Georgia, NATO and South Caucasus

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

Dream’s on South Caucasus

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

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

“Be prepared”

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

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

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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The Elite Supper

On September 9-10, the Washington-based the McCain Institute (MCI) and the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC) held the 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference titled “Now What?”. It would have been another international happening in the capital city of Georgia, where local and international experts exchange “wishes,” if it had not erupted in scandal when a member of the oppositional party, Alliance of Patriots Ms. Irma Inashvili, currently deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament, expressed her dissatisfaction at the fact that organizers invited representatives of all parliamentary parties as speakers except her. She further criticized the event for lacking real debates, a diversity of voices and called it a “platform for members of the former criminal regime,” the United National Movement and European Georgia, to restore their damaged political prestige with the help of friendly-oriented American political groups represented by former US officials David Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at MCI, Matthew Bryza, board member of the Jamestown Foundation, and Michael Carpenter, the Atlantic Council’s Senior Fellow.

Undoubtedly, Ms. Inashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and provocative behavior is not the way political protest should be expressed but there are some strong arguments in favor of her statements. Unfortunately, such international happenings actually have transformed into “closed group” meetings or, as we can argue, an elite supper – where “friends” and “allies” discuss local and international developments without being interrupted by external actors; moreover, the same people debate the same issues with the same outcomes all over again not offering new ideas or critical thinking at all.

Now What? Nothing…

The 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference that took place in Tbilisi is not the only platform designed to promote discussions and, generally, raise sensitive issues among various officials, scholars and experts. There is also the well-known South Caucasus Security Forum that takes a look at security challenges in the Black Sea region. But in both and other cases, the main obstacle is not to bring respective people to panels but rather to provoke really fruitful debates. It cannot be done through highly politically correct statements and speeches, where NATO-EU integration is considered as inevitable and representatives of Russia are not invited at all; furthermore, basic aspects of international relations abandoned and panelists arguing that the Kremlin has nothing to do with the Black Sea region or global politics, that members of the Alliance do not grant Tbilisi the so-called MAP because of a lack of democracy and not threats from Moscow. Such detachment from real global politics makes these events, on the one hand useful in the sense of re-iteration of support from Georgia’s strategic partners but, on the other hand, absolutely useless from the standpoint of establishing the country as a serious well-respected regional discussion platform rather than a concentration of bravado speeches.

There is also one issue that does not let these conferences evolve: the extremely small group of states and professionals invited. Unfortunately, organizers rarely take the care to consider participants and panelists; decisions are made basing on “politically correct” and “fit to mainstream” approaches to avoid verbal confrontations and “unnecessary” statements. Thus, while discussing the Black Sea region, you may find that there are no representatives from such important countries as the Russian Federation or, in the South Caucasus case, not enough accent being made on Armenian, Turkish and Azerbaijanian scholars/experts; instead, we have professionals from European countries and the United States of America who sometimes have nothing to do with the region at all but merely have the right “message box” and, of course, can criticize Moscow without being challenged. At the end of the day, you have a small number of scholars/experts who attend these events on a regular basis with the same rhetoric, the same narratives and mainly matching standpoints to global affairs – the elite supper – where critical thinking and opposite views are not presented or even welcomed.

Kramer vs. Inashvili

Of course, we cannot avoid the direct verbal confrontation between David Kramer and Irma Inashvili. As said, Ms. Inashvili’s aggressive and provocative behavior is not something that should be accepted by Georgian society, but Mr. Kramer’s response was even more damaging. He not only rudely confronted her, calling her to leave the event, but also in the same manner behaved with Georgian journalists; furthermore, after leaving the country he wrote an extensive op-ed article for the Washington Post arguing that “friends” of Georgia were and are now being attacked.

For representatives of the so-called liberal elites and their followers, these steps were considered as respective, but factually Mr. Kramer made a few very important mistakes. Firstly, he gave himself the right to lose nerve and engage in a verbal battle with Ms. Inashvili, who is currently deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament; by doing so, he showed disrespect to woman (very important for local society) and to a democratically elected Georgian parliament member. Mr. Kramer is an experienced diplomat and former high official who perfectly knows the so-called diplomatic protocol, which he undoubtedly broke. Secondly, Mr. Kramer showed the same level of disrespect to representatives of media that would not have been tolerated neither in the US nor in any more or less “civilized” country. And, finally, instead of trying to settle the misdeed, he wrote an aggressive article attempting to justify himself, knowing that the opposite side would not be able to counter his arguments.

