Saakashvili’s government; although it is a government prominent for its brutal dispersal of peaceful protests, massive oppression of political opponents, seizure of oppositional media outlets and total disregard of human rights. And these outcomes frequently come through direct misrepresentation of data and even ECHR judgements. For example, Małgorzata Maria Gosiewska, Deputy Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, represented former Minister of Internal Affairs Ivane Merabishvili as a political prisoner and cited an ECHR judgement as a legal document. Ms. Gosiewska blatantly misled listeners as the court ruled that the state hadn’t violated Mr. Merabishvili’s right to a fair and public trial and his sentence was given in accordance to international practice. Generally speaking, there are serious hesitations and doubts about fairness of conclusions made by some politicians, especially Europeans. This is especially relevant in wake of a call by Marketa Gregorova, Czech activist, member of the Czech Pirate Party, and elected MEP, to investigate dispersal of a questionably “peaceful” political protest on June 20th 2019. If this issue is so urgent and relevant for some members of EU parliament then why do they continue to whitewash Ivane Merabishvili, who brutally stamped out dozens of peaceful protests which resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of people being injured and three people being killed?!

Generally, an extremely large gap in perceptions exists between regular Georgian citizens on the one hand and some political actors on the ground and abroad on the other hand. This challenge can described within the framework given by a character from the movie Die Another Day, in which he stated “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. For the larger Georgian society, Gigi Ugulava and other former top officials are criminals mentioned in judgements by the ECHR in cases such as Sulkhan Molashvili v. Georgia (political persecution and torture), Enukidze and Gvirgvliani v. Georgia (torture of civilian and concealment of evidences), Batiashvili v. Georgia (intentional fabrication of evidences), Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company Ltd and Others v. Georgia (unlawful expropriation of private media property) and so on.

Politics above the law

The lion’s share of allegations against Georgian Dream from its American allies is arguably mostly politically motivated. At the very least, the allegations made by American Senators and Congressmen are definitely political rather than legal. Arguably the best example of this is the claimed oppression of American business, as in the Frontera Resources case. This Texas company has operated in Georgia since 1997 and continues promising to find natural resources, such as gas and oil. The Georgian Dream government argued that the company violated an agreement, resulting in approximately one hundred Georgian citizens not being paid salaries for more than year. The company, however, was and still is arguing that it has found the largest oil and gas deposits, which have been false claims for the last two decades. Therefore, the government of Georgia decided to break the contract. This situation was addressed by American Republican Congressman Pete Olson, who directly called Bidzina Ivanishvili and the current government pro-Russian puppets; additionally, Mr. Olson argued that Frontera Resources has been pushed away in order to give Georgian gas to the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin in general. This narrative was picked up by members of the political opposition despite the fact that one of its own leaders from the United National Movement, MP Roman Gotsiridze, was personally calling Frontera Resources a “charlatan” company and urging the government to defend Georgian citizens. These allegations did not disappear even after a judgement by an international arbitrage, located in The Hague, ruled in favor of the Georgian government and gave the state permission to break cooperation with the American company due to a breach of contract. But what is especially disturbing is that some representatives of leading international and local NGOs, such as Transparency International, including Georgia’s Executive Director Eka Gigauri, are still using this case to express “concerns” and contribute to the legally false claims of Congressman Olson and the local political opposition.

It seems that these organisations, at least some of their members, have their own ideological and political rivalry or confrontation with the ruling Georgian Dream, which pushes them to turn a blind eye to the legal aspects and focus more on a political agenda. The same scenario happened during the private Rustavi 2 channel dispute when NGOs argued that Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream controlled local courts, pushing the institution to transfer property rights to pro-governmental businessman Kibar Khalvashi. This narrative is still proliferated by these same organisations and people despite an ECHR judgement that ruled in favor of the decision made previously by a Georgian court. Moreover, none of the claims made by NGO representatives had been publicly shared. By the end of this ruling. members of the political opposition called the judgement pro-Russian and claimed the ECHR was bribed by Bidzina Ivanishvili and influenced by the Kremlin.

