Conflict Management in Georgia: Georgian vs. Russian Narratives

On August 13, 2017 a prominent Russian scientist on post-Soviet issues, Sergey Markedonov participated in a radio show, Geopolitical Cuisine, with Igor Shatrov aired by MediaMetrics Radio, dealing with the August 2008 War. During the broadcast both, Shatrov and Markedonov raised some very interesting and significant issues that were presented in scopes of Russian political agenda. We will try to balance the analysis and offer a Georgian narrative.

Three topics can be identified: a) a debate on the possible transformation of Georgia’s political system into a federal or confederal model; b) allegations of treaty violations; and c) assumptions of unchanged Georgian society and unanimity regarding the August 2008 War in general.

Federalism and Confederation

Since the beginning of the conflicts, Russian diplomats actively promoted an idea of ‘Georgian Federation’ or a possible confederation that could have included Georgia, Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This approach was especially prevalent in the late 90s and early 2000. Even nowadays, Russian experts and scholars argue that Tbilisi should have chosen these options to deal with separatism. during the radio broadcast, Igor Shatrov argued that Georgia was historically a multi-national union and its government should have reflected this background in the country’s political architecture. Additionally, some comparisons were made between Russia and Georgia.

While these arguments may look attractive they do not show the whole picture. The topic of possible formation of federal or confederal union has two challenges.

The first of these challenges are the associated, security issues. As prominent Georgian expert, Mamuka Areshidze argues, Georgia might think about the confederal model but it is crucial to ensure that respective regulations are set in place to avoid unrecognized regions getting away from the metropolis with international approval. Moreover, there is a strong belief among various local actors that Kremlin’s final aspiration is to dominate over Georgia as a whole rather than its secessionist regions. So far, the federal or confederal models can be used by Moscow to undermine their neighbor’s sovereignty and influence Tbilisi via a pro-Russian agenda in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.

Secondly, Georgia was never a multi-national kingdom or state as, for example, Canada or even Russia itself was and still is. So far, a comparison between Russia’s federal political model and Tbilisi is probably a stretch. Undoubtedly, the state has a history of cohabitation of various ethnical groups. Even though Georgia is a home for approximately ten ethnic groups, they represent only 14% of the whole population. Moreover, while the case of Abkhazia is complicated and Mikhail Saakashvili, former president of Georgia (2004­–2013), even offered to recognize Abkhazian as a second state language, the situation in so called South Ossetia is another case. Ossetians that are residents of Tskhinvali region settled there only in XIX–XX centuries and they arguably never reflected a multi-national nature of Georgia. Lastly, the comparison between Moscow and Tbilisi is a nonsensical due simply to the historical background.

Treaty Violations

Representatives of Georgia’s separatist regions and the Kremlin frequently blame Tbilisi for attempts to undermine the so-called Sochi Agreement, a ceasefire agreement that marked the end of Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. This document was signed in Sochi on June 24, 1992 between Georgia and Russia, the ceasefire with Abkhazia was marked on July 27, 1993.

And while this is factually accurate, we should bear in mind that political realities have changed and they must be reflected; the principle that Kremlin is promoting globally. For example, Vladimir Putin frequently argues that the current political order does not represent the redistribution of powers in global politics. Particularly, it is outdated due to the fact that America is still seen as an undisputed political force while the highly increasing role of such countries as Russian Federation, China, India and Brazil is simply overseen. Furthermore, Moscow has already re-negotiated more or less every significant document that was signed during Boris Yeltsin’s governance when the country was politically and economically non-competitive. The same story is applicable to Georgia. The Sochi Agreement was negotiated and signed when Tbilisi was unable not only to handle the separatist regions but even such simple and fundamental tasks such as budget management. However, since then, Tbilisi has made a giant step toward political, economic and social stability and prosperity. Hence, it is logical and is totally suitable to the framework offered by Moscow that Georgia was and is determined to re-settle some aspects of the agreement and balance it according to national interests.

All in all, Russian scholars and experts should decide whether their ‘reality-match’ approach to legal documents is universal, generalizable, or unique, meaning that it is only applicable to big countries, and small states must get used to doing what they can.

2008 August War

One more issue was raised during the broadcasting. Igor Shatrov argued that after the events of the 90s, the residents of the so-called South Ossetia thought that Georgia had changed as a result of democratic reforms. But, the August 2008 War led to a dramatic disillusionment when they realized that Georgian society remained the same.

This assumption is most likely inaccurate due to two facts: a) Georgian society tends to openly recognize its misdeeds; and b) the latest military confrontation was probably more avoidable than that of the 90s.