Regular Georgian citizens thus witnessed the former American high official, “friend”, showing disrespect to woman, to a democratically elected parliament member and finally blaming modern Georgia for attacking allies; probably not the best way to represent your country and friendship.

Georgian Politics Explained

Nowadays, Georgian political, economic, social and military dimensions are in deep crisis, significantly caused not by the willingness or unwillingness of any particular government to act but, most importantly, due to a lack of new critical approaches and standpoints, generally, the non-existence of various critical schools of thoughts that can engage in debate and produce innovations. Georgian elites are stuck in old school views of the world, unable to overstep these concepts, with every single political actor offering the same political, socio-economic and military models of development with some extremely minor differences; those who do not fit into the mainstream and argue for opposite ideas (such as military neutrality, left-wing ideas) are by default considered retrograde elements, enemies and pro-Russian forces, despite the availability of evidence to the contrary. This critical situation is worsened by political crises of the West and Western institutions and the damage being done to the West-led post-Cold War global political order. As a result, Georgian elites fight each other using populism, labeling, insults, baseless allegations and various “friendly-oriented” groups from abroad to gain more votes and legitimize actions, while failing to offer anything innovative or realistic. Among such “old stories” are the NATO-EU integration and, of course, turbulent relations with the Russian Federation.

Dreams of NATO-EU

There is no mainstream political power in the country that does not reflect NATO integration and EU membership as key goals and merits of governance success. During the post-Rose Revolution regime of Mikheil Saakashvili and his political team United National Movement, every single reform served to these grand aspirations.

Initially, integration to these Western institutions had particular political, geopolitical and economic purposes but quickly transformed into an end in itself, an obsession of the Georgian elites that does not consider the changing political environment at all. Hence, these elites are pressed between harsh reality and created narratives, “wishful thinking”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message to Georgian society was pretty clear and direct when during her South Caucasus tour in 2018, she argued that there are no pre-requisites for NATO enlargement in the region. But unable and unwilling to face this harsh reality, Georgian mainstream elites are still using the “possibility” of integration in various set ups (the latest, without Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region under Article 5) as responses to continuously changing regional and global political environment. In this context, international events are frequently used by the groups to re-assure and calm Georgian society that the country will become a NATO member “very soon”. Such a scenario was used in 2018 when the same McCain Institute held a conference where retired US generals and other officials tried to overshadow the Chancellor’s messages with their own bold rhetoric and assurances.

By and large, Ms. Inashvili’s intervention at the 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference proved that the Georgian political culture is still in need of further development. On the other hand, it raised the issue of international conferences becoming a concentration of useless verbal bravado instead of being platforms for real debates on topics of global politics; furthermore, these events are enslaved by wrongful approaches when only politically correct and mainstream professionals are invited to avoid “unnecessary” debates and statements. The recent conference was also extremely harmful for the McCain Institute and, personally, for former American high official Mr. David Kramer, who broke diplomatic protocol and brought more harm than good to the Georgian-American friendship. Lastly, Georgia has no alternatives except to further push for NATO-EU membership but both local and international experts, scholars and officials must be sincere while discussing the challenges. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the political opposition have anything to offer Georgian society except elusive dreams of NATO and European Union.

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NATO’s “Small Talk”

On March 26, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Tbilisi and met high officials, including PM Giorgi Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili. During his “blitzkrieg” visit, Stoltenberg firmly re-iterated the Alliance’s official standpoint once again: Georgia will become a member of the military bloc and Russia has no rights or power to oppose it. Yet, according to mainstream media outlets, this time Secretary-General added “very soon,” wording that offered more concrete timing and raised hopes that the so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) will finally be granted to the small Caucasus country.

Unarguable, such high-level visits are extremely important to maintaining Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership and, generally, to keep spirits high on the ground. But Tbilisi has been hearing such promises of commitment on a regular basis for the last decade, with visits from NATO officials having become something of an annual tradition. We can easily argue that Jens Stoltenberg’s trip to Tbilisi was another example of NATO “small talk” without real outcomes for MAP issuance, but with more serious consequences for local society and its perception of the real ongoing processes in global politics.

