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Georgia: the next evolution

The direction of Georgia's domestic politics and international orientation has been much disputed since the "rose revolution" of 2003. The former senior diplomat Tedo Japaridze argues that, in order to realise the democratic promise of that revolution and to become a reliable partner to its allies, Georgia now needs a peaceful transfer of power.

Tedo Japaridze
7 April 2012

This is the first time I write an article about my country, Georgia, as a "free man": that is to say, not in the capacity of a diplomat (as I was for nearly a generation) and, therefore, a servant of the state and the policies of whatever government happened to be in power. This new and still unfamiliar role as an active commenter on Georgian affairs is a necessity as well as a choice, for a year ago I was expelled from Georgia's diplomatic core. It was the end of a professional association that had lasted from the first minutes of the country's restored independence in 1990.

Today, I have joined the ranks of Georgia's political opposition and been appointed an adviser on foreign policy and national security to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the "Georgian Dream" coalition which will contest the legislative elections (due in October 2012) and presidential elections (due in October 2013). In the course of this process my name and my integrity have been subjected to a painful and, frankly, unexpected campaign of defamation, especially on the governmental TV channels. Yet one thing has not changed: as a politician no less than as a diplomat, I still feel I am working for the best interests of my country. The purpose of this article is to explain to former colleagues, policy-makers and opinion leaders why I believe this is the case.

In 2012, there is a feeling of uncertainty about the economic, political and, coextensively, geopolitical future of Europe. This has been accelerating since the severe financial crisis of the Eurozone began in 2009. It is intensified by other factors, such as the underlying tensions with Iran (by the way a very close neighbour of Georgia). Yet in face of its many problems, Europe tends to cling to past certainties rather than attempt to renew itself. The result is that leaders seek as far as possible to maintain alliances and, where governments on the "periphery" are concerned, to see incumbents as reliable partners worthy of continued support.

In this context, whoever sides with the opposition in Georgia runs one of two dangers: heading towards a brick wall by trying to change things against very difficult odds, or even worse, being labelled a Russian stooge (a routine accusation of Georgia's government, extended recently to all those commissioners who participated in the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative [EASI] conference in Munich, just by virtue of their association with myself). It seems that in periods of geopolitical fluctuation, "stability" is especially valued - even when the people Georgia's allies are used to working with often lose their temper, or even their sobriety.

Brussels and Washington, each for its own reasons, are today reluctant to revisit their policy in the Ssouth Caucasus, including Georgia. Perhaps with good reason, since their prime struggle is to maintain cohesion on the home front rather than undertake grand foreign-policy u-turns. This is seen in, for example, the de facto "enlargement fatigue" of both Nato and the European Union - a great disappointment to regions of Europe such as ours where the dream of "returning to Europe" has been and largely still is unchallenged. Yet the rapidity of change in the geopolitical environment makes it all the more important that foreign-policy and security experts in our region tell the truth as we see it, even if it goes against the conformist tendencies that today dominate.

The transit country

The fundamental question that such an expert needs to answer, in the Georgian context as of any other country, is: what is a nation's security? The usual response is to outline a reliable conceptual map of "security risks", based on a deep understanding of the status quo, of bilateral and multilateral dynamics, and of "what can be taken for granted about this region".

The search for such definition in relation to Georgia takes place amid many fluctuations and variables. Yet if any certainties are to be counted on, the issue of transit-routes (especially energy) and of east-west relations are a good starting-point. These are the parameters of Georgian reality that shape much of its international profile.

On the first point, Georgia is and will remain a gateway from central Asia and the Black Sea / Caspian basin to Europe and beyond. In the early 1990s, Georgia emerged as a key partner both in ensuring that nuclear material would not be exported from an economically and politically devastated post-Soviet space to the highest bidder, and in the struggle against all kinds of illicit trafficking (from small weapons, nuclear and radioactive materials to drugs and human beings). Europe and the entire Euro-Atlantic community also came to realise in these years that Georgia, by virtue of its location and diplomatic tradition, would become for the foreseeable future a central component in the struggle to delineate Europe's energy-security architecture.

