In search of a Su­liko

What shapes Ge­or­gia’s for­eign pol­icy and per­cep­tions of its course do­mes­ti­cally?

The Ukrainian Week - - NEIGHBOURS - In­ter­viewed by Anna Kor­but

Sand­wiched be­tween the West and Rus­sia, Europe and Asia, Chris­tian and Mus­lim worlds, how do Ge­or­gian politi­cians and voters see their place in the world? The Ukrainian Week speaks about this to Kor­nely Kakachia, Pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Sciences at the Tbil­isi State Univer­sity and Direc­tor of the Ge­or­gian In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics.

Pro-Euro­pean ori­en­ta­tion. In the past 25 years Ge­or­gia’s po­lit­i­cal elites (who of­ten speak on be­half of peo­ple in this re­spect) have been car­ry­ing on the proWestern pol­icy. It was his­tor­i­cally the prac­tice of Ge­or­gian es­tab­lish­ment, es­pe­cially dur­ing the First Repub­lic be­tween 1918 and 1921. And even be­fore that, Ge­or­gian in­tel­lec­tu­als al­ways tried to as­so­ci­ate the coun­try with the Euro­pean way and Europe. That’s why the cur­rent Ge­or­gian elite al­ways talk about a “re­turn to Europe” as did many east­ern Euro­pean coun­tries af­ter col­lapse of Com­mu­nism. Although this is may seem a pretty strange con­cept in many ways for some: a look at Ge­or­gia’s history may give you a dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ing of whether it was part of Europe at all.

Europe-ori­ented dis­courses mostly come from the 18-19th cen­tury. The ar­gu­ment they stem from is that Ge­or­gia was al­ways a part of the Byzan­tine (Chris­tian) world. Af­ter the Byzan­tine Em­pire col­lapsed, it created prob­lems for Ge­or­gia as the coun­try found it­self en­cir­cled by non-Chris­tian em­pires. That pushed Ge­or­gians into the search of ways to pre­serve its na­tion, re­li­gion and in­de­pen­dence. Ever since, the coun­try has been try­ing to first of all find a sort of soul mate na­tion, Su­liko. At some point, af­ter the col­lapse of the Byzan­tine Em­pire, they were think­ing that this na­tion would be Rus­sia. It was the ortho­dox coun­try and a bet­ter choice than, say, Iran or the Ot­toman Em­pire. How­ever, af­ter Rus­sian em­pire abol­ished Ge­or­gian sovereignty it didn’t prove to be the coun­try that would be help­ing us. Quite on the con­trary. Ever since Ge­or­gia got back its in­de­pen­dence (and was a very frag­ile coun­try at that point), we’ve been hav­ing prob­lems with Rus­sia. That’s why Ge­or­gia started look­ing around to find fel­low coun­try in neig­bour­hood.

It had a num­ber of dif­fi­cul­ties in find­ing “soul­mates”. One was that Ge­or­gia is not a Slavic na­tion like Ukraine and its neigh­bors, nor a Mus­lim so­ci­ety, like Azer­bai­jan and Turkey, for in­stance. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, it started es­tab­lish­ing good links with Ukraine - un­der She­var­nadze, Kuchma. Even if Ukraine does not share a di­rect bor­der with Ge­or­gia, it’s Chris­tian, Ortho­dox, big­ger than Ge­or­gia. Both were Black Sea na­tions with heavy Soviet lega­cies, both had trou­ble­some re­la­tions with Rus­sia, which tried to hold them in check, with am­bigu­ous prospects for their Euro­pean and Euro– At­lantic as­pi­ra­tions, and painful ref­or­ma­tion agen­das. Both coun­tries have had demo­cratic rev­o­lu­tions, which clearly created ide­o­log­i­cal unity be­tween two na­tions. Ge­or­gia’s and Ukraine’s re­la­tions be­came par­tic­u­larly close un­der the pres­i­den­cies of Mikhail Saakashvili and Vik­tor Yushchenko. Both states’ po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and elite en­joyed strong per­sonal ties. Based on per­sonal con­tacts and revo­lu­tion­ary solidarity, the gov­ern­ment un­der Mikheil Saakashvili had un­prece­dented ac­cess to Ukrainian pol­i­tics.