NATO & Democracy

NATO has little to do with democracy. The Alliance is a military bloc based on ideology and with concrete geopolitical interests; in this case, democracy is just an additional advantage. These assumptions must be made clear when it comes issuing membership. It is obvious that, according to Western democratic standards, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are actually ready to satisfy such strong requirements; to say nothing of the 2008 period when Tbilisi and Kiev hoped to get MAP and had strong support from the US government. The promise given by the Bucharest Summit Declaration to open doors for these two states in the future was clearly the result of geopolitical calculations that dealt with strengthening the Eastern flank of the bloc and bringing NATO forces closer to the Russian border.

So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.

Russia, Rights & the Black Sea Region

Despite loud claims that Russia has no rights and no powers to oppose Georgia’s integration, it actually has. Moscow’s geopolitical interests stopped Tbilisi from getting MAP in 2008 and it is the only opinion that matters when it comes to the decision-making process. Putting aside political rhetoric, Russia does not need special rights to counter NATO’s policy on the Eastern flank. Every single political actor by default has the right to protect its own political, economic and social standpoints. Thus, the Kremlin has the right to defend its national interests without being granted “permission” from the West or any other actor. What actually matters is whether Russia also has the economic and military strength to back up any protest. Even though Moscow is no match for Washington in general, the state currently possesses enough accumulated power to counter the West, especially near its borders and geopolitically important life-space. Furthermore, the Russian policy of containing NATO enlargement is perceived as crucial by the majority of society; this is not constructed by Putin’s regime but a factual given. As such, the Kremlin will do its best not to let Tbilisi or Kiev be granted Alliance membership.

Whether officially noted or not, the highest and most influential political actors in the West are well-aware of Russia’s NATO fears; additionally, Georgia’s strategic partners understand that, historically, Moscow has always been keen to fight such threats by all means necessary. That is why they are not in a hurry to give a green light for the next stage of the military bloc enlargement. Even worse, NATO representatives are unsure whether bringing the organization to the Black Sea region will actually lead to more stability and prosperity or, by intervening in the so-called Russian “zone of interest,” instead lead to a direct or indirect military clash that will destabilize the whole post-Soviet space. Today, the West, and Western European states in particular, are not ready to be involved in such dramatic processes.

Negative effects of the NATO “small talk”

While looking at NATO’s annual “small talk” in Georgia, we need to raise another issue that deals with negative consequences. First, such harsh and provocative statements by high-rank officials create and maintain false expectations and perceptions of global political processes. Georgian society is being kept in a virtual reality where Russia allegedly has no rights and powers while Tbilisi’s NATO membership issue has been stretched over a decade due to unrealistic claims of a “lack of democracy.” Secondly, NATO has been transformed into a fixed idea, an obsession that clouds the judgement of local elites and regular citizens alike, while human resources are shifted from improving domestic challenges to the desperate effort to get that MAP. People have really started to believe that once in the military Alliance, democratic institutions will appear by default and the Russian threat will simply vanish. It’s a bitter pill that at the end of the day may lead to dramatic nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift, as happened with Turkey and its European integration dreams. Ad notam, that is why all main elitist INGOs and NGOs in Georgia tried hard to put the issue of foreign policy orientation into the new constitution. This is the third possible negative outcome of a short-sighted NATO policy.

By and large, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi is important for the country to feel the Alliance’s support. But it could have been even more positive if the organization’s high-officials had held back from giving false promises and “small talk” about granting MAP to Georgia; especially using the argument that Russia has nothing to do with NATO enlargement. These assumptions mislead local elites as well as society. Georgia has achieved a respectable enough level of democracy to appeal and to start slowly becoming an inherent part of the military bloc. But this aspiration will not be satisfied unless the Kremlin stops opposing it. Moscow does not need permission to defend its national interests; moreover, it has enough strength to do so. At the same time, NATO’s annual “small talk” has significant negative outcomes for Georgia. People are being kept in a bubble of falsehood where the basic laws of global politics are abandoned; secondly, the issue itself has become so politicized that it clouds the judgement of decision-makers on the ground who put more effort into becoming a NATO member than into building democratic institutions. And finally, the absence of real outcomes of Georgian-NATO cooperation may push for more nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift.

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Georgia’s North Macedonian Dream

On March 12, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the membership of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Prominent American politician and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright re-iterated NATO’s open-door policy and assured Georgia and Ukraine that they will become Alliance members once the two countries are ready. Earlier, on June 12, 2018, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia signed the so-called Prespa Agreement according to which the latter will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia while Greece will finally agree to support its long-standing aspirations of acquiring the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Currently, the Republic of North Macedonia is on its way to joining the military bloc. The latest happenings raised new hopes among the so-called pro-NATO groups in Georgia that their state is next on the list.