Of course, Georgia is far away from the Western style democracy but local society is slowly changing and clearly moving forward. As opposite to residents of the separatist regions Georgian society came to a state of condition in which it is capable of re-assessing political decisions and recognizing its share of blame in the conflicts. It has just realized that in order to clap you need two hands; a harsh reality that people in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are unwilling to take into account.

Secondly, the August 2008 War was probably more predictable and avoidable than those of the 90s. It is rarely mentioned that after political unrests in November 2007 and a questionable outcome of early presidential elections of January 2008, Georgian opposition openly warned about possible military campaign that Saakashvili’s government could have conducted to consolidate political power and increase electoral support. The same statement was made by former ambassador of Georgia to Russian Federation, Erosi Kitsmarishvili. in his memoirs, he stated that Saakashvili had aspiration to solve the Abkhazian issue with a military blitzkrieg (something, that Saakashvili and members of his government called a complete lie). Unfortunately, Matthew Bryza, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, assured the George W. Bush administration that these allegations were unfounded. Consequently, the state’s strategic partners that were capable of restraining Saakashvili and making some serious preventive steps were surprised when military confrontation unfolded (it should be mentioned that some Georgian and Russian experts argue that Bush’s administration was aware of Saakashvili’s plans and even supported him). At this point, there was no unanimity between the government and Georgian society that, we may argue, was in place during 90s.

By and large, Russian experts and scholars frequently blame the West for not taking into account Russia’s national interests. They argue that both, US and EU, must realize that Kremlin has its own political agenda and that Vladimir Putin’s government will follow and protect it by all means. Unfortunately, the same people rarely apply the same standards to Georgia and its national interests. And as soon as this is done, Georgian and Russian officials will undoubtedly find a common ground for mutually beneficial political agreements.

The blog article was initially published by RIAC.

Tagged : / / / / / / / / /

The Kvirikashvili Initiative & Georgia’s Overblown Sense of Political Self-Importance

On March 9, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on the Russian Federation to initiate constructive dialogue. Moreover, he expressed readiness to start direct talks with representatives of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This initiative was a response of the local government to an incident involving Georgian citizen and former military staff member Archil Tatunashvili, who was arrested on February 22 by so-called South Ossetian KGB agents and transferred to Tskhinvali. He later died in the city hospital in dubious circumstances, supposedly “from a heart attack.”

Kvirikashvili’s statement had a double-effect. On the one hand, some praised it as a politically balanced and well-thought out decision while others, including the country’s leading oppositional forces, considered the call a total capitulation to the separatist forces and the Kremlin. Some even argued that the government is pursuing more of a retreat-approach than a cooperation-policy. Finally, there were allegations that direct talks with the separatist regions may lead to their international recognition and legitimization.

It is doubtless complicated to foresee the implications of the initiative in general, but the critical reactions from various actors once more prove that some members of local political, civil society and academic elites are unaware of the situation on the ground in terms of the Georgian-Russian confrontation. The critiques seem to be more political-ideological than a result of serious political analysis.

The Georgian-Russian Confrontation

First, we need to bear in mind that there is no Georgian-Russian confrontation. Mikhail Saakashvili’s grand goal was to involve the West in these inter-state relations, it being a significant political, economic and military power, in order to counter Moscow. He managed to do so and it is no secret that the so-called August 2008 War was and is still considered by Georgia’s strategic allies and the Kremlin as a confrontation between the West and the Russian Federation. Nowadays, Georgian-Russian relations are no longer considered only in the scopes of West-Russia affairs; but issues dealing with separatist regions and the unilateral recognition of statehoods of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia still fall under the West-Russia confrontation paradigm. This paradigm restrains Georgia as a political player, and its capabilities are miserable; pressed from all sides by actors whose ambitions and interests go far beyond Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Russian confrontation issues.

As yet, it is pretty questionable as to whether we can demand from Kvirikashvili’s government a “proper” reaction to the significant misdeeds done by representatives of the separatist regions and/or Moscow; questionable because Georgian officials are put simply, strangled on the ground to such extent they can be considered more as observers than members of a fully-recognized political actor. We can argue that the negative assessment of the initiative from the main local political opposition forces is merely a PR campaign, but what seems most disturbing is the inadequate reaction from civil society and academic staff members, who called for the taking of “respective measures;” this being more a reflection of lack of awareness and, of course, a perfect example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.

Modern Georgia does not possess the respective political, economic or military mechanisms to influence either the West nor the East (Russian Federation) or even the separatist regions. Generally, the game is on totally another level and the only thing that local government can do is to try and keep the existing status-quo.