Georgia, along with Azerbaijan and Turkey, is an important transit country for the trade in fossil-fuel resources from the Caspian basin, important to Europe to limit its dependence on a single fuel supplier, namely Russia. As long as Europe relies on cheap energy, the Georgian-Azeri-Turkish corridor will remain significant. This is a fact.

The gradual depletion of Norway's resources may increase the strategic role of the Black Sea / Caspian region and, implicitly, Georgia's. In addition, shale-gas extraction technology may ease the pressure on Europe, boosting domestic production in countries such as France or Poland; and supplies from Iraq, the newly discovered Aegean / Mediterranean reserves, and even in time Iran may also benefit Europe. At the same time, with nuclear energy in crisis and the momentum to a low-emission economy, natural gas will grow in importance.

So the Black Sea / Caspian region will remain in the spotlight for decades to come, which makes Georgia's geopolitical stability is in everyone's interest. Why? Because if something crumbles internally in Georgia, including the integrity of the elections, this country would instantly become a bottleneck instead of a gateway to the entire south Caucasus / central Asian area which communicates with the west through the Georgian sea-ports. This too is a fact.

The political pivot

On the second point, Georgia as the terrain of an east-west encounter, there are constraints on all sides. Europe cannot allow its relations with Russia to degenerate too far, since it depends so much on Russia's energy supplies; yet by the same token, this binds Russia to Europe. Russia remains a global power, and - from the Arctic circle to the Indian subcontinent - must be engaged, if not as an ally, then at least as a player in the quest to secure peace and stability. There is some room for manoeuvre or competition here, but little for confrontation. This also is a fact.

The unipolarity of the 1990s is gradually being replaced by a more complex and diverse international system, and a number of actors are acquiring the possibility of a "regional veto". Georgia is for better or worse located in a frontier-zone, with all that position historically entails. This has been confirmed time and again: in Bucharest, where Nato refused to consider opening the MAP process for Georgia, and during the tragic days of August 2008 when 20% of our territory was occupied. This situation is too important for a blame-game: for the world after all is complex, and neatly divided into Georgia's friends and foes. "Whoever is not with us is against us" does not work for Georgia.

To illustrate the point, imagine the following dilemma: Georgia is tomorrow admitted as a fully-fledged member of Nato. Why a dilemma? Because there are three ways in which this no doubt desirable objective could be accomplished: by Nato members accepting Georgia minus the two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and thus recognising their independence), by accepting a new member with 20% of its territory remaining under hostile foreign occupation, or by evoking Article V for the second time in its history (after the war over Kosovo in 1999) and going to war. If Nato admitted a "Georgia minus the territories", this would mean a de facto terminal erosion of the country's sovereignty. In that case, Germany and France and the United States might have addressed a question Tbilisi itself is yet unwilling to confront, by extending "hard love" rather than populist promises - and proving Georgia's most enlightened allies in the process.

If the aforementioned assessment is correct, it implies that the status quo does not equal stability. Georgia has been a loyal and constructive ally (for instance, over our military commitment in Afghanistan), but we are viewed as a place on the map where a lot of things can go wrong in a serious way - that is, as an ally that sometimes needs protection from its own propensity for recklessness. This opens a dilemma for Europe and the entire Euro-Atlantic region, for which Georgia is significant - but not significant enough to risk an open confrontation with Moscow. So how can Georgia expect its allies to behave?