Behind the back politics 

The biggest concerns among regular citizens are raised most often due to political negotiations and agreements facilitated by European and American diplomats between the Georgian Dream government and political opposition. The most important achievement of this process was the March 8th agreement that, in theory, should have depolarised the environment in the country and ensured more transparent and democratic parliamentary elections, which are set for October 2020. But as soon as the ruling party and political opposition started disputing the agreement itself, Georgian citizens realised that they had no clue what was happening at all. It took place behind closed doors and agreements were made in secret. Thus far, local voters are in a frustrating situation as political actors are representing things in a completely contradictory manner while European and American diplomats keep silent. Georgia’s strategic partners have often “negotiated democracy” with local political elites “behind the back” of Georgian society. Thus, the above concerns are obviously not baseless. In a country where “shadow politics” is taking place on a regular basis, it is highly questionable whether yet another example of “international shadow politics” can strengthen democracy or increase trust in the political process. Moreover, this can easily be perceived as a intervention into domestic affairs and an attempt to defend interests of political elites on the one hand and national (political, geopolitical and economic) interests of the EU and USA on the other hand, without asking for an opinion from Georgian voters.

By and large, the substantial astonishment among a significant portion of Georgian society, namely those who sent Mikhail Saakashvili’s government to the “political bench”, stems from them simply being unable to understand how the former officials, involved in corruption and other legal cases, can be lobbied by the West and even called “freedom fighters”?! Furthermore, why do some European and American officials think that Georgian democracy will be strengthened by keeping these perceivably corrupt individuals active in politics and even appointing them to high political positions again?! The usual pro-Western actors in the country, as well as their allies abroad, should be ready for increased anti-Western criticism and skepticism among regular citizens of Georgia who see lobbyist attempts as a glaring intervention in domestic affairs and a politically-motivated liberation of alleged criminals. Most importantly, however, are the concerns raised about whether the European and American actors involved in the process promote principles of equality before the law or an old quote known as “all are equal but some are more equal”. And it seems that in this case Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili fall into the second basket, because there is no doubt that no one can be bothered to save individuals who lack political labels and/or political protection.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgian Media as a Fake News?


In the wake of the ‘war on disinformation’ more and more states focus on promotion of the so-called objective independent and hopefully pro-Western media. This tendency is even stronger in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and, of course, Ukraine and Georgia. But despite the announced magna mission, usually these sources of information are simply more propagandist rather than neutral and objective; furthermore, they counter the Kremlin ‘disinformation’ and manipulations with their own. Georgia, as a beacon of freedom in the post-Soviet region, is one to the best examples, when countering the Russian threats transformed into constructing conspiracy theories around it. Additionally, Georgian media legitimizes this approach by the necessity to defend the ‘Western values’ and the country from fake news coming from Putin’s regime. Factually, the attempt to counter the Russian fake news with Georgian “pro-Western” fake news led to establishment of highly politicised media environment that tries to hide its partiality and dependence on ideology. Apart from it, Georgian media suffers from various actors who invest in the field with concrete mercantile objectives, the most importantly, to counter the government while prefix ‘pro-Western’ is a ‘bait’ for the state’s strategic partners. By the end of the day, the whole notion of an objective independent and pro-Western Georgian media became the biggest fake news itself.

Objective versus Independent

Representatives of Georgian media are keen to speak about ‘controlled’ Russian broadcasters while praising their own independence from the government. But what they forget to say is that they are not independent from business interests and particularly those actors who heavily invest in this field, especially television, to pursue concrete mercantile goals. For example, Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili who established TV 9 to counter Mikhail Saakashvili’s government and once regime has been changed simply closed it. Or, Davit Kezerashvili, former Defence Minister of Georgia during Saakashvili’s regime who fled the country to avoid criminal charges, founded new tv broadcaster Formula as he argues to counter current government, Russian fake news and, of course, bring pro-Western standards/professionalism to local journalism. The same story with Nika Gvaramia, former Minister of Justice and Education, who created channel Mtavari (the Main) to fight against pro-Russian government of Georgian Dream. All these cases are reflections of a sinful practice of founding media institutes for political purposes. They are independent from the government but highly dependent on their source of income – political and business groups – that transforms them into a political tool or even party channels.

