European Affairs

Slim Options for the Republic of Georgia     Print Email
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 By Armen Sahakyan

armensahakyanphotoAlthough all eyes have been on Ukraine, many of the issues raised there are present in another former soviet republic—Georgia. Both Georgia and Ukraine border Russia and seek stronger ties with the West. In 2008 and 2014, Georgia and Ukraine respectively began experiencing increasing political and economic pressures from Russia in an attempt to prevent the states from leaving its sphere of influence. The pretext for intervention in both cases was the protection of Russian citizens and Russian speakers. Interestingly, both crises happened in the backdrop of the successful Olympic Games.

Despite the similarities, there are key differences. Firstly, whereas in Georgia the breakaway areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were recognized as independent by Moscow, in Ukraine, Crimea was formally admitted into the Russian Federation. Secondly, if Russia admitted to its troop presence in Georgia, it did not do so in the case of Ukraine. Thirdly, there have been fewer major military actions in Ukraine than in Georgia, where there were thousands of casualties and refugees. Fourthly, Russia’s actions in Ukraine were primarily in response to the change of leadership in Kiev, but in the case of Georgia, they were due to the miscalculations of Tbilisi authorities in 2008, when the central government attempted to regain control over the two regions. Last, but not least, there were no sanctions imposed by other nations on Russia after the 2008 war.

Despite its relatively small territorial and population sizes, Georgia has had to face secessionist movements, which have seriously challenged its security and sovereignty. For the last two and a half decades South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and, to a lesser degree, Ajaria, have created major issues for the Tbilisi government, both on the domestic and international fronts. The regions of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli populated with Armenians and Azerbaijanis respectively as well as the unstable situation in the Russian North Caucasus pose additional challenges. (See the accompanying map.)

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Post-independence Georgian foreign policy has been shaped by these internal territorial security considerations. There are six major ethnic groups living in Georgia today, namely Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Ajarians (Muslim Georgians), Azerbaijanis, and Armenians. Five of these six groups pose some level of threat to the Georgian security. Georgia’s proximity to two competing regional powerbrokers contesting for influence in the South Caucasus, namely Turkey and Iran , adds another dimension to the security issue. The hostile relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the persisting tense situation in the North Caucasus also complicate the calculus.

In the absence of other viable alternatives, Tbilisi has been steady in its desire to integrate with the Euro-Atlantic community, break loose of the Russian sphere of influence and conduct a more independent foreign policy. No regional power in the South Caucasus has been able and/or willing to provide adequate security guarantees for Georgia. Neither Turkey nor Iran can serve as an alternative to Russia. Neither possesses enough actual or perceived power to pose a serious challenge to Russia’s role in the South Caucasus.

Only the Euro-Atlantic community has human, economic, and military heft to compete with Russia in the region. The question has been, however, the desire of the U.S., NATO and/or the EU to get involved.

The EU has steadily increased involvement in the overall region following the enlargements of 2004 and 2006, as well as with the formal inception of the European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership Initiative. A major breakthrough was the initiation of the Association Agreement with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) component at the EU 2013 Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. It is expected that the Association Agreement, which was initialed at Vilnius, will be ratified by both parties later this year, allowing further integration of the Georgian market with the EU. Notwithstanding the positive move forward in bilateral relations, the Georgian economy may suffer in the short to medium-term due to the more competitive European market. There has been, however, no promise of an eventual EU membership for any Eastern Partnership state, including Georgia.

The United States, especially following the Rose Revolution of November 2003, has increased its scope of activities in Georgia. Former President Bush’s trip to Georgia in 2005 and proclamation of the country as a “beacon of liberty” shows Washington’s interest in Tbilisi. Yet again, the U.S. has been unwilling to formally take up the role of Georgia’s security guarantor, as relative U.S. passivity in the 2008 war with Russia exemplifies. And neither, apparently, has NATO. While western Allied Heads of State and Governments have, on multiple occasions, expressed their wish to allow Georgia to become a NATO member state, so far, the process has been moving quite slowly.

Nevertheless, Georgia maintains its pro-Western stance. Currently there is no viable alternative for Georgia and no reason to expect any changes in the state’s conduct of foreign policy in the short to medium-term. Such a policy is, however, unsustainable in the long-term. Russia cannot be disregarded forever and sooner or later official Tbilisi will have to come to terms with its northern neighbor.

How the events will work out is hard to predict, but current assessment forecasts the following developments for the short to medium-term:

1. Georgia, regardless of leadership, will maintain its pro-Western policy.

2. Georgia’s bid for NATO membership will remain on the table, yet NATO is unlikely to move forward any time soon.

3. The relations with the EU will grow on the basis of the Association Agreement initialed in Vilnius in 2013, but prospects for EU membership are slim and distant at best.

4. The leadership in Tbilisi will attempt to further consolidate its power in Ajaria, Samtskhe-Javakheti, and Kvemo Kartli mostly through economic means in order to further minimize the risk of secessionist movements in those regions.

5. The status quo with Russia vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia will hold at least for the medium-term.

Armen Sahakyan serves as the Executive Director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute (Washington, D.C. branch), and as an Analyst of Eurasian affairs at the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC) based in Yerevan, Armenia. He is a Master of Arts candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has previously served as an Adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York.

 

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