Why West? The Georgian Perspective
In 1783 Georgia and Russia signed the so-called Treaty of Georgievsk, according to which Georgia became a Russian satellite state. After 18 years, the Russian Empire took over and occupied Georgia. From 1918 to 1921 Georgia enjoyed its freedom and independence, and in 1921 it was again occupied by Soviet Russia.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgia was unwillingly involved in ethnic and civil wars undoubtedly inspired by Russia. Finally, in 2008, a five-day war brought sorrowful consequences for Georgia, although despite everything, Georgia didn’t change its Western foreign policy orientation.
The theory of international relations defines that small countries neighbouring superpower states and possessing a huge trade turnover with them, depending economically, having no linguistic borders and, therefore, culturally influenced by them, tend to put all their efforts into having good relations with their authoritative neighbour. This assumption, however, is not proved by Russo-Georgian relations.
Glancing retrospectively over recent Georgian history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and having regained independence up until now, we see that Georgia has had four political leaders who were very different in their political outlook and background. Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was considered a nationalist and very much unsupported in Russia, was an anti-Russian and pro-NATO politician. It was obvious that he was a dissident during the Soviet era and led a national movement whose main idea was to regain sovereignty and independence for Georgia.
We cannot say the same about the second president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, who was the last Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union and a distinguished Communist Party Politburo nomenclature. Despite his past, especially during the second part of his leadership, Georgia declared its main foreign policy priority to gain NATO and European Union membership, and started a strategic partnership with the United States.
The first steps were realised through ensuring support from the US to Georgia’s armed forces and adjusting the Training and Equip Program. In 1994 Georgia successfully joined the NATO-run Partnership for Peace programme. The next president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who took over government after the Rose Revolution, was notable for his pro-Western ambitions and, consequently, during his presidency made several steps towards approaching NATO and the EU. Russia reacted very aggressively to Georgia’s Western aspirations by occupying 20 per cent of Georgia in the course of the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, and recognising Georgia’s two regions as independent states after the conflict.
In 2012 Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russian oligarch, who according to Forbes magazine is ranked number 229 in the list of billionaires, owning 5.3 billion US dollars, won the elections and became Prime Minister of Georgia. The opposition accuses him of misconduct to his newly-gained political status, although the prevailing reason for his election is in his holding of one per cent of Gazprom shares and other Russian dominant holdings (Ivanishvili rebuts this data and assures that he sold all the shares in Russia) assuming some kind of affiliation with the Russian political establishment.
These intra-group shareholdings and hypothetical commitments to the Kremlin could become a realisation of President Vladimir Putin’s desire to regain Georgia under Russia’s sphere of influence, and block any negotiations and approaches to NATO. Ivanishvili’s rhetoric on Georgia’s aspiration to NATO and the EU remain the same as they were in the previous government, and it is expecting to sign the Association Agreement with the EU during the forthcoming EU Summit in Vilnius.
A short historical and present overview demonstrates Georgia’s Western-oriented foreign policy direction, and its permanent abstention of close relations with Russia inspired by the long tradition of Georgia’s different political leaders within times and their education backgrounds, life experiences, personal beliefs and other factors determining their political views. What is the reason for such “capricious” behaviour of this small Caucasian country? Where does the power to oppose to its Northern aggressive neighbour come from?
Some Georgian analysts and international relations scholars explain Georgia’s foreign policy by using the “elite theory”, according to which, the main strategic political decisions are made by political elites of the country and only after these ideas are promoted among the society. Other scholars argue that the Georgian people had 200 years of awful historical experience and memory, remembering all the tragedies from Tsarist Russia and communist massacres to exiles in Siberia until the war in 2008.
This factor causes Georgian politicians to act according to public demand, which in terms of foreign policy-making looks towards a Western orientation. There is another opinion which proves that due to its geo-strategic location, Georgia is a very important state for the West and, consequently, the West approaches an intensive engagement policy with Georgia causing its political leadership to turn towards Euro-Atlantic alliances. Georgia is located on an interesting Transcaucasian route, called the Silk Road, connecting Central Asian and Azerbaijani energy-rich regions to Turkey and Europe.
Historically, this strategic location was always a matter of tension between superpowers from the Byzantine Empire and Persia to the Turks and Russians. Turkey along with the EU are interested in Georgia being a safe stabile partner, providing a transport and energy corridor to Asia. The US also has interests, firstly to guarantee Europe’s energy diversity, hinder Russia’s energy monopoly in Europe, and to have a political bridge-head to ensure its policy towards Iran and Central Asia.
It is very hard to say that one or another approach has more ground. The discussed assumptions are logical and hold some validity. In my opinion, people’s memory, the political elite’s understanding and Western countries’ interests and activities in the region, essentially determine Georgia’s foreign policy choice.
Taking into account this variety of various multiple opinions, I would include the Russian factor itself. Russia’s inadequate behaviour and aggressive stance, its ugliness in terms of the socio-economic situation, personal freedoms and human rights conditions, as well as the attractiveness of the West, have enormous impact on Georgia’s foreign policy decisions.
There is one point that the Kremlin has not got for centuries: whoever governs Georgia, its Western longing is already determined, and sooner or later Georgia will return to its natural birthplace – the European Commonwealth.
Nika Sikharulidze is the Chief Advisor with the Office of the National Security Council of Georgia.