Another im­por­tant point: if you look at Ge­or­gia’s for­eign pol­icy of the past 25 years, it is try­ing to some­how “es­cape “from its re­gion – South Cau­ca­sus. It’s im­pos­si­ble ge­o­graph­i­cally. But the Ge­or­gians re­ally wanted to be part of the Euro­pean and Euro-At­lantic clubs since the 1990s (many think that this as­pi­ra­tion started only af­ter Saakashvili – that’s not true). Just to give you an ex­am­ple: when Ge­or­gia de­clared in­de­pen­dence, there was a dis­cus­sion at the Coun­cil of Europe – whether to take it in or leave it out, whether it’s Europe or Asia. The ar­gu­ments were about ge­og­ra­phy, cul­ture, re­li­gion and many such things. Then the de­ci­sion was taken to take in Ge­or­gia, as well as Azer­bai­jan and Ar­me­nia. As the lat­ter two are in per­ma­nent con­flict over Nagorno-Karabakh, plus Ge­or­gia has its own con­flict zones and poi­sonous re­la­tions with Rus­sia, hopes for

re­gional co­op­er­a­tion seemed bleak. South Cau­ca­sus looks more like failed re­gion. So Ge­or­gia kept push­ing the EU to treat it sep­a­rately not put Ge­or­gia only in South Cau­ca­sus Bas­ket. Un­til re­cently the EU has been very re­luc­tant to do so: for the past twenty years it was push­ing Tbil­isi to­wards re­gional co­op­er­a­tion frame­work. But Tbil­isi tried to break away from it, and pull closer to Ukraine and Moldova in­stead es­pe­cially af­ter the Rose rev­o­lu­tion en­hanc­ing its Black Sea iden­tity.

To sum it up, Ge­or­gia wants the EU to find a way to pro­vide it with al­ter­na­tives for its tran­si­tion – not to put it in its ge­o­graphic South Cau­ca­sus con­text, but in a tri­an­gle with Ge­or­gia, Moldova, es­pe­cially af­ter three coun­tries signed as­so­ci­a­tion agree­ment with EU.

Euro­pean re­luc­tance and pro-Western sen­ti­ments in Ge­or­gia. Most peo­ple in Ge­or­gia still sup­port the EU and NATO. But western lead­ers should un­der­stand that it can­not be taken for granted per­ma­nently. In the recent years Ge­or­gia has been do­ing many painful re­forms aimed to­wards Euro­peaniza­tion of the coun­try. How­ever, it is im­por­tant for the West to un­der­stand that Ge­or­gia, like Ukraine, is un­der the per­ma­nent pres­sure from Rus­sia, in­clud­ing from its pro­pa­ganda cam­paign as it wants it Tbil­isi ac­com­mo­date its geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­est and to change its pro western se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy ori­en­ta­tion. To­day, Ge­or­gia is one of the big­gest con­trib­u­tors among nonNATO na­tions in Afghanistan, one of the fron­trun­ner in EaP in re­gards of re­forms, etc. which is max­i­mum what a small coun­try can do at present cir­cum­stances., but all this so far didn’t trans­lated in NATO or EU mem­ber­ship. As a re­sult given NATO mem­bers’ skep­ti­cism of Ge­or­gian mem­ber­ship, the per­pet­ual prom­ises to in­cor­po­rate Ge­or­gia into Western struc­tures are start­ing to ring hol­low. Some part of the so­ci­ety poses le­git­i­mate ques­tion: if they don’t want us, why should we do so much? So in gen­eral these sorts of at­ti­tudes have brought chal­lenges, in­clud­ing democ­racy fa­tigue.

In Ge­or­gia, there is an un­der­stand­ing that the coun­try can’t be an EU mem­ber to­day or to­mor­row. But it wants to have some sort of Euro­pean perspective now. The As­so­ci­a­tion Agree­ment was a step in the right di­rec­tion. Visa lib­er­al­iza­tion will be good too. But Ge­or­gia has been long wait­ing for the NATO mem­ber­ship prospect, but so far The fail­ure to give Ge­or­gia some sort of up­grade in its sta­tus in the near fu­ture may re­sult in a se­ri­ous blow for those do­mes­tic forces that sup­port Ge­or­gia’s Euro-At­lantic in­te­gra­tion. And mean­while, frus­tra­tion is build­ing in some parts of so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially the older gen­er­a­tion who don’t speak English and don’t know the West. Peo­ple start hav­ing dif­fer­ent opin­ions about this. And this is re­flected in opin­ion polls: the num­ber of those who would like to join the Eurasian Union is slightly ris­ing, which was ab­so­lutely im­pos­si­ble to think few years ago.

