“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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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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God Engaged: Orthodox Christianity in the “Big Game”

On January 5, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the global Orthodox Church and the first among equals, signed a decree “Tomos” in Istanbul granting the Ukrainian Church autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church (alternatively, the Moscow Patriarchate, abb. ROC) and recognizing its autocephaly (independence). The event was attended by the head of the Ukrainian government, President Petro Poroshenko and other high officials. Earlier, Bartholomew called on leaders of other autocephalous churches, most importantly in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, to support his initiative. The decision to remove the Ukrainian Church from the subordination of the ROC which had existed as such for centuries was highly criticized by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate, as a rude violation of religious laws and an obvious political step leading to religious strife and a division in the global Orthodox community.

And while supporters of Bartholomew’s historic move both in Ukraine and abroad, especially in Georgia, react according to how they perceive the victory over the corrupt Russian Orthodox Church controlled by Putin’s regime, it is obvious that there is much more than just the right of Ukrainian people for religious independence at stake here. The Orthodox Christian god has been officially engaged by all sides in the so-called “big game” now: political and ideological rivalry where religion is used for concrete goals. The absolute majority of the so-called pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian analysts and experts fiercely defend Bartholomew’s step as fair and logical, bringing forth arguments about historical justice and more. At the same time, there are those who are not so positive about it. This pessimism comes from a few extremely puzzling moments that are mainly, frequently intentionally, overlooked and neglected.

Orthodox Christianity and Politics

Unlike other Christian denominations, Orthodox Christianity was and still is extremely involved in domestic and foreign politics. Political actors actively attract religious institutions into various state, political and ideological activities to gain electoral support, legitimacy and to justify their activities, while local churches are keen to use this “dependency” to influence political decision-making and, sometimes, even pursue a harsh policy of proselytism. This mutual interdependence and interconnection make it impossible to build a stable secular state without interference from religious institutions and persons in state affairs.

And so, here is perhaps the biggest question that puzzles experts and analysts: was Bartholomew’s initiative purely a religious one? It is pretty questionable that Ecumenical Patriarch would have dared and/or decided to push the topic of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church in the midst of the fight between Kiev and Moscow and, in general, the West and the East, without any serious political back-up; especially if we take into consideration that Bartholomew, in theory, holds sway over more than 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, from which the majority are Russian and when the biggest Orthodox Christian Church is the Moscow Patriarchate.

The second important question regards the strong bond between political elites and local religious institutions that have a place in almost all Orthodox Christian countries. We can easily outline at least three exceptional cases: Russian Federation, Ukraine and Georgia.

The Moscow Patriarchate seems to be a continuation of the Russian state (ad notam, historically given condition) and is being actively used by the Kremlin to pursue its domestic and foreign policies through support and justification from the religious institution and its representatives. At the same time, the State acknowledges the Moscow Patriarchate’s support and backs its frequently questionable domestic (the law on protecting religious feelings) and foreign (dominance over global Orthodox Christian community) initiatives. The same could be seen in Ukraine. Until it received “Tomos,” there were three Orthodox Church branches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or Kiev Patriarchate (independent), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (independent) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (abb. UOC, subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate). After accepting autocephaly, the first two independent churches formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (abb. OCU) that, by initial design and primary mission, was to counter and oppose the UOC that was and still is the leading Orthodox institution in the country. So far, the OCU, a priori, is being considered by all sides and, most importantly, by Poroshenko’s government, as a political tool against the Kremlin; and we may argue that the Ukrainian state will do its best to put the newly formed local autocephalous church at the service of political elites. It is also highly questionable whether the OCU can really counter the UOC without political, ideological, administrative and financial support from the government and affiliated individuals.

Where the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine are being used by political elites, the Georgian Orthodox Church (abb. GOC) is intelligently manipulating the Georgian elites; where in the Russian Federation and Ukraine we are witnessing the existence of so-called “pocket churches” that lie as a huge burden both on governments and societies, Georgian society is easily “pocketed” by the Georgian Orthodox Church. As still the most trusted and influential institution in the country, the GOC interferes in almost every single aspect of everyday life in Georgia. This frequently harmful practice restrains the country from transforming into the Western-type secular state it claims it wants to be.