The West-East Confrontation

Political processes that are in place in the separatist regions of Georgia and Ukraine (including military confrontation in the Eastern part) are crucial for the West, especially for the American establishment. This importance is due to the effect they have on the existing global political order; the fate of the international system depends on the outcomes of these processes.

It is no secret that the global world order established after the Cold War by the West is under serious assault. The Russian Federation, China, India, Brazil are countries already making significant steps to put forward their own national interests that erode the post-Cold War system and threaten its integrity and stability; furthermore, the states are working hard to finally balance America’s political, economic and military power on an international level. Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia as independent states, as well as the annexation of Crimea, are important parts of this erosion process. Moscow is trying to break crucial laws of the system established by the West and prove that it can unilaterally decide and handle global political tasks itself. In Georgia’s case, these topics deal with such fundamental principles as sovereignty and territorial integrity.

One of the main pillars of the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the undisputed nature of member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. An exception can be made if there is a consolidated decision inside a society supported by international law and with approval from the West. The Kremlin broke this sacred formula and without “approval,” crafted two new “sovereign” subjects of the international system. For the US and its allies, this is very dangerous precedent that may firmly lead to the rise of a new wave of separatism in general. But, most significant, this is an open appraisal against the system and the rules set by the West, and if Russia succeeds, the global world order’s stability and integrity will be broken and will start to unravel. Ultimately, the West will lose its privileged position and US its status of the world’s “sheriff.” The American political establishment is aware of the apocalyptic picture and will do its best to avoid this undesirable scenario.

Hence, Kvirikashvili’s initiate to start direct talks with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia will definitely not lead to recognition of the unrecognized regimes by the West and international society as a whole. This is simply impossible because the issue is not about Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity anymore; it is already about the stability of the system. And Georgia’s strategic partners will not provide us with respective triggers to make decisions that may somehow initiate dramatic developments. The West will not recognize either Abkhazia, or the so-called South Ossetia while the processes on the ground are kept out of the scopes of international law; something that will never be good for the Kremlin. At present, it matters not whether the Georgian government will have a direct or indirect dialogue with Sukhumi and/or Tskhinvali. This is another example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.

The Kvirikashvili Initiative

Basing on the judgements given above, it is questionable whether we can accuse Giorgi Kvirikashvili of treason and/or concessions. We may argue that the Georgian government is using all accessible means to handle the conflict. Moreover, it once more proclaimed readiness for open dialogue and, according to the same Western standards, showed political maturity. Kvirikashvili has opted for a pragmatic and balanced policy based on careful analysis of the power balance on the ground. By making a reserved statement, despite the painful incident with Archil Tatunashili’s death, Georgia gained the so-called ‘moral superiority’ over governments of the separatist regions and Moscow, too. Tbilisi proved that it is still the only constructive political actor in the conflict.

With regards to statements made by the United National Movement and Movement for Liberty, we should keep in mind that these oppositional parties are built around the Russian narrative. Radical opposition to Moscow is the only thing that makes them different from other pro-Western groups. Thus, they cannot go beyond this ideological platform, beyond the “Russian framework”.

Georgia’s political, economic and military powers are miserable. Nowadays, Tbilisi lacks the mechanisms to influence processes in the conflicting regions at all. Moreover, the zone of Georgian-Russian confrontation is, in practice, a field of West vs Russia rivalry where the fate of the existing political order is being handled. So far, Georgia is more an observer than an actual political power. The only thing that local government should do is to cooperate with strategic partners, remind them about its national interests and hope for a better future; and, of course, to try to maintain the status-quo on the ground. The Kvirikashvili initiative perfectly reflects these realities and is an attempt to use all accessible means to bring stability and peace to civilians.

Tagged : / / / / / /

TSU 100 Years: Pride & Dissatisfaction

On February 8 Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (abbr. TSU or Tbilisi State University) marked its 100th anniversary under the patronage of UNESCO. The National Bank of Georgia even issued a collector coin in denomination of 5 GEL to mark the event. Georgia’s highest officials as well as prominent local and foreign figures praised Tbilisi State University for its history and contribution. On the other hand, some of the university’s current students and alumnus criticized the anniversary ceremony as a huge waste of money for an institution facing serious challenges. The negative backlash was so strong, especially in social media, that some representatives of TSU’s academic staff expressed their disappointment and confusion.

And while we should definitely celebrate the 100-year achievement, the criticism is not entirely baseless.

The Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, the first-ever national university in the Caucasus, was established on February 8, 1918. The university’s founding fathers were prominent Georgian scientists who had the aspiration to found a European-type higher school in Georgia, based on Georgian educational traditions. The Council of Professors appointed Petre Melikishvili, a Georgian chemist, as the first rector. Tbilisi State University has changed its official name two times: Comrade Stalin Tbilisi State University (from June 9, 1938 to June 7, 1989) and Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (from June 7, 1989 to present). Currently, TSU is the leading research university in the Caucasus.