For­tu­nately, this is not a ma­jor trend: young peo­ple sup­port Ge­or­gia’s cur­rent for­eign and se­cu­rity pol­icy fo­cused on Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion. But with Rus­sia will­ing to change re­al­ity on the ground – mil­i­tar­ily or other­wise - Ge­or­gia al­ready has a se­cu­rity dilemma: Rus­sian tanks are 40km from Tbil­isi. Ge­or­gians un­der­stand that the West, es­pe­cially Europe, doesn’t want to an­tag­o­nize Rus­sia. Although Ge­or­gians re­al­ize that their coun­try’s con­tri­bu­tion to the ISAF mis­sion is not a means of buy­ing en­try into NATO, they do ex­pect that NATO will make re­cip­ro­cal steps to demon­strate that an in­te­gra­tion process is oc­cur­ring. At the end of the day, they also un­der­stand that Rus­sia is more im­por­tant for the Ger­man or French busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal elites than Ge­or­gia. But there should be also some place for value-based ap­proach. That was one of the main drives of suc­cess­ful process of Euro-At­lantic in­te­gra­tion.

Ba­sis for pro-Rus­sian sen­ti­ments. Un­der­stand­ing this re­al­ity, the Krem­lin tries to ex­ploit any weak­nesses in Tbil­isi to gain in­flu­ence over Ge­or­gian pol­i­tics. Moscow re­al­izes that it can’t change Ge­or­gia’s for­eign pol­icy ori­en­ta­tion by force, so it is now try­ing to use soft power to change Ge­or­gia’s for­eign pol­icy ori­en­ta­tion. It also uses to re­li­gion as a tool, por­tray­ing the West as deca­dent, anti-Chris­tian, and de­clined in val­ues. It uses sen­ti­ments of old peo­ple who have nos­tal­gia for the soviet past. It also tries to change the men­tal­ity of Ge­or­gians in many other ways – par­tic­u­larly af­ter the change of gov­ern­ment. The Rus­sians are try­ing to pro­mote the Eurasian Union, sup­port NGOs, po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and have at least some say in pub­lic opin­ion. They are of­fer­ing ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tives, es­pe­cially to the young peo­ple who no longer speak or un­der­stand Rus­sian: one of the mo­ti­va­tions they use is that many tourists speak Rus­sian, so the Ge­or­gians need to know it too. In gen­eral, var­i­ous ways are used to ma­nip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion.


They have not man­aged to change Ge­or­gia’s course be­cause we have strong sup­port for Euro­peaniza­tion. But what they are try­ing to do is to bring back the de­bate – about what’s bet­ter: join­ing the EU or the Eurasian Union. For­tu­nately that’s not is­sue on dis­cus­sion ta­ble.

This is im­por­tant for Ukraini­ans to watch – many Ukraini­ans are shocked and can’t un­der­stand how Ge­or­gia is even think­ing of a pos­si­bil­ity of chang­ing ori­en­ta­tion af­ter the war. But af­ter five-six years you will prob­a­bly see the flood of Rus­sian soft power try­ing to change your coun­try’s ori­en­ta­tion too.

How suc­cess­ful this is? It does not work the way Rus­sia would like it to. But it is work­ing. I would de­scribe the pat­tern as “priliv” and “otliv”, the tide. Un­der Saakashvili there was a “priliv” for a long time, with rapid re­forms. Now there is “otliv” – peo­ple have grown tired of his re­forms, par­tic­u­larly those aged above 4045, be­cause coun­try dur­ing his pres­i­dency was mov­ing very fast. These peo­ple were say­ing that the coun­try’s mov­ing rapidly, they didn’t know where it was go­ing, and there wasn’t a place for them in that coun­try. Saakashvili was talking about a bright fu­ture, but many peo­ple wanted to live in the present as well – that’s partly what caused the re­form fa­tigue, in ad­di­tion to the ar­gu­ments on au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, etc.

Over­all, though, I be­lieve that in four-five years you may hear once again that Ge­or­gia can’t af­ford to move slowly, that it has to once again trans­form quickly and strengthen its Euro­peaniza­tion and de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion.

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