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Georgia’s peculiar balancing act and Washington’s ire at its ‘Beacon of Liberty’

Once a darling of Washington, Georgia again finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

February 15, 2023 - Giorgi Lasha Kasradze - Articles and Commentary

Flags of the United States of America and Georgia in front of the parliament in Tbilisi. Photo: Eval Miko / Shutterstock

A return of great power competition has compelled the current political leadership in Tbilisi to pursue a more pragmatic foreign policy. That this was inevitable has not spared the current ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), from western criticism. The party stands accused of deviating from Georgia’s traditional pro-western course.

This criticism is surprising and unfounded. Georgia has offered itself to the collective West on a silver platter throughout its early and modern history without any response. Georgia’s storied history is embedded in its pro-western strategic culture. Even the ultranationalist but democratically elected first president, Zviad Gamsakurdia, attempted a policy of “strategic idealism” with Washington, but to no avail. Now that Tbilisi is seeking to pursue a path between the West and Russia, it is openly being accused, for all the wrong reasons, of deviating from its traditional western-oriented foreign policy.

So, what is behind this tactical change in Tbilisi? It seems that Georgian society has started to awaken from Tbilisi’s strategic slumber of the previous decades. And while the country remains overwhelmingly pro-western, the overall anti-Russian hysteria that defined the presidency of the now imprisoned Mikhail Saakashvili — the boisterous golden boy of the Bush administration — has subsided. Meanwhile, Washington’s foreign policy community has expressed irritation with Tbilisi for being out of tune with Washington’s drumbeat, which in the past kept Georgia firmly in line.

Consider the accusations from former U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly. The ambassador blames Tbilisi for straying from the West and not showing enough solidarity with Ukraine. Such commentary is looks like political spin, if not an intentional omission of facts. The meaning of Kelly’s peculiar statement that …this is a very bad time for all this when there is a real discussion about NATO enlargement, is also unclear. It is precisely because of the unfettered promotion of Georgia for NATO membership that Russia felt threatened and invaded the country in 2008. Were it not for Saakashvili’s recklessness, Georgia could have prevented Moscow not only from invading, but also from recognising the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali as independent states. After all, this was something that Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgian President from 1995 to 2003, achieved by balancing the West’s influence with that of Moscow. In other words, Georgia’s strategic position went from bad to worse in a matter of days. And yet, judging from these comments, this existential threat to Georgia seems to matter little to the ambassador, as long as talk of NATO expansion can continue unmolested.

In yet another instance, Luke Coffey suggested that Georgia could be invited to join NATO, but without the Article V guarantees for the two separatist regions. But again, such fantastical innovations augment the existential threat Georgia faces from Russia. The reason Moscow supports separatist movements in these regions is to ensure that not a sliver of Georgian territory joins NATO. Therefore, it is far from clear how Russia would ever accept what would amount to a separate peace with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali while the rest of Georgia receives Article V protection. Even the most ardent proponents of liberal internationalism must suspect that such a policy would further weaken Georgia’s sovereignty by once again enraging Moscow. 

The gradual accumulation of such views has created a toxic atmosphere, including pushback from Georgian Dream. The party claimed that “certain forces” in Ukraine close to former Georgian president Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) were engaged in machinations to push Georgia into opening a second front against Russia, prompting a denial from U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan. However, the damage had already been done — four former members of the current government wrote an open letter claiming that the European Union (EU) would not grant Georgia its candidate status if it “does not join the war or join the sanctions against Russia.”

The current context of political petulance would not be complete without the ominous shadow of the UNM that continues to loom large in Georgian politics. Allegations of criminality on the part of Saakashvili’s government have deeply affected the population and made it wary of the UNM’s return. So far, a good indication of this shift in public perspective is that Saakashvili’s arrest has not generated the level of support among his electorate that he had hoped. Bereft of political and moral legitimacy, it is unlikely that he will return to politics in Georgia any time soon. 

To be sure, GD has been far from innocent in this political quagmire. Having skilfully taken advantage of the prevailing uncertainty, it has hinted that the UNM’s return would mean the resumption of state terror. Having won an unprecedented third term, GD has managed to keep the population at bay despite its consistent failure to improve the economy and its unilateral withdrawal from EU-brokered agreements. Ironically, this failure has not prevented it from exploiting the existing public perception that the UNM is being egged on against GD by Georgia’s western partners. 

In order to defuse tensions, the West must take the high road and de-escalate political conflict with Tbilisi. The current duel is shabby theatrics and only deepens polarisation. The West exerts much more influence over Tbilisi, but political officials in Washington must understand how to properly take advantage of it. One aspect of the relationship they must leverage is Georgia’s long-held tradition of using personal relations to engage in robust diplomacy behind the scenes. Furthermore, Washington must forego its infatuation with Saakashvili, recognise the harsh realities on the ground, and treat the GD as an equal player.

Lastly and most importantly, western officials must recognise that geopolitics is part and parcel of the region, instead of equating Tbilisi’s pragmatism with an anti-Western shift. Georgia has bandwagoned before with its northern neighbour. This geopolitical move should not come as a surprise to Washington, given that it cannot guarantee Georgia’s security in either the short or long term. Georgians have started to pay closer attention to this dynamic, if only because the historic visit of the American president to their country increased their frustration with the lack of a path to NATO membership. 

Ironically, the United States and Georgia are tied together. Even though Georgia does not represent a vital security interest for the United States, Washington has made enormous political, financial, and military investments to strengthen Georgia’s legitimacy and sovereignty. If Washington wants to strengthen this tie with Georgia, American policymakers must show strategic flexibility by reducing pressure on the leadership in Tbilisi. No great decisions will be made while Georgian policymakers are constantly squeezed between a rock and a hard place.

A version of this article was previously published by The National Interest and The Fletcher Forum.

Giorgi Lasha Kasradze is an academic liaison and strategic business development officer at Sokhumi State University and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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