Times Higher Education data shows that TSU is the only Georgian university to have been included in the TOP 1000 best universities in the world. In 2017 it was ranked as >800, in 2018 – 1001+. TSU’s full data is following (from 100): teaching score – 16.2%, research – 8.7%, citations – 2.7, industry income – 32.3, international outlook – 40.9.

According to QS World University Rankings, no Georgian university has ever been included in the TOP 959.

The beginning of the twentieth century was full of turbulent political events and it was an outstanding achievement for any country to be able to establish a university. So far, it has been a pleasure for Georgia to host the oldest academic/research institution in the Caucasian region. At the same time, it is important to ensure that not only history makes it special but also a strong academic profile and the capability to move the country’s science forward. And here is the main reason for the abovementioned backlash.

Let’s outline at least a few critical flaws of Tbilisi State University that are causing sincere confusion, anger and aggression from its current students and alumnus.

There is no doubt that Tbilisi State University is a leading institution in the Caucasus. Furthermore, it is the most respected and recognized research university abroad in the region. It attracts Georgia’s brightest minds and hosts plenty of foreign researchers working on various topics. All in all, graduating from TSU is a great honor for the representatives of each generation in the country. But, paradoxically, these facts are not reflected in its mostly low, according to statistics, academic profile. There are all necessary variables in place to make the university internationally competitive, but somehow it fails to do so. The question is raised as to why? We may openly argue that there are well-known internal systemic gaps that, unfortunately, some of TSU’s current students and graduates think are not respectively challenged by the university’s administration and academic staff for objective and, frequently, subjective/mercantile reasons.

Finances

TSU might be the best example of a research university without actual research. When we speak about “research” we mean coming in accordance with existing international standards. These standards have evolved over the years and currently, inevitably, demand respective financial resources to be allocated. Simply, you cannot conduct high-level academic projects if you do not have money to pay staff and undertake at least a minimum amount of so-called field works. But Tbilisi State University is out of money. It is a paradox that the leading research institution in the Caucasus does not have even scientific grant schemes to finance research projects. It is totally dependent on external support from, for example, the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation, SOROS Foundation Georgia, various embassies and other agencies. At present, we have a research university without the ability (or, maybe the willingness) to accumulate internal financial resources to support its postgraduate students (especially, PhD) and, thus, execute the institution’s highest goal – promoting science in the country. A research university without finances does not exist as well as, generally, science. As a result, students applying to Tbilisi State University hoping to become scientist-researchers are often disappointed.

Negligence

Students coming to TSU will be surprised not only to find that the university is actually out of money but also by existing attitudes among administration members and academic staff. These attitudes can be clearly defined as negligence. It is no secret that representatives of the university have serious issues with motivation to support and guide students. And this feeling only grows over years. By the end of studies, the only thing a TSU student is sure of is that neither the university nor his/her lecturers care about future perspectives of their alumnus. There is serious lack of understanding among them, especially academic staff, that students represent, first of all, the institution itself. We may argue that this is the reason behind the financial negligence, too. Tbilisi State University is trying hard to avoid investing in its own students and graduates. Probably, that is why TSU’s prominent alumnus were so angered by the fact that the university administration decided to pay more than 60,000 GEL to the Public Broadcaster for advertisement rather than finance student-oriented activities, especially in research areas.

Academic Staff

Probably the most sensitive and painful issue is related to TSU’s academic staff. In theory, these people should lecture and guide students, but in fact we often see the opposite. There is no sense among TSU’s students that their lecturers really care. Moreover, once you face the challenge of writing a Master’s paper, you realize that there is pretty low motivation among academic staff members to supervise and guide you. This is even more evident if you apply for a PhD program. Once you are enrolled, you might find that your supervisor is often keep exceedingly busy by activities that have nothing to do with university or science at all. The lion’s share of TSU’s academic staff members are also active members or even founders of other research institutions, NGOs and movements. Working at TSU is not a full-time job for them but rather a source of secured minimum financial income and high social status.

All in all, it is a significant achievement to have a century-old university that is highly praised by the international academic society. But TSU in practice does not satisfy the international standards to be a globally competitive research institution. Moreover, it does not generally provide its own students and graduates with respective financial and academic support. These challenges must be faced and dealt with to ensure that history is not the only thing that we can be proud of with regards to Tbilisi State University.

Tagged : / /
RussiaUSAGeorgia