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Georgia – an intersection on the Silk Road between Europe and Asia

On May 26th, Georgia celebrated its 101st Independence Day. It was three decades after demonstrators took to the streets of Tbilisi to mark the event, for the first time since the Soviet occupation.

May 29, 2019 - Jean De Ruyt - Articles and Commentary

The Tsinandali Estate, a restored historical landmark in Georgia’s wine country. Photo: Courtesy of Ambassador Jean De Ruyt.

In the past thirty years, Georgia has dramatically improved its relationship with the West. Working with NATO on security in the Black sea, it contributes to the  Alliance’s operations and is recognized as an ‘aspiring’ member of the organization; Trading and political ties with the European Union have also grown stronger, with the entry into force in 2016 of an Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA),  which ‘strives for political association and economic integration’.

Georgia is also keen to continue to develop its cooperation with partners to the east. Most notable has been the major free trade agreement with China, which came into effect in 2018, and which hinges upon the expansion of the Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili called it ‘a big, historical step, which brings trade and economic relations to a different level’. Georgia’s Vice Prime Minister and Secretary of the National Security Council, Giorgi Gakharia, said that for a small and open economy like Georgia, this kind of agreement ‘has a crucial importance’ and ‘the government will continue to sign agreements such as this.’

A unique geostrategic position

Georgia’s ability to engage with both East and West is in large part down to its crucial location at a strategic regional crossroads. From its commanding spot in the Caucasus, it reaches out in all directions, like a compass on the map. Indeed, for that reason, it is no surprise that one of Georgia’s largest, most well-established companies today calls itself ‘the Silk Road Group’, in a nod towards the country’s position on the famous ancient East-West trade route.

But, as its new president Salome Zourabishvili said in a recent interview, Georgia is in fact ‘blessed and cursed by its geography’. Caught between Russia and Turkey, and between Europe and Central Asia, the country finds itself in a rare and rather unenviable position: its strategic value is itself a security risk.

Over the centuries, its strategic position has seen it fought over by Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Persians and Russians. Five days in August 2008 plainly demonstrated Georgia’s exposure: the outskirts of Tbilisi were bombed, and Russian troops came within 25 miles of the capital, their advance effectively splitting the country in two. In fact, even the post-war occupation border established by Russia was subject to continuous shifting, which resulted in further displacement of the local population.

Trading integration is vital

There is clearly no cure-all to this geostrategic curse. But there is also no military solution. However, positive steps can be taken to consolidate the positive assets of the country.

Above all, Georgia needs to focus on its trading integration into both the region and the wider world. Aside from boosting economic prosperity, trade can give global and regional actors skin in the game – and a reason to preserve stability.

This means building on Georgia’s free trade agreements with China, Turkey and the EU, in order to ease the flow of imports and exports, and to encourage the development of integrated global supply chains. It means continuing to foster its open, enterprise-friendly business landscape – vital not only for promoting the growth of flagship local companies, but also for attracting flows of foreign investment.

And it means developing its regional infrastructure, such as new ports – which will effectively ‘shrink the Black Sea’ – as well as improved East-West rail networks, which will provide crucial new corridors from Europe to the growing economies of Central Asia. By supporting links to Georgia’s regional neighbours – Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan – these works can give each a stake in its own peace and prosperity.

Between East and West, and with Russia on the near border, maintaining Georgia’s stability is always going to be a balancing act. This year’s Independence Day could be a time for Georgia to reflect on a difficult, often fraught past. But it should, above all, be a time to look to the future.

Ambassador Jean De Ruyt was the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union. He was then appointed to advise the European Union’s High Representative & Vice-President Baroness Ashton on specific foreign policy issues. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to Italy and the FAO from 2004-2007. From 2001 until 2004 he was the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations in New York, leading the EU response to the events of 9/11. During the 1990s, he was instrumental in shaping the new post-Cold War European Security Architecture, first as senior official to the OSCE and Ambassador to the Western European Union (WEU), then as Ambassador to Poland (1994–1996), Permanent Representative to the NATO Council (1996–1997) and Belgian Member of the Political Committee of the European Union (1997–2001).

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