We may definitely argue that neither Imedi TV, local private broadcaster by some considered as pro-governmental, nor oppositional channels like Rustavi 2, Pirveli TV, Formula and Mtavari are ‘controlled’; they are independent from outside intervention but they are still dependent due to their primary goals – to defend or to counter. This assumption leads us to controversy between being independent and being objective. Georgian media is ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘independent’ but definitely not objective. Objectivity demands equal representation and neutrality that cannot be achieved because, as it has been said above, the magna mission of the most Georgian broadcasters is, foremostly, to defend or to counter.

Critical versus Oppositional

Another challenge for local media environment is inability or may be even unwillingness to make the difference between being critical and being oppositional. To be critical means to represent both, pros and cons while to be oppositional to show only one side of the coin. We may frequently hear that Georgian media is critical to the government but factually it is mainly oppositional; the same situation is with regard to Imedi TV that is in opposition to the parliamentary opposition, especially, United National Movement and European Georgia. This is pretty logical if we take into consideration the fact that representatives of these movements participated in an unlawful seizure of the channel in November 2007. So far, what we have are channels that due to their ‘oppositional nature’ represent processes in the country in totally different ways – anti-governmental showing a poor, blank and destroyed country while pro-governmental, the slowly growing state. As a result, even local society lives in two Georgia’s and, of course, votes respectively. Furthermore, these broadcasters and their followers are highly intolerant toward those who prefer critical media, allegedly for not being able to choose the ‘right sight’. Probably the best example is a case with the Georgian Public Broadcaster that have been labeled by ‘defenders’ and proponents of the Western values (at the time, Rustavi 2 and others) as pro-Russian and pro-governmental because they have not been ‘critical enough’.

‘War on disinformation’ versus ‘War on critical thinking’

Finally, the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s example raises one more very important topic – controversy between the ‘war on disinformation’ and the ‘war on critical thinking’, or the oppression of the different standpoint. Provoked by ‘successful’ approaches of countering Russian propaganda, especially, in USA and countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Georgian self-proclaimed liberal elite representatives are obsessed by the idea of eradicating everything and everyone attached, according to their perceptions, to the so-called pro-Russian agenda. The holy war on ‘Russian disinformation’ led to actually oppression of the freedom of speech and critical thinking. Georgian media environment is a space where you simply cannot criticise neither the US nor Europe unless you are ready to be called agent of the Kremlin, enabler of the Putin’s regime and to be ‘excommunicated’ from pro-Western Georgian society. Unfortunately, this ‘war on critical thinking’ is frequently supported by those political actors from the strategic countries who have been appointed to keep an eye on the country’s successful transition toward democracy.

Conclusion

Georgia has a highly politicized and ideologically motivated media atmosphere. Television still remains the main source of information. Apart from a few examples, maybe the First Channel, other broadcasters such as Imedi TV, Rustavi 2, Pirveli TV, Formula and, undoubtedly, Mtavari serve to concrete purposes; in some cases, tv broadcasters have been created as a political tool. Georgian tv broadcasters are mainly ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘independent’ from outside intervention but not objective; additionally, they are oppositional rather than critical. The whole notion of being ‘pro-Western’ is just a ‘bait’ for the abroad audience. Building fake news and manipulating information just to achieve mercantile goals by all means have nothing to do with the real Western values and Western journalistic standards. Lastly, the ‘war on disinformation’ led to the ‘war on critical thinking’ when using the Western critical approach to analyse USA and EU may, by default, lead to grave consequences, particularly, allegations of being pro-Russian, agent of the Kremlin, the fifth column and other labels. 

By and large, rumors about an objective independent pro-Western Georgian media is probably the biggest fake news in the country that outside strategic partners, especially, in USA and Eastern Europe are extremely keen to buy; furthermore, tend to naively trust and build-up serious analysis on it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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Rose Revolution 2.0


A step back to the past?

