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.

Tagged : / / / / / / / / /

Georgia, NATO and South Caucasus

On September 27, 2020 arguably Azerbaijanian military forces initiated a full-scaled operation against self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (RNK) and Armenia officially for securing and restoring the country’s territorial integrity. We may argue that this confrontation is not yet another escalation but rather a real war that can lead to a collapse of South Caucasus regional stability and order. This is even more realistic in the wake of Ankara’s obvious involvement and the Kremlin’s national interests, on the one hand, and deterioration of US global hegemony, on the other hand. In the same time, according to Craig Turp-Balazs from Emerging Europe, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has told Georgian PM Giorgi Gakharia to “prepare for membership” during tet-a-tete visit to Brussels on September 29. Generally speaking, it seems that South Caucasus is going to become the platform of rivalry between the so-called “great nations” again; and despite the “firm statements” from the heart of Europe it is pretty clear that NATO’s presence in the region is not welcomed by key actors. Furthermore, the North-Atlantic alliance is the weakest player on the chessboard.

Dream’s on South Caucasus

It is not a secret that while some members of NATO are highly skeptical with regard to further enlargement to the South-East, others do perceive it as a critically necessary step in a fight against the so-called Russia’s neoimperialistic policy or revisionism. Among the most motivated states are United States of America and Eastern European countries, like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These actors, perceived by Moscow as a “Russophobic alliance”, push for Georgia to be integrated to the block as soon as possible, considering Tbilisi as a perfect platform in the Russian “backyard” or how the Kremlin calls it “near abroad”. It was George W. Bush’s neoconservative administration that dreamed about friendly Georgia that could have been integrated to NATO and used to introduce the military block to previously totally alien geopolitical space, mainly dominated by modern Turkey, Iran and Russia. But resurrected from comprehensive political, economic, social and military crisis Kremlin stopped this ambitious project postponing the membership perspectives for the years. Currently, there has been a shift in approaching to the enlargement narrative and debate. Particularly, more and more voices were calling to introduce the so-called Black Sea region concept, meaning that seemingly resultless dialogue with regard to NATO on South Caucasus could have been replaced by NATO on the Black Sea. Obviously, South Caucasus have always been perceived as Russia’s zone of influence were Western European countries were not keen to interfere, oppositely to the Black Sea region where two NATO member states are already presented – Turkey and Bulgaria. Furthermore, additionally Ukraine and Georgia do represent significant allies and possible future military strongholds. 

But it seems that this rapprochement is unable to push forward NATO’s aspirations to gain a foothold in South Caucasus due to a few reasonings. The first of all, we should outline deconstruction of America’s worldwide hegemony and self-identity crisis taking place in Washington. Secondly, Turkey’s heavy involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh confrontation is yet another prove that Ankara pursues its own geopolitical goals, considering itself foremostly as a successor of Ottoman Empire and its great mission rather than the North-Atlantic alliance member. Thirdly, the Kremlin’s grip on the “near abroad”. Fourthly, unreadiness of both, Azerbaijan and Armenia, to witness introduction of a new actor to the region. And, finally, unwillingness of the Western European states, especially, Germany and France to engage to this absolute mass. Thus, we should not expect to see an appraisal on NATO; furthermore, without America’s and Turkey’s military and financial capabilities, the block is probably the weakest player on this chessboard, unable to contribute to regional security.

“Be prepared”

Georgia has been “prepared” for NATO membership at least for the last decade. It is widely known that Tbilisi perceives the military block as a milestone in securing its territorial integrity and sovereignty from Russian assaults. Furthermore, NATO became more than just a “defense shield”, membership is considered to be a threshold in the country’s democratic and institutional development; finally, a guarantee of restoration of territorial unity. Despite endless promises given by NATO representatives that Georgia will joint the alliance, there are fears among Georgian political elites that overstretched membership plan can lead to dissatisfaction among regular citizens; this, in turn, may cause re-orientation of Georgia’s foreign course. As a response, American analyst Luke Coffee and Anders Fog Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary-General resurrected the idea of the German precedent, meaning that the state can be integrated to the alliance amending article 5 on the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This approach, initially raised by Georgian actors in mid and late 90s, became widely popular among some American and Eastern European analysts but was highly criticized by Georgians as a recognition of territorial lost. So far, in the wake of a clear stagnation, recent statements by NATO Secretary-General was extremely necessary positive booster. But it is paradoxical that Nagorno-Karabakh confrontation actually proved once more that Georgia’s NATO dreams are unachievable.

Actually, to be grounded and realistic there are only three scenarios that can lead to Georgia’s NATO membership: 1) Gorbachev-Yeltsin model, meaning regime change in Moscow and re-iteration of Gorbachev-Yeltsin era when Russia was unwilling as well as too weak to counter the West; 2) the Turkish model, repeating scenario when Ankara was invited to the military block due to fears of the so-called communist or Soviet threat; and finally, 3) in the case of a war between the West and Russia. Yet it seems that neither of these events are going to happen in the nearer future, what makes Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations very long-term objective. Furthermore, the whole Georgian idea of being a NATO member was and still is to finally end the wars and not to engage to yet another one. Thus, the best option is to wait until some positive changes will take place in the Kremlin.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

Tagged : / / / / / / /

Scapegoating Russia

For the West, Russia is the best candidate to criticize and blame for all its woes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article was originally published by Russia Direct.

Tagged : / / / / / / / /
RussiaUSAGeorgia