Meanwhile, there are serious doubts as to whether the offering of NATO membership to the Republic of North Macedonia is a real precedent for Georgia and Ukraine. These Eastern European states face far more serious challenges attached to global politics, geopolitics and confrontation between the West and the East. At present, it is unlikely the North Macedonian experience can be readily applied.

Names Matter

The name dispute is a long-standing confrontation with old roots. Macedonia is a historical region associated with Greece and Alexander the Great. Nowadays, ancient Macedonia approximately corresponds with the modern Greek region of Macedonia and has little to do with the Republic of North Macedonia. Athens blamed Skopje of trying to assign symbols and figures that were initially perceived as part of Greek culture. Furthermore, there were fears of irredentism. Millions of Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, and officials in Athens had concerns this might lead to some concepts of so-called United Macedonia threatening the territorial integrity of the state.

So far, the case of the Republic of North Macedonia is unique and inapplicable to Georgia and Ukraine due to its comparative simplicity. The only actor that opposed Macedonia joining NATO was Alliance member Greece. No global politics was involved. Furthermore, there was only one demand that Athens had for Skopje – to change its constitutional name. Generally speaking, the whole dispute surrounded the name of the state and the main challenge was to persuade local elites to negotiate and make a deal using a “win-win” approach. Former confronting sides belonged to so-called small actors that are more vulnerable to external pressure and influence.

The Georgia Case

Whether you perceive NATO as a military bloc, democracy promoter, hybrid organization or something else, it is obvious that modern Ukraine is not ready to join the club. This lack of readiness can be seen on every level of the state build-up. On the opposite side, there is Georgia, which has by all means managed to satisfy NATO requirements; Tbilisi does not need to be ready for Alliance membership because it already is. Thus, we need to abandon this frequently-used-by-various-Western-high officials argument and be clear about the real challenges, recognizing that they are much more complicated than Athens and Skopje.

Perhaps the biggest need is to acknowledge separatism and irredentism as actually-happened facts. Georgia has two separatist regions supported by its northern neighbor, the Russian Federation. Additionally, at least some actors in Tbilisi realize that, besides the Russian factor, there are also significant issues to deal with on the ground, especially when it comes to conflict in the Abkhazia region. An even more complicated situation is seen in Ukraine, where the Crimean Peninsula was integrated by the Kremlin into the state while self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk on the east receive military and financial support.

We also need to consider Moscow and its geopolitical agenda. Unlike Greece and Macedonia, Russia is a “great power”. Of course, it is no match for the USSR, US and/or China, but it still possesses enough accumulated military power, backed by a vast territory and natural resources, to promote national interests and counter any other global actor. The Kremlin perceives both Georgia and Ukraine as zones of influence, “living space” and “security belt” and so the integration of these two states into NATO is a direct threat to its fundamental interests. And there is no point presenting the Alliance as a Russia-friendly military bloc: the Kremlin will perceive it as a threat while NATO prospers and Russia is not a member.

Unfortunately for Tbilisi and Kiev, their separatist regions have become battlefields between the united West and the East, meaning Russia, China and all those actors that aspire to shake the existing global political order, with the US on top. This fact makes it even more complicated to solve disputes on the ground due to their transformation from local (especially in Georgia’s case) to global: global actors are involved, and their goals go far beyond simple conflict resolution.

The reasons outlined above are real challenges that Georgia and Ukraine experience on their way to NATO membership. And while on the ground, Alliance representatives may speak about an open-door policy, but factually these “doors” will be opened only verbally.

By and large, the so-called Macedonian precedent has nothing to do with NATO aspirations for Tbilisi and Kiev. The name dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia was comparatively simple, while Georgia and Ukraine face extremely serious challenges, including separatism, irredentism, the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda and, of course, war for the future of global politics.

Thus, Georgia will need to wait a while on the list. But it is highly important for these two countries to continue state building, whether with MAP or not; officials must finally understand and accept that the ongoing build-up is not for NATO but for the prosperity of the people on the ground.

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Georgia’s Culture of “Breakthrough” Celebrations

This year, Tbilisi celebrated the EU’s decision to pursue an “open-door” policy and give Georgian citizens the right to enter the Schengen zone without visa. The decision was highly praised by various political actors and proclaimed as a significant political victory for the post-Soviet state.

