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Why Ukraine Matters to Georgia

On November 22th 2007, a new monument was unveiled in Tbilisi. It was a statue of the Greek mythological hero Prometheus. Surprisingly, the presidents of Poland, Lithuania and Georgia attended this event. This was not a coincidence, but for historical reasons Lech Kaczyński, Valdas Adamkus and Mikheil Saakashvili – the then-presidents of Poland, Lithuania and Georgia, respectively – participated in this event.

March 3, 2014 - Gela Merabishvili - Articles and Commentary

03.03.2014 Georgian Prometheus

Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

The statue symbolised the international anti-communist movement of Prometheism of the 1920s and 1930s. The main architect and founding father of Prometheism was Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the head of the Second Polish Republic during much of the interwar period. He aimed to create a fortress of common defence against Russia that would include independent states in the basins of the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. Some of the nations that were part of the Russian Empire had gained and maintained independence (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and part of Ukraine), while others were swallowed by Bolshevik Russia (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine). “It brought together the grand strategists of Warsaw and exiled patriots from the former Russian Empire whose attempts to found independent states had been thwarted by the Bolsheviks in the years after the October Revolution of 1917,” writes historian Timothy Snyder. This movement supported the national self-determination of non-Russian nations within the USSR in order to disintegrate the newly establish state and diminish the threat coming from it.

The project did not materialise. After the Second World War, Stalin managed to occupy not only these western territories of the former Tsarist Empire but went even further by subjugating other Central and Eastern European (Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and part of Germany) states to its rule. With the collapse of the USSR, all of these states became independent and started to integrate with Western institutions, and Russia has seemed incapable of reversing the trend. One could argue that the goals of Prometheism had ultimately been achieved and that the relevance of the Promethean idea finally became obsolete.

This, however, turned out to be only wishful thinking when in 2005 Vladimir Putin famously labelled the break-up of the Soviet Union as the past century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe. It indicated that Putin was not going to let Russia’s smaller Eastern European neighbours out of Russia’s dominance so easily. From then on, Russia has used a variety of tactics from economic sanctions in the cases of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to outright military action against Georgia in 2008 in order to halt the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of its neighbors. Thus, Russia transformed its western and southern “near abroad” into “a line of geopolitical contest”, in the words of Artur Niedźwiecki.

On the one side of this contest lay the aspirations of newly-independent nations to establish free and democratic European states, importantly via integration with the European Union and NATO. On the other side, however, Russia’s current administration perceives it as a threat to its external security but most importantly to its model of governance and national narrative it has offered to its own citizens. To convince its public that the chosen model works better than that of the democratic West and thus maintain popular support, the Russian government needs success on the international stage: it needs to reclaim is status of velikaya derzhava (great state). Without domination in its immediate neighbourhood this goal is hardly achievable. This is why Russia views international politics in the Cold War terms and this is what leads to the geopolitical contest with the West.

Therefore, for the states neighbouring Russia that strive for European integration the need to show that their aspirations are more important than those of the Kremlin became apparent. This is a cornerstone of a neo-Promethean movement, revived by the alliance of like-minded leaders of Eastern European states in the mid-2000s and led primarily by Lech Kaczyński and Mikheil Saakashvili, both the admirers of Piłsudski’s Promethean vision. The statue of Prometheus erected in Tbilisi in 2007 meant to symbolise this alliance. The Polish president thus described his Promethean foreign policy when he visited Tbilisi in 2007: “That policy consists of developing possibly the closest possible relations with the countries southeast of Poland. This refers to Ukraine but also to Georgia, Azerbaijan and perhaps also other states in the long-term perspective. Its central part consists in providing support for the European aspirations of these countries, such as aspirations to join NATO in the first place, and in a certain time perspective also to secure membership in the European Union.”

By pooling together the Western-oriented Eastern European states, the neo-Promethean movement has two important functions: to assist these countries in their endeavour to integrate with the Western institutions and to get the West more involved in protecting these countries vis-à-vis Russia.

While Georgia shares the exact same foreign policy goals, it is unable to accomplish them alone. However, advocating for these policy goals in ensemble with other countries of the region makes Georgia’s voice stronger and external power weightier. And this is exactly where Ukraine starts to matter to Georgia. Due to its sheer size and geographical location, Ukraine has a potential to make or break the Promethean containment line of Russia and also attach heavier importance to the process of post-communist countries’ European integration. In a recent article, Mikheil Saakashvili articulated this argument: “If Ukraine doesn’t go right, or falls irreparably out of the European orbit, no other formerly captive Soviet nation really has a shot; certainly not Georgia or Moldova, both only a fraction of the size of Ukraine’s population. These states can remain in a grey zone between Europe and everywhere else, popping up now and then with humanitarian, security and economic crises that keep Europe from resting easy very long.”

Interestingly, the new Georgian administration also links the current developments in Ukraine with both Georgia’s European prospects and security threats from Russia. In his speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili argued that “with the current dramatic events in Ukraine it is becoming increasingly obvious that certain foreign pressures play a destructive role not only [for] regional stability but also [for] very existence of sovereignty and territorial integrity of our nations – Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova. It is obvious that unless the European Union gives a clear promise of membership to the successful countries of the Eastern Partnership, this crisis similar to Ukraine will happen again and again. The international community needs to send a clear message to large and small countries of the region – the message which will underpin the notion that no third party can influence the aspirations of regional countries striving to fulfil their choices of foreign alliance.”

The idea that Georgia’s fate is being decided on the streets of Kyiv has already become an undeniable truism in the Georgian political discourse. The Georgian public largely shares this logic. To express solidarity with Ukraine and protest against Russian interference in Ukrainian politics, the fans who attended a rugby game between Russia and Georgia held in Tbilisi couple of days ago exhibited Ukrainian flags next their own national ones. Those politicians, media organizations and civil society groups that advocate for Georgia’s European integration have since late November become busy organising public demonstrations in support of the EuroMaidan. On the other hand, those in Georgia who oppose the country’s Western orientation and favour its pro-Russia foreign policy instead present the Maidan protesters as Western-financed hooligans who deserve the kind of treatment they received from the Berkut. While the goals of these two opposite groups differ, they both recognise the causal link between the Ukrainian events and Georgia’s external choice.

Finally, the success of the EuroMaidan is perceived by Georgia as a victory of its pro-European policy. With Ukraine on board, the Promethean “League of Nations” and within it Georgia’s position vis-à-vis Russia looks stronger and its European ambitions seem more promising. As an additional bonus, the Ukrainian crisis diverted an unprecedented amount of attention of the EU and the United States towards this region. Little by little the West also started to recognize Russia as a geopolitical rival, who intends to restore its faded glory at the expense of freedom of its smaller neighbors. As a result, the Ukrainian crisis suddenly became a catalyst for the more pro-active Western policies towards the Eastern Partnership countries which will possibly accelerate the pace of their integration with the EU.

Gela Merabishvili works at the Tbilisi State University as an editor of the e-library. He studied at the Tbilisi State University and Maastricht University.


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