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, 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.

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The problem with Georgia’s political brand


Georgian security officers might have been complicit in the abduction of Afgan Muktarli, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist, which took place on May 29th in Tbilisi. Later on, Mukhtarli was found in a Baku detention facility. Local opposition and non-governmental organisations argue that the country is retreating from its democratic path and that the ruling Georgian Dream is supporting the regime in Baku.

This event, just like the 2008 August War, the recent clashes during an anti-homophobia rally and various other events, reflects the existence of two parallel Georgias: Georgia as a political brand, created by the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, and Georgia as a political actor of international relations which has to maneuver in the global and regional political environment. The brand is slowly being dismantled, as the country is increasingly failing to hide the real political processes underway within its borders. This in turn, has led to a painful disillusionment on the part of the local population.

Georgia’s political brand

Mikhail Saakashvili’s time in office was full of hope, reforms, achievements and, of course, misdeeds. Whether or not one positively assesses his two terms, it is clear that he was a well-educated politician and a brilliant PR campaigner. While in power he started building a new political brand of the country, which evolved over the years, reflecting the attitudes of the governing elite. The more Saakashvili’s political team was falling into authoritarianism, the weaker the brand was becoming. By the end of the Rose Revolution government’s time in office, when a new political grouping – the Georgian Dream coalition, defeated the president’s party in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, the brand began to lose its appeal.  

There are several reasons for this loss. First, the brand was based on the perception that the country is a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus surrounded by close friends and strategic allies (Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and oppressed by its northern neighbour, the Russian Federation. Moreover, it was meant to be protected by the red line that Russia supposedly could not cross, drawn by the former US president George W. Bush. Second, Saakashvili managed not only to build a well-structured political brand but also to persuade the majority of local actors that it reflects the reality. In practice, however, this was only an illusion used by the Georgian elite, both governmental and non-governmental, to keep society misinformed and to attract foreign political and financial resources.

What has been beneath the perception is a harsh political, social and economic reality where Georgia is a relatively democratic state in a very complex environment and a geopolitically sensitive region. All the neighbouring countries are falling into authoritarianism, often trying to further their own national interests with the help of Tbilisi. Finally, in their actions, the ruling elite has to take into consideration the existing regional tendencies and political climate. Georgia, as a political actor, does not possess any significant political, economic or military power and, so far, is highly dependent on its Western strategic allies, especially the US.

The harsh reality

Despite the well-organised and structured nature of Georgia’s political brand, the country is unable to hide the political processes taking place on the ground. The harsh reality often resurfaces and causes sincere astonishment and uproar. Probably the most painful disillusionment came when society realised that there have been no red lines in the South Caucasus and that Russia is capable of crossing any border. George W. Bush’s statement was just a part of his PR campaign in the wake of the growing dissatisfaction of American electorate with his presidency.

The 2008 August War reflected Tbilisi’s deep vulnerability to Russian military force. It also painfully showed that NATO’s was unable to provide support that Georgians had hoped for, that is military units on the ground fighting along Tbilisi against the aggressor. Furthermore, the recognition of Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by Moscow once again proved that the country has been as vulnerable as ever. Georgia might be politically and morally supported by the West, but it is still defenceless in the face of military and other challenges that global and regional processes may unleash.

Finally, Georgia’s allegedly established democracy is a myth. After coming to power, the pro-Western post-revolutionary government assured its strategic partners that it would put the country on a democratic track. The Western allies (especially, the US under George W. Bush) immediately began to praise Tbilisi’s democratic transition. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations were working hard to create the image of Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus.

Yet, a peaceful meeting of the LGBT community in the capital on May 17th 2013 to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia turned into a violent confrontation. Thousands of conservative ultra-Orthodox demonstrators broke through police cordons, clashing with gay rights activists. Georgia’s civil society reacted by gathering signatures under a petition calling the government to punish religious figures involved in the incident. But the newly elected Georgian Dream Coalition turned a blind eye, which showed that while the country may be democratic in comparison with its neighborhood, it is still far from the type of democracy it aspires to be.

Allies and enemies

The political dichotomy of Georgia’s allies and enemies built by Saakashvili is slowly vanishing too. In this scenario, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are presented as the country’s close allies and strategic partners, while Russia as the only threat to Tbilisi’s sovereignty, democracy and institutional stability. In reality, however, the dichotomy reflects rather the political correctness of Georgia’s elite and their attempts to avoid further escalation of the political situation in the region. The state is surrounded by authoritarian regimes that are trying to use Tbilisi to further their own national interests.

Istanbul, for instance, is pushing its neighbour to close all schools and organisations connected to the exiled Turkish politician, Fethullah Gülen. Following Turkey’s request, the Georgian government detained the manager of the private Turkish Demirel College. Moreover, at Turkey’s request, the authorities halted discussions in the Georgian parliament on making Didgoroba – the  celebration of the 1121th anniversary of the victory of the Kingdom of Georgia over the Great Seljuk Empire, a public holiday. According to official sources, the Embassy of Turkey in Georgia asked that the parliament stops the proceedings over the legislative proposal because the day marks a great defeat for Turks.

The case of Afgan Mukhtarli’s, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist who was abducted by members of Georgian and Azerbaijani security forces and sent to a detention facility in Baku, is another great example of Tbilisi’s vulnerability. Human rights activists argue that the Georgian government collaborated with Azerbaijan due to the pressure from SOCAR gas and oil company. It is not a secret that Saakashvili’s early attempts to free the country from Russia’s Gazprom leverage led to a dramatic dependence on Azerbaijan’s energy resources.

Finally, Armenia with its Russian military base located in Gyumri, constitutes another veritable Damocles’ sword hanging over Tbilisi.

All in all, while Georgia needs a brand that would help to promote its national interests, the local elite should not get deluded. The country is on the path to democracy, but one that is still far from the Western definition. Moreover, the situation in the region is fragile and Tbilisi must realise that an existing dichotomy of allies and enemies is no longer relevant. The neighbouring countries will continue to put pressure on Georgia to defend their authoritarian ends. This becomes clear, when the brand faces a reality check.

The article was originally published by New Easten Europe.

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