“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’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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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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Empathy Lessons: Why Donald Trump’s Presidency is Good for U.S.-Russia Relations

Trump’s presidency might teach Americans a good lesson: They will understand what Russia felt during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s. Trump for the U.S. is an American version of Yeltsin, who put Washington in an awkward position before the world.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 American elections “will have consequences” and Washington will undertake new measures “in response to Russian cyberattacks,” said The White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders during the Feb. 20 press briefing. U.S. President Donald Trump “has been tougher on Russia” than his predecessor Barack Obama, she added. Her statement came after Special Council Robert Mueller accused 13 Russians of meddling in the U.S. presidential elections within the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing Russia probe.

“It’s very clear that Russia meddled in the election.  It’s also very clear that it didn’t have an impact on the election.  And it’s also very clear that the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russians in any way for this process to take place,” highlighted Sanders.

Indeed, unlike Obama, Trump conducted a tougher policy toward Russia despite his intentions to normalize the relations with Moscow. Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladinmir Putin succeeded in establishing personal chemistry during the G20 summit last summer, but it didn’t help.

“He [Trump] helped push through $700 billion to rebuild our military <…> He has helped export energy to Eastern Europe <…> He has put and upheld sanctions that the Obama administration put in place. He has upheld those. He has closed three diplomatic properties that were Russia’s, here in the United States. He has taken a number of actions against Russia and put pressure on them,” said Sanders.

Ironically, Russia’s political elites were happy with Trump’s victory at the presidential race, because they believed that the billionaire would be more pragmatic with Russia that his counterpart from the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton. Trump repeatedly called for a dialogue with the Kremlin and expressed a lot of kudos to President Putin during the presidential campaign and after it, when he moved to the White House.

No wonder, his victory was met with a big surprise and indignation by the American establishment. Trump is still facing the accusations of colluding with the Kremlin, with both democrats and republicans pointing fingers at Russian hackers, who are to be blame for having hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers.

Although the question of the “hidden Russian hand” is far from being resolved, the fact that Trump, a non-systemic politician, won presidency may teach Americans a very important lesson.

Trump’s America vs. Yeltsin’s Russia

In 2003 well-known American diplomat Strobe Talbott, a former deputy State Secretary (1994-2001), released a book titled The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy. In this work, he remembers the times of the warm relations between former U.S. President and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin. However, he pays little attention to the Russian perception of the Clinton-Yeltsin friendship.

While American political establishment saw Yeltsin and his team as a positive force, which tried to build democracy in Russia, the Russian political elites and electorate were skeptical about him. They keep viewing him as a failure and don’t approve his pro-Western reforms. 56 percent of Russians believe that the Yeltsin era brought to Russia more problems, but in December 2000, 75 percent of respondents negatively assessed his presidency, according to a 2016 Levada center poll. Only 11 percent of Russians welcome the 1990s liberal reforms in Russia, with 58 percent denouncing them.

Today journalists also write about the Putin-Trump friendship, and the rankings of the American president are also low in the U.S. As a result of the first year of his tenure, his popularity is decreasing, according to recent polls. He has the lowest approval rankings in the U.S. modern history: Two-thirds of Americans believe that Trump’s presidency significantly divided the country, according to AP’s polls. He is supported by 35-37% of the U.S. population, according to the Gallup and CNN researches.

The similarities between the Trump era and the Yeltsin era go far beyond this. More broadly, today the positions of Moscow and Washington are changed: Previously, Russian political elites talked a lot about the U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, today the American establishment is obsessively concerned with the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the U.S. internal politics. In this situation, one should take into account several factors.

First, every country tries to influence the politics in other states, which are under the realm of its national interest. In this regard, neither Russia nor America can be the exception. Take the 1823 Monroe Doctrine: The U.S. announced both Americas as the continents under its influence. Washington referred to this document to justify its interference in the domestic affairs of those Latin American countries, which conducted unfriendly policy toward the U.S. It was a matter of defending U.S. national interests. And it is normal for Washington’s current policy.

Second, the alleged attempts of the Russian hackers to get into the American servers are not new: there are suspicions that American and Chinese IT specialists also do the hacking.  Even if Russians indeed hacked the U.S. electoral system, this interference could hardly have any impact on the results of the elections.

And this factor does matter, because the key difference between Yeltsin’s Russia and Trump’s America is clear: The Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. internal politics is not yet proven, while Washington’s interference in Russia’s 1996 presidential election is a matter of fact.

After the failure to implement effective economic reforms and the military defeat in the first Chechen war, Yeltsin approval rankings plummeted below 10% in February 1995. He was about to fail the presidential elections, while the communists were taking the lead: their party won 22 percent of votes as a result of the Dec. 17 parliamentary election in 1995, with the Yeltsin-led party having garnered no more than 10 percent. Thanks to Russian business and American spin-doctors, Yeltsin won the presidency for the second time, as Times wrote.

Bitter pill

Yeltsin’s presidency was not easy for Russia. Everybody ridiculed the country at that time. Today everyone mocks the United States because of Trump: his presidency is a big embarrassment for America. And this feeling is aggravated, because Moscow laughs at Washington and its ongoing Russia probe. The fact that Moscow overtly expressed its pleasure over Trump’s election fuels the anger within the American establishment, which develops fertile soil for new McCarthyism or another Witch Hunt: The American political elites are feeling their vulnerability and the lack of confidence [in the 1950s the U.S. went through the era of spying mania, with communists or those who allegedly had links with them having been prosecuted — Rethinking Russia].

Yet even though Trump is a nightmare for a liberal America, his presidency could be a bitter, yet healing pill, that allows Washington to put itself in Russia’s shoes in order to understand it and the origins of anti-Americanism in the country. Who knows, but in the long-term this will be good for U.S.-Russia relations. It remains to be seen.

The article was originally published by Rethinking Russia.

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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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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.

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