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New security environment in Europe amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine: A view from Georgia

The Russian invasion of Ukraine drastically changed the security environment in Europe. While the EU, US, China, Turkey and other actors are quickly adapting to the rapidly changing security environment, Georgia seems to be looking at the recent developments from the side lines.

April 11, 2022 - Nino Kvirikashvili - Articles and Commentary

Tbilisi, Georgia - March 2, 2022: Ukrainian flags are seen in front of shops along Rustaveli avenue during the invasion and attacks of Russian troops in Ukraine. Photo: Nelson Antoine / Shutterstock

Georgia has, as of so far, maintained a low profile foreign policy amid the drastic changes currently taking place in its region. Considering the recent Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Georgia’s rather passive foreign policy stirs a lot of controversy both inside the country and on the international level.

Watching from the side lines

On a formal level, Georgia supports Ukraine. The country co-sponsored and supported the UN resolution on the Russian aggression against Ukraine and sent humanitarian aid. However, on a more practical level, while all eyes are on Ukraine, the Georgian government hides behind overgeneralised parliamentary resolutions omitting ‘Russian aggression’ and makes political statements that fail to voice clear, explicit support towards its strategic partner. The ruling Georgian Dream party refused to hold a parliamentary session on Ukraine in the days leading up to the war, once again referring to a “pragmatic policy” and protecting the national interests of Georgia. Later, the Georgian government refused to join sanctions against Russia, citing the country’s national interests. The government also refused to allow a flight that was carrying Georgian volunteers to leave for Ukraine. In response, Ukrainian high officials expressed their dissatisfaction with the Georgian government’s actions, or inactions. Tensions went as far as Ukraine recalling their ambassador for consultations, citing the government’s “immoral position”. Amid the government’s rather inactive stance and increased international criticism, there have been continuous rallies in support of Ukraine in the Georgian capital, where protesters also criticise the government’s decisions and demand stronger and more vocal support towards Ukraine. The Georgian people consider Russia as a threat and can relate to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people since Georgia has also experienced Russian aggression in the recent past.

While the West seems to be as united as ever and Ukraine is actively looking for security guarantees, Georgia seems to be taking a backseat, trying to maneuverer and continue with the so-called ‘pragmatic politics’ with Moscow. However, it has been far from successful. The government’s insufficient practical support and lack of vocal statements sparked protests among the Georgian public, who continue to overwhelmingly support Georgia’s integration into Western intuitions. There are concerns that Georgia might become a “loophole” for Russia and Russian citizens to avoid Western sanctions. The concerns were further exacerbated by Moscow’s decision to allow several Georgian companies to import dairy goods into Russia. Despite the government’s explanation that the process started in 2020, the lack of clear position and the timing raise a lot of questions and stirred protest among the public.

National interests and pro-Western foreign policy

The Georgian government often refers to the country’s national interests to justify their decisions and policies. The national interests of Georgia were cited as a reason not to join the international sanctions against Russia, while the public demanded the opposite from the government in protests in front of the parliament. Moreover, recent opinion polls show that the majority of the Georgian public does, in fact, believe that Georgia needs to join the sanctions fully or partially. The aforementioned division between the general population and government leads to the assumption that the national interests of the country are perceived differently by the government and the people.

According to the National Security Concept of Georgia, which was last updated in 2011, the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 clearly showed that Russia does not acknowledge the sovereignty of Georgia nor its right to pursue either an independent internal or foreign policy. The same document also prioritises integration into western institutions to improve the country’s security. Sovereignty and territorial integrity alongside European and Euro-Atlantic integration is listed among the national interests of Georgia, while Russian aggression is underlined as one of the key threats to national security. For Russia, Georgia and Ukraine, among others, are considered as parts of its ‘sphere of influence’ where it has exclusive rights. Due to this perception, Russia does not recognise the rights of any of these countries to formulate and conduct independent internal and foreign policy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February is yet further evidence of this fact. This makes pragmatic cooperation with Russia, while maintaining independence and sovereignty practically impossible.

Internal divisions and struggles

The Georgian political elite and society seem to be as divided as ever amid the war in Ukraine. Georgia has a constitutionally declared pro-western foreign policy course, which is overwhelmingly supported by the Georgian public. Therefore, on paper, Georgia expresses a clear desire to be a part of the western political and security system. However, the Georgian government’s latest statements and actions raise questions over the country’s commitment to the chosen foreign policy course.

