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Georgia at a crossroads: seizing its third opportunity

Georgia is once again faced with a pivotal moment in its history. Much like the collapse of Moscow’s power in 1917 and 1991, today’s war in Ukraine is providing Tbilisi with room to pursue a pro-western course. However, a form of government backed by the Kremlin could stand in the way of real change for a third time.

October 30, 2023 - Nika Sikharulidze - Articles and Commentary

Massive rally in the support of Ukraine and EU membership in Tbilisi in June 2022. Photo: EvaL Miko / Shutterstock

Over the course of the last century, Georgia has encountered two pivotal moments that held the promise of western integration. The initial opportunity arose following a century of Russian occupation, when the 1917 Russian Revolution granted Georgia independence – a fleeting period that spanned three years. However, in 1921, Soviet Russia swiftly reasserted control, annexing Georgia and extinguishing all attempts to align with the West. Thus began a harsh 70 years under one of history’s most brutal regimes.

The early 1990s brought another chance for Georgia to reclaim its independence and establish a sovereign, democratic state after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Regrettably, this opportunity was swiftly dashed. In 1992, Russia instigated conflicts in Georgian territories – Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia – followed by an internal conflict fuelled by Russian-backed politicians. These events led to the flight of Georgia’s president, plunging the nation into prolonged turmoil and anarchic conditions.

Today, Georgia stands on the frontline of transformative shifts in Europe. The very political map of Europe could undergo significant alterations, potentially stripping Russia of its superpower status. Western political circles have reached a consensus: as the conflict in Ukraine could possibly conclude in the near future, both Kyiv and Chisinau are poised to join the European Union and NATO. Amidst these changes, Georgia is presented with a tangible opportunity to seize the moment and fulfil its longstanding aspiration of becoming an integral part of the western community.

However, a fundamental question lingers: does Georgia possess the capability and resolve to capitalise on this chance? The precariousness of the situation is palpable. Should this opportunity slip through Georgia’s grasp, will another chance emerge, or is this the denouement of its pursuit? The answer to this query could shape Georgia’s trajectory for years to come.

In order to address the aforementioned inquiries, it is imperative to delve into an analysis of the two preceding opportunities and ascertain the divergent path that Georgia undertook away from its western trajectory.

Lessons of the past

The Russian Empire solidified its dominion over Georgia through occupation and annexation in 1801. This transpired as Russian troops entered Georgia, compelling the nation’s nobility to pledge allegiance to the Russian tsar within the confines of Tbilisi’s cathedral. From 1801 to 1917, Russia relentlessly pursued a policy of Russification, demoralisation and suppression of resistance, relegating Georgia to a subservient role within the larger geopolitical context. The nation found itself relegated to the role of a subordinate to its influential neighbour.

A pivotal juncture arrived with the sudden eruption of revolution within Russia. In May 1918, a mere year after the revolution, Georgia boldly declared its independence. Georgia quickly sought to establish connections with western nations and cultivate alliances. However, the year 1921 saw the encroachment of the Fifth Russian Army into Georgia, resulting in its reoccupation and the subsequent flight of its government into European exile.

During the tumultuous global conditions of the First World War, Georgia, upon declaring its independence in 1918, actively pursued partnerships and assistance from a range of nations. Its primary allies during this period comprised Germany and the Ottoman Empire. These affiliations were shaped by the geopolitical complexities of the time and were located within an intricate network of international associations.

Germany, in particular, provided military and political support to Georgia during its early years of independence. This support was partly driven by Germany’s strategic interests in the region and its desire to counter the influence of other powers, such as Russia and the United Kingdom. The Ottoman Empire also recognised Georgia’s independence and established diplomatic relations. It contributed to Georgia’s diplomatic efforts in a complex geopolitical environment after the collapse of the Russian Empire.

However, it is essential to understand that alliances during this period were fluid and subject to change. The end of the First World War and the subsequent reorganisation of the international order led to shifts in alliances and power dynamics. As the situation evolved, Georgia’s alliances with Germany and the Ottoman Empire were affected by the larger geopolitical developments of the time.

During Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1918, its military capabilities were modest, given the region’s historical context and the challenges it faced. The newly formed Georgian Democratic Republic inherited a relatively small and underdeveloped military infrastructure. Georgia sought support from various sources to bolster its military capabilities, including diplomatic efforts to secure alliances with nations like Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Economically, it was a nascent and fragile entity, recognised as independent by only a handful of nations. Despite these challenges, a ray of hope persisted under specific circumstances.

A mix of challenges and opportunities characterised the economic situation in Georgia during its declaration of independence in 1918. The country was emerging from years of imperial rule under the Russian Empire and was grappling with the effects of the First World War and the subsequent collapse of empires.

Despite the challenges, the leadership of the newly established Georgian Democratic Republic aimed to capitalise on new opportunities for economic growth and development. They initiated efforts to improve infrastructure, attract foreign investment and develop trade relationships with other countries. However, the tumultuous geopolitical situation, ongoing conflicts, and the subsequent invasion by Soviet forces in 1921 significantly impacted Georgia’s economic prospects during its early years of independence.

The crux of the matter rested on robust external support intertwined with internal cohesion and a resolute drive to reclaim sovereignty. However, during that era, both realpolitik and idealistic perspectives did not align in favour of Georgia. The nation found itself marginalised in the grand narratives of major players, receiving minimal assistance in its struggle for autonomy. This unfortunate lack of attention led Georgia to drift further from its promising future – a future marked by democratisation, westernisation, economic progress, and integration into the emerging European community of that epoch.

Subsequent decades witnessed a tumultuous saga of bloodshed, oppression, cultural suppression, and the systematic erasure of Georgian heritage, language, religion and expressions of nationalism.

A new hope?

There are moments of profound disappointment when the prospect of positive change seems elusive, only for sudden events to cast a glimmer of hope in the seemingly endless tunnel of darkness. Such a beacon emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s subsequent declaration of independence in 1991. This presented a pragmatic opportunity for Georgia to decisively sever its ties with Russia and align itself with western institutions, bolstered by several significant factors.

At that juncture, Russia found itself in a state of pronounced weakness, having been predominantly defeated by the United States in the Cold War. Economic turmoil plagued Russia, which initially relied on humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the United States stood stronger than ever, ardently championing the ideals of a liberal democratic global order. Consequently, this era witnessed the EU’s fifth enlargement, marking the accession of the former Soviet republics Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as full members in 2004.

Yet, Georgia soon found itself ensnared in conflicts engineered by Russia, derailing its trajectory and relegating it to the status of a faltering state. This turmoil hindered the nation’s capacity for robust foreign policy and internal development, in stark contrast to the conditions of 1918. Despite this, western countries, particularly the United States, exhibiting proactive strength and political maturity, extended assistance to countries like Georgia to facilitate development and integration into the European family.

However, the turmoil prevalent within Georgia during this time constrained western aid, which was primarily directed toward averting starvation due to dire economic circumstances. The intention was gradual change, with limited support in Georgia’s path toward statehood. Yet, Georgia was not yet prepared to ride the wave of enlargement and become an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic community. It was perceived as a tumultuous and undeveloped entity, dissuading the West from fully embracing the country.

Several factors contributed to this perception. Georgia lacked well-established political traditions and national institutions, alongside any institutional memory essential for swift nation-building – a critical necessity at the time. Furthermore, Russian influence permeated Georgia’s internal affairs, exacerbating negative developments and effectively closing the window of opportunity. This dashed hopes of any immediate integration but left a glimmer of hope for the possibility of revisiting the opportunity in the future.

Meanwhile, Georgia began to steadily progress in its development, particularly following the “Rose Revolution” in 2003. Significant strides have now been made in terms of economic growth, military capabilities, anti-corruption efforts, and the establishment of good governance practices in public services. Georgia has also made considerable progress diplomatically, with the United States and the European Union becoming strategic partners and major contributors to its military, economic and humanitarian development. Georgia received a promise of future NATO membership at the Bucharest summit in 2008, made all the prerequisites for signing an association agreement with the EU, and was on the path to EU membership.