At the same time, some experts have doubts about the visa liberalization policy. Moreover, the notion of a “great victory” reminded many of a few similar stories that have been celebrated by local political elites as grand achievements that later turned out to be a part of political populism and simple exaggeration; an attempt to overshadow a domestic political, economic and/or social crisis.

From George W. Bush to the 2008 August War

There are three prominent cases that have been re-thought: George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia, the NATO Bucharest Summit and the 2008 August War.

For such a small country as Georgia, which at both the internal and external level significantly depend on support from strategic partners, it is a great honor to host high-ranking officials. The US President’s visit was the highest victory for Georgia, especially when taking into consideration the fact that this was the only time a US president had ever visited South Caucasia. George W. Bush gave a speech in the city center of Tbilisi on May 10, 2005 and proclaimed Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the region. Moreover, he argued that his administration had drawn a ‘red line’ over Caucasia, meaning that Russia should not try to intervene in the State’s affairs. Only, during the 2008 August War, Georgian society realized that the visit was more about PR rather than real politics. Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili used it to legitimize his government’s aggressive “zero tolerance” policy that led to power abuse and frequent cases of human rights violations that Bush’s administration mainly ignored. Bush himself considered the Tbilisi trip a political step to boost his political popularity at home by showing the “success story” of his foreign policy, which was under fire over the Afghanistan and Iraq operations. Finally, neither Saakashvili nor Bush thought about the impact the visit would have on Georgian-Russian relations. While the leaders of both countries were trying to solve internal issues, the Kremlin perceived it as a direct threat to national security. Moscow’s approach became even more offensive which, in combination with Bush’s Tbilisi “assurances” and Saakashvili’s hot-headed nature, led to the 2008 August War.

The NATO 2008 Bucharest Summit is probably the most interesting case. At the end of 90s, the second president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, knocked on NATO doors. Saakashvili’s pro-Western government took all measures to finally integrate Tbilisi into the military organization; it even conducted a state referendum to officially prove the devotion of local society to the goal. In 2008, due to extreme support from the Eastern European countries (Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) and the US administration, Georgia was never before as close to acquiring the so called MAP (The Membership Action Plan). But despite this unique political back-up, the attempt failed and instead of received MAP, representatives of NATO member states expressed merely a commitment to integrate Georgia and Ukraine once they meet the respective criteria. This commitment was proclaimed by Saakashvili’s government as another strategic victory while American and European officials praised Georgia’s democratic development. And, once again, only the August 2008 War made it clear that the decision was a huge blow to Bush administration’s foreign policy and a reflection of the Saakashvili government’s failure to gain support from leading Western European countries. Nowadays, it is frequently argued that the Bucharest decision was a political miscalculation of the West that gave a green light to Putin’s regime to stimulate the August 2008 War, rather than a victorious moment for Tbilisi.

Finally, we cannot avoid assessment of the August 2008 events themselves. This war is important not only from a political and geopolitical perspective, but also as a clear example of state propaganda. While Moscow tried hard to persuade the local electorate that this was a big victory for the Russian Federation, Tbilisi aggressively promoted the idea of exposing the Kremlin’s real face. In fact, both states lost. While Russia managed to restrain Georgia’s aspiration to become a NATO member, it created two practically internationally non-recognized self-proclaimed states totally dependent on Moscow’s political, financial and military donations. In turn, Saakashvili’s government, to undermine the catastrophic results of the conflict on the country’s political, economic and social dimensions, focused more on Russia’s international prestige. Tbilisi argued that it had managed to expose the evil nature of the Kremlin’s regime. As Russian scholar, Ivan Kurilla, perfectly noted, it is questionable whether Georgia exposed something but it is definitely unarguable that Saakashvili put his country in a position where neither the West nor liberal groups in Moscow were capable of blaming with total confidence the Russian government for the outbreak of the war. Hence, the game wasn’t worth playing.

All in all, each “breakthrough” analyzed above was presented by the Georgian government as a grand achievement to hide some concrete political misdeeds mainly connected to an inability or unwillingness to pursue a logical, politically calculated and balanced policy at home and on the international arena or were simply highly motivated political exaggeration.

What is wrong with Visa Liberalization?