The government of Georgian Dream failed to approve a constitutional amendment that would have led to a proportional electoral system implemented in the 2020 parliamentary elections. The majority of the state’s strategic partners in the United States and European Union, as well as local actors, are hoping that this amendment will finally end the two-party system tradition and push local political groups to start forming coalition governments. In theory, the necessity of co-operation will provide additional incentives for further democratic development. Due to disagreements inside the ruling party, the initiative failed and the population will elect a parliament with this new model only during the 2024 elections. Georgian political actors, including civil society representatives, assessed this incident as an attempt of state capture. Moreover, there are appeals to the larger population to protest and to force the “illegitimate” government to leave power. The united opposition has announced an ultimatum, demanding the resignation of Georgian Dream, the appointment of an interim government and a set of snap parliamentary elections with the proportional system. This situation is noticeably similar to the 2003 political scenario when Eduard Shevardnadze, at the time president of Georgia, announced his resignation and the Rose Revolution ushered in a peaceful democratic transition.

Some are already speaking about a Rose Revolution 2.0 and consider it a fight against Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to liberate the state from the pro-Russian corrupt government. On the other hand, there are serious doubts about whether the revolutionary spirit or proportional system will benefit the state’s stability and democratic development.

Rose Revolution revisited

The post-Soviet space has been turbulent for years. In the beginning of the 2000s, coloured revolutions spread through the region and there were hopes that the new pro-western governments in Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution, 2004) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip Revolution, 2005) would promote democratic institutes, ensuring stability and prosperity. Unfortunately, Ukraine fell into endless revolutionary scenarios while Kyrgyzstan ended up returning to its pre-revolutionary corrupt political system. Only in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement party managed to normalise the country and implement the basic democratic standard of regime change via (more or less) fair and transparent elections. This new tradition as an alternative to the long-lasting revolutionary approach was warmly supported and praised by the United States and European Union diplomats. But the normalisation came with a high price. Part of Georgian society, used to protests and appraisement tried to overthrow Saakashvili’s government from the outside for years and the post-revolutionary government tended to harshly suppress these attempts. They believed they were using legitimate actions to once and for all suppress the revolutionary spirit and make it clear that: a) political rivalry must be settled via political dialogue and b) power transitions should take place through elections. In general, despite various grave misdeeds during the brutal dispersals, both the US and European representatives shared Saakashvili’s main message. Eventually, Georgian society accepted the new rules of the game. The country became a success story and a land of stability in the region.

Today, the same people who were aggressively implementing the above-mentioned approach are undermining it. If the revolutionary scenario offered by the united opposition and supported by most of the local civil society succeeds, it will return Georgian political culture back to the past. The basic rules of the game will be broken and the street will become the platform for dialogue once again. The country will probably experience harsh consequences, including destabilisation of the whole region. Thus, it is crucial to ensure that both the government and opposition, in contribution with the state’s strategic partners, lead the state to fair and transparent elections that should remain the only model of regime change.

Proportional system

The idea of a shift to a proportional electoral system is not new. Actually, Georgia is already planning to move to this model by 2024. Its activation for parliamentary elections in 2020 was a political promise given personally by Ivanishvili to the local population after the June protests. The political opposition and its followers consider the proportional system more fair and transparent and are hoping that it will raise their representation in the main legislative body of the state. On the other hand, officials from the US and EU see this model as an opportunity to make the local parliament more diverse and competitive. Particularly, it may give other political parties a chance to enter political life, dismantling the sinful practice of a two-party parliament. Moreover, a multiparty institute may be a pre-condition for a new tradition – coalition government.

Generally, the idea and its logic are clear and accepted, but we should be ready for the possibility that instead of democracy promotion we will lead the state to permanent democratic crisis: the “two-party swamp” will be replaced by “multiparty bedlam”. Georgian political culture is at its rock bottom. Both, the government and opposition have no skills for political dialogue and currently, local parliament is more the wrestling arena rather than the house of political debate. Furthermore, the only thing these actors discuss is the concepts of traitors, the fifth column, agents of the Kremlin, and other topics that have nothing to do with the socio-economic issues like poverty and unemployment. Generally speaking, Georgian society observes a zero-sum game: the government tries to suppress rivals while the opposition tries to destroy the regime. So far, there are serious doubts whether more political actors included will lead to a plurality of voices or a plurality of craziness.

