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How the West Has Shaped Georgia’s Self-Perception

In the past couple years, Georgia has been Europeanising: policies, practices and laws have been adjusted to EU standards to secure an Association Agreement (AA), a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and a visa-free regime. However, we can observe the Europeanisation not only of Georgia’s policies, but also of its political culture. Although the Georgian and European political cultures still have little in common, the West has become a key point of reference in the debates on Georgian national identity.

March 20, 2014 - Gela Merabishvili - Articles and Commentary

20.03.2014 800px-EUMM-Georgia 2012

EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia Photo: International Crisis Group (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

The closer Georgia has moved towards the West through various European or Euro-Atlantic partnerships, policies, action plans and obligations, more Europe-bashing could be seen on the pages of nationalist newspapers or in the speeches of Orthodox priests in Georgia. One of the functions of national identity is to determine a country’s external perceptions and preferences, and the Georgian Orthodox Church has certainly offered its own vision of external actors and foreign policy preferences to the Georgian public. The anti-European nationalism promoted by the Georgian Orthodox Church views Europe as a threat to Georgia’s national identity, which can be lost unless non-traditional norms and practices of western origin are contained outside of Georgia’s borders.

Homophobia plays a leading role in this narrative. The Church misleadingly portrays the western value of tolerance towards LGBTs as promotion of homosexual practices. Moreover, homosexuality is incorrectly compared with paedophilia, arguing for the former’s immoral nature. Therefore, the nationalist groups gathered around the Church describe the foreign policy choice for or against Europe as one between morality and immorality. Similar patterns of anti-western nationalism are easily observed in other post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Russia. The nationalists in these countries have coined the term “gayropa” to describe a “degenerate” Europe. This nationalist narrative not only provides the Eastern European countries with the image of undesirable “other”, but it also offers an alternative in Russia, which is viewed as a morally superior defender of traditional Christian values.

Just as Western European nationalists, such as the UK Independence Party or the French National Front, incorporated a great deal of Euroscepticism into their rhetoric only to take advantage of existing popular discontent towards EU economic policies, the Georgian nationalists see widespread homophobic sentiments among Georgians as fertile ground to advance their anti-European campaign. The difference between these two brands of Euroscepticism is that if for the western Eurosceptics the ultimate evil lies within the European Quarter of Brussels, but for Eastern European Eurosceptics it is associated with Le Marais of Paris and the red light district in Amsterdam.

However, it would be misleading to assume that Georgian nationalists view Europe only in a negative light. To advance their foreign policy agenda, the proponents of European integration equally skilfully use national narrative in which the West is shown as a role model for Georgia. This is true both for the previous and current governments of Georgia. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the name of the previous ruling party is United National Movement (UNM). In order to secure support from the population, the UNM government packed its pro-western foreign policy preference in a national narrative to make its policies seem to be the national interest of Georgia. Endless rhetoric about Georgia’s rightful place in the European family and the centuries-long links with Europe and EU flags in front of every state institution building became part of the pro-European national narrative.

The second half of this narrative deals with Russia and portrays it as an aggressive, corrupt, retrograde northern neighbour that is about to attack. The salvation is, therefore, in the West. Ghia Nodia sums up this narrative in the following way: “By its essence, Georgia is part of Europe, it should be recognised as such and be part of the main institutions of the West such as NATO and the European Union. [T]he West is Georgia’s main friend, ally and protector. Russia […] is the main adversary, as it tries to undermine the Georgian state through direct intervention or through exacerbating internal Georgian problems.” However, it became evident in the run-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections that the UNM government tended to used this national narrative largely for its own political benefit and less so for the country’s good. During the election campaign, the UNM accused its main rival, the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili of being Putin’s minions and introduced the phrase “Return to the Past” as a synonym for a potential GD victory in the elections. The point was to marginalise political opponents by showing that anyone who opposes the UNM is against Georgia’s national interests which by default means is managed by the Kremlin.

Ironically and totally contrary to the UNM allegations, the new GD government continues to use a pro-European national narrative to gain public support for European integration policies, although with much less demonising of Russia. This excerpt from Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s recent speech in Brussels proves the point: “European and Euro-Atlantic integration is the cornerstone of Georgia’s foreign, as well as domestic, policy. It is a national idea, supported by the Georgian people and all major political parties.” A little earlier, President Giorgi Margvelashvili thus described the country’s pro-western choice: “The choice was made by the generations, and taking this path is not just our own political will, but also an obligation before our ancestors and our posterity.” These quotes indicate that although these two anti-western and pro-western national narratives are diametrically different in their content, in form they are similar: they both appeal to preserve historical legacies, whether they are traditional Christian values or a generations-long pursuit of a European future.

Foreign policy expresses not only what one wants, but what one is. The current Georgian debates on foreign policy that have essentially become the debates on national identity prove this point. Just as foreign policy options of Georgia are limited to integration with the West or its rejection, the debates about nationalism have also been set along this pattern. Practically, the West has split the Georgian national discourse into two opposing narratives: one identifies Georgia with the West and the other sees the West as inherently alien or rather anti-Georgian. To quote Tatiana Zhurzhenko discussing the Ukrainian national identity, “[t]he basic question ‘Who are we?’ has been replaced by the question ‘Where do we belong?’ or rather ‘With whom are we?’.”

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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