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30 August, 2016  ▪  Anna Korbut

In search of a Suliko

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

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.

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

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 pro-Western 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.

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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 the problem western leaders should understand 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 non-NATO 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.

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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.

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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 40-45, 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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