By and large, political actors in Georgia, with contribution from the state’s strategic partners, must ensure that elections are the only acceptable regime change model. No new revolutions are necessary and if the Rose Revolution 2.0 takes place, Georgia may be thrown back into the past from a success to a story of failure. Additionally, external and internal actors must think carefully and weigh the pros and cons before moving to the proportional electoral system. What is now considered as a chance for more plurality and democracy may actually lead to even more polarisation, pushing Georgia to an endless democratic crisis with an inability to form strong coalitions.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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The Elite Supper


On September 9-10, the Washington-based the McCain Institute (MCI) and the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC) held the 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference titled “Now What?”. It would have been another international happening in the capital city of Georgia, where local and international experts exchange “wishes,” if it had not erupted in scandal when a member of the oppositional party, Alliance of Patriots Ms. Irma Inashvili, currently deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament, expressed her dissatisfaction at the fact that organizers invited representatives of all parliamentary parties as speakers except her. She further criticized the event for lacking real debates, a diversity of voices and called it a “platform for members of the former criminal regime,” the United National Movement and European Georgia, to restore their damaged political prestige with the help of friendly-oriented American political groups represented by former US officials David Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at MCI, Matthew Bryza, board member of the Jamestown Foundation, and Michael Carpenter, the Atlantic Council’s Senior Fellow.

Undoubtedly, Ms. Inashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and provocative behavior is not the way political protest should be expressed but there are some strong arguments in favor of her statements. Unfortunately, such international happenings actually have transformed into “closed group” meetings or, as we can argue, an elite supper – where “friends” and “allies” discuss local and international developments without being interrupted by external actors; moreover, the same people debate the same issues with the same outcomes all over again not offering new ideas or critical thinking at all.

Now What? Nothing…

The 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference that took place in Tbilisi is not the only platform designed to promote discussions and, generally, raise sensitive issues among various officials, scholars and experts. There is also the well-known South Caucasus Security Forum that takes a look at security challenges in the Black Sea region. But in both and other cases, the main obstacle is not to bring respective people to panels but rather to provoke really fruitful debates. It cannot be done through highly politically correct statements and speeches, where NATO-EU integration is considered as inevitable and representatives of Russia are not invited at all; furthermore, basic aspects of international relations abandoned and panelists arguing that the Kremlin has nothing to do with the Black Sea region or global politics, that members of the Alliance do not grant Tbilisi the so-called MAP because of a lack of democracy and not threats from Moscow. Such detachment from real global politics makes these events, on the one hand useful in the sense of re-iteration of support from Georgia’s strategic partners but, on the other hand, absolutely useless from the standpoint of establishing the country as a serious well-respected regional discussion platform rather than a concentration of bravado speeches.

There is also one issue that does not let these conferences evolve: the extremely small group of states and professionals invited. Unfortunately, organizers rarely take the care to consider participants and panelists; decisions are made basing on “politically correct” and “fit to mainstream” approaches to avoid verbal confrontations and “unnecessary” statements. Thus, while discussing the Black Sea region, you may find that there are no representatives from such important countries as the Russian Federation or, in the South Caucasus case, not enough accent being made on Armenian, Turkish and Azerbaijanian scholars/experts; instead, we have professionals from European countries and the United States of America who sometimes have nothing to do with the region at all but merely have the right “message box” and, of course, can criticize Moscow without being challenged. At the end of the day, you have a small number of scholars/experts who attend these events on a regular basis with the same rhetoric, the same narratives and mainly matching standpoints to global affairs – the elite supper – where critical thinking and opposite views are not presented or even welcomed.

Kramer vs. Inashvili

Of course, we cannot avoid the direct verbal confrontation between David Kramer and Irma Inashvili. As said, Ms. Inashvili’s aggressive and provocative behavior is not something that should be accepted by Georgian society, but Mr. Kramer’s response was even more damaging. He not only rudely confronted her, calling her to leave the event, but also in the same manner behaved with Georgian journalists; furthermore, after leaving the country he wrote an extensive op-ed article for the Washington Post arguing that “friends” of Georgia were and are now being attacked.