Everything appeared to be proceeding smoothly, as Georgia eagerly anticipated the opportunity to break free from the influence of a major neighbouring power and become a full member of the transatlantic alliance. This opportunity seemed to materialise with the conflict in Ukraine, which triggered a re-evaluation of western policies towards Russia. Western allies, alongside the US and other nations, recognised the need to deter Russia’s expansionist ambitions, particularly its desire to exert control over former Soviet republics. Consequently, the West showed unprecedented support for Ukraine in its struggle against aggression and made swift decisions to admit Ukraine and Moldova to the EU and NATO after the conflict’s resolution. However, Georgia’s prospects seemed to diminish during this time.

Another flashpoint?

In 2012, Georgia elected the “Georgian Dream” political coalition, which was perceived as more pro-Russian. Some believed that this shift would be temporary, given the high level of pro-western feeling among the Georgian population. They hoped that Georgian Dream, led by the Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, would ultimately pivot towards the West to retain power. These assumptions, opinions and wishful thoughts ultimately proved to be naive.

The ruling party redirected Georgia towards Russia, perpetuated corruption, hindered economic progress, weakened defence and security capabilities, and left the country vulnerable to Russian influence. Now, the question arises: can Georgia return to its western orientation, potentially change its leadership, bring pro-western voices to power, and continue its struggle? There are both pessimistic and optimistic views on this matter. The urgency of this question underscores the gravity of the situation.

Looking back at Georgia’s history, we can identify two significant attempts to achieve full sovereignty as a western nation, both of which faced formidable challenges.

In the first instance, the geopolitical landscape was far from favourable for Georgia. As a post-colonial country, Georgia was considerably weak and unprepared for the journey towards western integration. The circumstances at the time did not align with Georgia’s aspirations.

The second attempt occurred in the early 1990s, a period when the West, including Europe and the United States, was exceptionally strong and eager to assist Georgia in its swift development as a transatlantic entity. However, even as Georgia was poised for progress, a weakened Russia retained the ability to exert significant influence over an already vulnerable country. Russia initiated conflicts and fostered instability in the region, doing everything in its power to obstruct Georgia’s path towards western development.

And now, we find ourselves in a situation where the Georgian people once again express a strong desire to integrate with western institutions and fundamentally westernise their country. However, despite its relative weakness, Russia remains committed to destabilising the situation. Russia employs proxy politicians and deploys various tactics to prevent Georgia from escaping its influence.

The overarching theme throughout these historical chapters is Georgia’s unwavering determination to move toward the West, despite the considerable obstacles presented by its formidable neighbour, Russia.

Several factors contribute to concerns about Georgia’s path, including a high rate of youth emigration, a significant influx of Russian citizens purchasing property and establishing businesses, the extensive infiltration of the Russian secret services into Georgian public services and politics, and more. These factors suggest that Georgia’s own process of “Belarusisation” is imminent, with little hope of stopping it.

The only positive sign lies in the youth who protested against a Russian-inspired law about foreign agents in the spring of this year. This prompted concern within the ruling party, leading to the withdrawal of the law. However, the government’s concentrated efforts to demolish, demoralise and eliminate sources of resistance are evident.

The scenarios regarding Georgia’s future are uncertain, but it is evident that there is little hope and clear means for positive change. The risk that Georgia may permanently lose its independence, development and western alignment is a looming possibility, similar to the fate of the North Caucasian states absorbed into the Russian Empire from the 18th to 20th centuries.

Nika Sikharulidze is an expert in the fields of national security, international relations, and defense matters. His prior professional roles have been characterised by the provision of strategic counsel and the assumption of leadership positions within the Office of the National Security Council of Georgia and the Parliament of Georgia. His educational credentials include attaining Master’s degrees in Public Administration and Public Policy from the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and the KDI School of Public Policy and Management in South Korea.

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