Orthodox Christianity at a Crossroads

The establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church not only officially involved Orthodox Christian god in global politics, but also led to historic strife; and if decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was somehow a logical retaliation, other autocephalous churches suddenly appeared to be at a crossroads, with only two options – follow Bartholomew or support the ROC. We may argue that no one would want to be involved into this dispute; furthermore, for some autocephalous churches, such as those of Serbia and Georgia, this decision is highly sensitive and is directly attached to important political issues.

It is no secret that Serbia holds strong political, cultural and religious ties with the Russian Federation. Furthermore, Serbian officials openly re-iterate the importance of these ties and are still extremely thankful to the Kremlin for the support given during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Additionally, Moscow was in the vanguard of those states that did not support the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and Russia is still the main and most important ally of Belgrade in its attempts to bring the partially recognized state under its jurisdiction. It seems the Serbian Orthodox Church will definitely think twice before backing Bartholomew’s decision and by default directly oppose the Moscow Patriarchate.

This situation is even more challenging for the Georgian Orthodox Church. Despite fierce support for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from local pro-Western forces and parts of Georgian society, which perceive these events as the restoration of historical justice, it is obvious the situation is much more complicated. Georgia has two separatist regions (Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia) which were recognized as independent states by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. Despite supporting Abkhazian “sovereignty,” the Russian Orthodox Church does not officially recognize the Abkhazian Orthodox Church (abb. AOC) and it is, de jure, still subordinated to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Representatives of the GOC are afraid that by recognizing the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church, they may directly push the Moscow Patriarchate to recognize the AOC. Some may argue that the ROC has de facto already done so and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church are working secretly on the ground, and yet there is a huge difference between official recognition and masked activities. Finally, Georgia has been surrounded by non-Christian nations for centuries with the Moscow Patriarchate its only neighboring religious ally; thus, this historical memory is also present.

Useless Independence?

Without doubt, the Ukrainian people deserve the right to have religious institutions that reflect their attitudes and aspirations. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the reception of autocephaly was and is something that Ukraine really needed. Will it solve the country’s challenges and lead to the unification of society? Unlikely.

As said above, the Poroshenko’s government sees autocephaly as a pre-election campaign project that should, in theory, raise support among the local electorate and help its leader to keep his presidential post. This is despite the unpleasant fact that Poroshenko failed to lead the state into a better future. Particularly, we may argue that Ukraine was always and still is in dramatic need of independence from its own oligarchs and other questionable figures rather than autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate. The reasoning that the inability of every single pro-Western revolutionary movement and leader to handle the corruption and other anti-state practices lies in the dependence of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate is highly dubious. The reception of autocephaly will not lead to a dismantling of the corrupt political system that exists in Ukraine, as that is just how Poroshenko wants it to be.

Secondly, frequently both international and domestic observers overlook the issue of social divisions in Ukraine. Approximately half of the eastern population are ethnic Russians, and these will most likely not transfer from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, especially taking when taking into consideration the political context. Furthermore, even among Ukrainians there are plenty who are devoted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church subordinated to the ROC. Thus, the establishment of an autocephalous church may further deepen the social divisions that have developed due to various questionable decisions made over time by the political elite, such as the controversial language bill restricting and downgrading use of the Russian language in Ukraine.

In conclusion, the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church can be perceived as an official engagement of the Orthodox Christian god in global politics, where all involved actors try to use religious institutions and affiliated individuals for their own political and ideological interests while local churches try to grab their own benefits. Other autocephalous churches, especially in Serbia and Georgia, now find themselves at a crossroads that may lead to some extremely interesting political developments in the future. If the Georgian Orthodox Church backs Bartholomew’s initiative, we may witness the appearance of another partially recognized Church, the Abkhazian, which will result in the further deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations. At the same time, the Ukrainian autocephalous Church may be not the answer that the majority of Ukrainians hoped for, as it is uncertain how it will help the country to finally escape its corrupt circle or build the modern prosperous and secular state that they seek.

Archil Sikharulidze is a co-founder and an executive director of the Center for Systemic Political Research (CSPR) a Tbilisi-based research institute (Republic of Georgia) and an editor of Georgian Journal of Systemic Politics. Sikharulidze extensively writes about political processes in Russia and in the post-Soviet space in general.

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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.

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