For representatives of the so-called liberal elites and their followers, these steps were considered as respective, but factually Mr. Kramer made a few very important mistakes. Firstly, he gave himself the right to lose nerve and engage in a verbal battle with Ms. Inashvili, who is currently deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament; by doing so, he showed disrespect to woman (very important for local society) and to a democratically elected Georgian parliament member. Mr. Kramer is an experienced diplomat and former high official who perfectly knows the so-called diplomatic protocol, which he undoubtedly broke. Secondly, Mr. Kramer showed the same level of disrespect to representatives of media that would not have been tolerated neither in the US nor in any more or less “civilized” country. And, finally, instead of trying to settle the misdeed, he wrote an aggressive article attempting to justify himself, knowing that the opposite side would not be able to counter his arguments.

Regular Georgian citizens thus witnessed the former American high official, “friend”, showing disrespect to woman, to a democratically elected parliament member and finally blaming modern Georgia for attacking allies; probably not the best way to represent your country and friendship.

Georgian Politics Explained

Nowadays, Georgian political, economic, social and military dimensions are in deep crisis, significantly caused not by the willingness or unwillingness of any particular government to act but, most importantly, due to a lack of new critical approaches and standpoints, generally, the non-existence of various critical schools of thoughts that can engage in debate and produce innovations. Georgian elites are stuck in old school views of the world, unable to overstep these concepts, with every single political actor offering the same political, socio-economic and military models of development with some extremely minor differences; those who do not fit into the mainstream and argue for opposite ideas (such as military neutrality, left-wing ideas) are by default considered retrograde elements, enemies and pro-Russian forces, despite the availability of evidence to the contrary. This critical situation is worsened by political crises of the West and Western institutions and the damage being done to the West-led post-Cold War global political order. As a result, Georgian elites fight each other using populism, labeling, insults, baseless allegations and various “friendly-oriented” groups from abroad to gain more votes and legitimize actions, while failing to offer anything innovative or realistic. Among such “old stories” are the NATO-EU integration and, of course, turbulent relations with the Russian Federation.

Dreams of NATO-EU

There is no mainstream political power in the country that does not reflect NATO integration and EU membership as key goals and merits of governance success. During the post-Rose Revolution regime of Mikheil Saakashvili and his political team United National Movement, every single reform served to these grand aspirations.

Initially, integration to these Western institutions had particular political, geopolitical and economic purposes but quickly transformed into an end in itself, an obsession of the Georgian elites that does not consider the changing political environment at all. Hence, these elites are pressed between harsh reality and created narratives, “wishful thinking”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message to Georgian society was pretty clear and direct when during her South Caucasus tour in 2018, she argued that there are no pre-requisites for NATO enlargement in the region. But unable and unwilling to face this harsh reality, Georgian mainstream elites are still using the “possibility” of integration in various set ups (the latest, without Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region under Article 5) as responses to continuously changing regional and global political environment. In this context, international events are frequently used by the groups to re-assure and calm Georgian society that the country will become a NATO member “very soon”. Such a scenario was used in 2018 when the same McCain Institute held a conference where retired US generals and other officials tried to overshadow the Chancellor’s messages with their own bold rhetoric and assurances.

By and large, Ms. Inashvili’s intervention at the 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference proved that the Georgian political culture is still in need of further development. On the other hand, it raised the issue of international conferences becoming a concentration of useless verbal bravado instead of being platforms for real debates on topics of global politics; furthermore, these events are enslaved by wrongful approaches when only politically correct and mainstream professionals are invited to avoid “unnecessary” debates and statements. The recent conference was also extremely harmful for the McCain Institute and, personally, for former American high official Mr. David Kramer, who broke diplomatic protocol and brought more harm than good to the Georgian-American friendship. Lastly, Georgia has no alternatives except to further push for NATO-EU membership but both local and international experts, scholars and officials must be sincere while discussing the challenges. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the political opposition have anything to offer Georgian society except elusive dreams of NATO and European Union.

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NATO’s “Small Talk”


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.

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