There are lots of taboo topics in Georgia that will by default lead to an aggressive response from local conservatists (LGBT community rights) or liberals (NATO membership). The new issue that will probably cost the status of the pro-Russian movement is the visa liberalization. From March 28, Georgian citizens holding biometric passports are free to travel to the Schengen Zone without a visa for a period of 90 days within any 180-day period for purposes other than work. The EU’s political decision to open the door for Georgians was warmly received by pro-Western movements and democratic governments worldwide. Proponents of the Ukraine ‘Maidan’ used this precedent to motivate local society to continue on its existing political course while liberal elites opposing Putin’s regime in Moscow tried to attract more voters. The Georgian government, as usual, went all out to celebrate this “breakthrough”. European and Georgian officials and members of civil society are pretty confident that visa free movement will bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Only a minority of international and local experts express doubts and point to the questions this “open-door” policy raises.

One of those is whether the move will actually promote pro-Western attitudes and make more Georgians familiar with European culture? Receiving a Schengen Visa was a challenging task due to a lack of financial resources rather than the unwillingness of the local population to visit the EU. Moreover, it was never problematic to travel Europe in the scopes of various international forums, conferences, school exchanges or other activities that are well-organized and funded in Georgia. Lastly, in comparison to other areas like the USA or UK, the Schengen Zone was always perceived as the easiest to enter. So far, the move, in practice, should create new opportunities for those Georgian citizens who had issues with affordability and this is practically impossible to achieve due to the poor socio-economic situation. Georgian society experiences comparatively high levels of poverty and unemployment. Furthermore, local salaries are largely far below the European ones, added to which the country is witnessing probably the worst socio-economic crisis for the last decade. Unless improved, these factors will keep Georgian elites that never had problems with visiting EU “in” the European dream and representatives of financially less-prosperous groups “out”.

One more question that comes to mind is whether the visa free policy is about freedom of movement between Tbilisi and Brussels or is more about countering, as Georgian neoliberals actively argue, increasing pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments in the country today. It became a tendency after the collapse of the “Rose Revolution” government, to maintain an alarmistic approach regarding internal processes in the State. Former members of Saakashvili’s regime, then representatives of other non-governmental groups, started promoting the idea of a possible deviation from the Western course with the “enhancing of ties” between Tbilisi and Moscow. Such attitudes finally found reflection in the articles and speeches of various European experts, scholars and officials calling on EU member state representatives to acknowledge Georgia’s achievements and instead offer something that would keep Georgian society devoted to the western course. As soon as NATO and EU membership was off the table, the EU leaders decided to grant Georgian citizens visa free movement.

Georgia has a long history of “breakthrough” celebrations following various political decisions announced by the government as a great victory. Lately, to the dissatisfaction of local society, it has become politically motivated exaggeration and/or an attempt to overshadow the incapability or unwillingness of the state apparatus to handle existing domestic challenges or government-non-friendly processes. EU’s visa free travel approach is definitely a positive step for Georgia, but we need to be aware of its political, social and economic aspects in order not to give the government another opportunity to hoodwink Georgian society.

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Key Points of Russia’s New National Security Strategy and Georgia

On December 31st, 2015 President Putin signed Russia’s new national security strategy updating the 2009 strategic planning document, which covered the period until 2020 with the right of update in 2015. The updated strategy reflects not only changes in issues of global security but also the Kremlin’s aspiration to change the status of the country. The key objectives of Medvedev’s strategy (socio-political development and democratisation) were pushed into the background giving the priority to the topic of national interests.

The new concept focuses on tasks of foreign policy. As before, Russia is ready to work closely with Washington in a range of spheres. At the same time, the document emphasises the negative influence of the USA and NATO on issues of regional and global security. For example, the intentional fomenting of the conflict in Ukraine and the so-called Arab Spring. It should also be noted that the document does not mention Russia’s possible cooperation with the antiterrorist coalition operating in Syria.

The issues of further development and strengthening of regional relations are highlighted separately. This part of the document mentions two unrecognised regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia – as strategically important for Russia. As distinct from the previous edition, developing contacts with Asia and CSTO countries is not a priority.

To sum up, it is obvious that the Russian government tried to reflect the actual situation in its strategy. First of all, Russia reclaimed its status of one of the countries shaping global policy – without its participation peace is hardly possible. Russia and the West (in particular, the USA and NATO) are in the state of open confrontation. Any attempt to expand NATO will be considered as an act of aggression against Russia.

What does Russia’s updated strategy mean for Georgia? In fact, nothing! This document is a reflection of reality on the official level. The international community and Georgia have lived in this reality for a long time now and its confirmation in Russia’s national security strategy does not change anything.

The article was originally published by Caucasian House.

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