It seems that the protesters in front of the Georgian parliament express the will of the people since the most recent public opinion polls show that 87 per cent of the population believe that the Ukrainian war is Georgia’s war too, and 96 per cent think that the recent developments in Ukraine fully or partially concern Georgia. Despite this, the prime minister of Georgia stated that the war is in Ukraine and the Georgian government has its own issues to attend to. The most recent public opinion poll results, published on March 15th, show that 61 per cent of the Georgian population thinks that the government needs to offer more support to Ukraine, and 66 per cent believes that Georgia should join western sanctions fully or partially.

In addition, there are conflicting views over Georgia’s stance towards the war in Ukraine between the political elites as well. Amid the government’s rather passive foreign policy, the President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili, conducted several high-profile visits to the EU and talked to the international media about the war in Ukraine and Georgia’s western aspirations, expressing strong support towards Ukraine and condemning Russian aggression (Gabritchidze, 2022). Later, the president declared that she was expressing the will of the Georgians protesting in front of the parliament. Moreover, during her address to the Georgian Parliament on Monday, President Zurabishvili revealed that the government officially rejected her visits to Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and Warsaw; she was forced to use personal connections to go through with the planned visits. The government’s neutral, or rather, inactive foreign policy stance contrasts greatly with the president’s surprisingly active and vocal support towards Ukraine. The political establishment clearly shows existing internal divisions, that mirror the division between the government and the people.

Georgia stepping away from the new security arrangements

With the changing security environment and new reality in Europe, most actors have adjusted their foreign and security policies Following the Russian aggression against Ukraine, support for NATO membership in Finland and Sweden has grown significantly. The formerly cautious Germany announced it will increase its military spending to strengthen security while the EU offered 500 million euros worth of armaments to Ukraine in what was referred to as a “watershed” decision. Moreover, an unprecedented number of sanctions were introduced against Russia following the war in Ukraine covering various sectors of the economy to put pressure on the Kremlin. Now is the time when Georgia should be using every opportunity to talk about the Russian aggression in Ukraine within the context of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. This is especially true considering that some of the former state officials that have prosecuted the war in Ukraine also helped prosecute the 2008 war against Georgia. The Georgian government should be using all possible international platforms to vocally support Ukraine and condemn Russia’s invasion of the country.

Ukraine is actively looking for security cooperation amongst its western partners. A few days before the war, Ukraine signed a security agreement with Poland and the UK aiming for stability and resilience in Ukraine. Understandably, this trilateral cooperation emerged in response to the recent developments around Ukraine in the leadup to the war. However, Georgia should be actively trying to participate in the western security initiatives since it exists in a very similar security environment as Ukraine. The aforementioned security cooperation between Ukraine, Poland, and the UK would be a great opportunity for Georgia as well, but there were no talks or consultations over the alliance coming from the Georgian side.

Rare window of opportunity for Georgia

It seems that the experts and the public understand that there is a historical chance for Georgia to get closer to the West. After Ukraine applied for EU membership, the public requested, through protests, that the Georgian government should follow suit, which led to the Georgian application to the EU. Soon after, Moldova did the same. President Zurabishvili also acknowledged that there is a window of opportunity for Georgia and that the EU can help the country in face of potential Russian aggression. Georgia once again stands at a critical point where the country needs to choose its place in the international system and reaffirm its commitments. There is no middle ground, and in the context of this black and white picture, Georgia now more than ever needs to make a definitive and clear choice. Now, a very narrow window of opportunity for Georgia to define its place in a drastically changed security environment has appeared. The country needs to take advantage of this quickly since the window will not be open for long. If the current governmental policy prevails, the country will be left out of the changed post-war security environment in Europe. The main priority for Georgia should be to capitalise on the recent regional and international developments to secure its security needs. However, as of now the populace and the political elites are divided. This is the time when these opposing groups need to work together in the best interests of Georgia.

Nino Kvirikashvili is a second-year MA student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow under the Erasmus Mundus double-degree Masters program in Central and East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IMRCEES). Earlier she received a BA degree in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. She is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe

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