Georgia’s ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy

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

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

A brief history

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

The effect of elections

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

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

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

Tagged : / / / / / / / / /

The Russian factor in Georgia-Ukraine relations

After a brief period in which both Ukraine and Georgia appeared to be united against Russia, it now appears that the two nations are moving along very different paths.

In October, Georgia didn’t support any of Ukraine’s resolutions denouncing the Kremlin’s foreign policy within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). That is surprising, given how many analysts had by now assumed that Georgia and Ukraine were on the same page when it came to Russia.

The two resolutions deal with “the political implications of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine” and human rights abuses “on the occupied Ukrainian territories.” By supporting them, PACE recognized the military conflict in Ukraine as “Russian aggression” for the first time and called on the Kremlin to withdraw its forces from the eastern part of Ukraine. Moreover, it denounced the parliamentary elections, recently conducted by Russia in Crimea.

When the Georgian delegation in PACE didn’t support these resolutions, the nation’s pro-Western parties reacted strongly. For example, the United National Movement lambasted the Georgian government and accused the country’s former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of supporting Russia. Moreover, Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president and now the governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine, described such a stance as a “disgraceful” move.

However, an immediate response came from one of the members of the Georgian delegation in PACE, Eka Beselia. She retorted that Tbilisi needed to defend its own national interests. Even though this statement seems to have alleviated the increasing conflict, the video of Russian-Ukrainian journalist Matwey Ganapolsky, who accuses Georgia of betraying Ukraine in favor of Russia, fuelled the tensions. In contrast, Russian pundits see the unwillingness of Georgia to vote for the PACE resolution as a sign of improvement in Tbilisi-Moscow relations.

In reality, the reluctance of the Georgian Dream, the ruling party in Georgia, to approve these resolutions is just the logical conclusion of complicated relations with Kiev. Since the start of the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space, Georgia and Ukraine were largely in the same boat.

After the success of the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi and the Orange Revolution in Kiev, the newly elected governments were closely connected with each other and teamed up against Russia. This resulted from friendly relations between Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko and former president Viktor Yushchenko on the one hand, and Georgia’s Saakashvili on the other hand.

However, their relationship was rather pragmatic in its nature, although officially Tbilisi recognized Ukraine as one of its closest allies. Since 2007 the democratic processes in the two countries have started moving in a reverse direction. Saakashvili’s penchant for conducting an aggressive policy as well as his authoritarian inclinations was increasing, while Ukraine faced the corruption and the political rivalry between Timoshenko and Yushchenko.

The more impact this had on the countries’ stability and development, the more obvious became the fact that the ruling elites from both sides did not support democratic reforms, but only the regimes that were friendly to them. Thus, Georgian-Ukrainian relations could be seen as a form of cooperation between governments, not between the people.        

And this trend became relevant until the 2010 presidential elections, when Georgia’s civil society and population called on the government to support democratic processes and regime change in its “brother” country. From then on, Georgia has been shying away from supporting the political regime in Ukraine and focusing more on the support of the country’s own population.

However, Ukraine refused to consider such tactics, with its official representatives criticizing the Georgian Dream coalition for supporting Russia during the 2012 parliamentary elections. Moreover, Kiev cooperated with Georgia’s United National Movement, which was openly accused of building an authoritarian regime and egregious human rights abuses.

Logically, the new Georgian government under Ivanishvili cannot help paying attention to this fact. But it was relatively reticent and didn’t respond, even when Georgian volunteers came to fight in Eastern Ukraine to support Kiev and accused Tbilisi of supporting Russia. That had some implications for the Georgian Dream: It was seen as a political force that is capable of defending the country’s national interests.

Moreover, Georgian voters also saw the fact that Saakashvili was appointed as the governor of the Odessa region as an unfriendly move from Ukraine, as a slap in the face, because the former Georgian president was legally prosecuted in his home country, which meant that Ivanishvili couldn’t fulfill his pledges and restore justice [During the election campaign he promised to put Saakashvili in jail for corruption and the abuse of power — Editor’s note]. The problem was exacerbated when Kiev granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship, which made it impossible to imprison the former Georgian president.

Saakashvili crossed the red line during the latest parliamentary elections in Georgia during the campaign. First, his colleagues from the United National Movement visited Ukraine. Second, he openly called for a coup d’état against the Georgian government, which he sees as pro-Russian. In fact, he threatened to conduct a new revolution in Georgia. This was the last straw for the Georgian Dream.

It is safe to say that the current Georgian political elites started seeing Ukraine as a real headache and the shelter for dubious and controversial Georgian politicians from the United National Movement accused of different wrongdoings and legal violations.

However, with the victory of the Georgian Dream in the 2016 parliamentary elections, a lot has changed. Moreover, the odds of the party of winning the constitutional majority are really high. It means that the influence of the party is growing in the Georgian parliament and even more could change.

As a result, the government won’t necessarily have to take into account the views of other political forces to take decisions. It can be pretty outspoken now that it won’t put up with anti-government moves and initiatives like the ones promoted by Saakashvili. Moreover, the Georgian voters, who are seeking to have those involved in the violations during Saakashvili’s tenure prosecuted. So, in this regard, the electorate supports the Georgian Dream.

Thus, all this indicates that Georgian-Ukrainian relations have always been more complex and nuanced than they seemed to be at first glance.  During Saakashvili’s tenure, there was cooperation between his government and the ones of Timoshenko and Yushchenko. However, eventually, Tbilisi shifted its priority from supporting top political officials to supporting society and people.

Ukrainian politicians should keep in mind that the Russian factor is not the only one that determines the Ukrainian-Georgian agenda. Providing shelter to Saakashvili also does matter. So, to improve the relations with Tbilisi, Kiev should take into account its national interest and support the Georgian people instead of the country’s politicians.

The article was originally published by Russia Direct.

Tagged : / / / /
RussiaUSAGeorgia