In an ideal world, Georgia would make the headlines only on issues such as foreign direct investment (FDI) or a new energy project. But investment is not happening, even though our country has deregulated its labour market and is very close to being a tax-haven" (after all, as our president boasts, we were ranked first in the World Bank's "doing business" index). There is much to be done in terms of human-resource development and financial security, and in matching zero-tolerance for petty corruption with high-level transparency. But concentrating on the big picture, the bottom line is this:

* As long as Georgia is a place on the map where a lot of things can go seriously wrong, major FDI flows of the type and magnitude needed to address our chronic and socially devastating unemployment is not going to happen

* As long as we are a society with a virtually non-existent middle class, and geared towards the production of low-added-value products and services, the cream of our youth will continue to seek a future elsewhere

* As long as our leadership lacks foresight - a vision of where we want to be in five or twenty years from now (apart from wanting to remain in power for this long, or even longer) - we will remain on the informal index of places where a lot of things can go seriously wrong.

In this context, "wrong" means not just confrontation with Russia but also fear of a political system that implodes because it cannot deliver promises, fails to represent, and therefore is unable to prevent social and political cleavages escalating into systemic confrontation. The danger is indicated by reports and indices (from Freedom House, the Nato parliamentary assembly, the Venice commission, and various NGO fact-finding missions) that Georgia is less than fully democratic.

Some would say this is a gross understatement, and that in fact ours is a country where the nomenklatura has been replaced by a demokratura; where an ailing leadership is living off the glory of the "rose revolution" (and all of us supported its unwavering commitment to change and renewal), addicted to nationalist bravado while failing to address chronically pressing questions.

If this portrait is right, there must be a cost-benefit analysis of living with Georgia's political system. From the point of view of the opposition,. it is clear that we need to transcend the perception of being a country with weak institutions and a "strong system" where power is exercised by law but in the absence of the rule of law; where even the potential of power-transfer is considered a "revolution" rather than "democratic business as usual"; where modernisation efforts resemble a Potemkin's village-show, creating a legitimating façade for a hybrid, semi-authoritarian, regime.

In sum, we need democracy. Because security is not only the art of avoiding war, but the effort to become attractive to investors, to talented professionals, to entrepreneurs who wish to believe in the value of a contract rather than live with the uncertainty of "personal guarantees", and not the least if not the first to our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers and sisters. In many ways, security is all about the proverbial right to pursue happiness.

The diplomatic challenge

The political coalition "Georgian Dream" under the leadership of Bidzina Ivanishvili is in my view the most credible alternative until now to the current political establishment. Ivanishvili was once a supporter of President Mikheil Saakshvili because, at the time of the the rose revolution, most Georgians felt that there was a tangible opportunity for a leap forward. It's true that personal security in our cities did increase and that petty corruption was indeed hit. But over the last few years the strength and vitality of this movement has lost touch with its social foundations and values.

There is now elite corruption: inside information for public contracts, accompanied by generous donations to the ruling party; consulting services from the state, which make their way back to donations for the ruling party; grand villas constructed in the name of democratic consolidation. In sum, we live not in a world without rules, as in the early 1990s, but in a world with fixed and weighted rules.

There is ample evidence that this degeneration presents our western allies with a clear moral hazard. As things stand, the world is pressing the Russian regime to respond to the calls of its emerging middle class and loosen its grip on power. But Georgia too is about to "do a Putin". That is to say, President Saakasvili has initiated constitutional reform to the effect that the office of the prime minister becomes the new point of gravity for the executive - just in time, as his term as president will expire in 2013.

The president has no qualms about stripping his arch-rival Bidzina Ivanishvili of his citizenship, changing the electoral law, legislating against the banking sector (and applying these laws selectively on his rival's business), and retailoring the constitution itself according to his political interests and perspectives - even, with bitter irony, again amending the constitution to restore Ivanishvili's citizenship, instead of using (for example) existing laws on naturalisation (see "Constitutional Amendment for Ivanishvili", Civil Georgia, 5 April 2012).

Such ventures in constitutional engineering may yet set a trap for our allie, and at least place them in a difficult position, especially those who have expended considerable material and diplomatic capital to defend Georgia from its heavy-handed neighbour.

But the direst consequences of these manipulations are reserved for Georgian citizens. Every success story in modern economic history, in eastEast Asia for example, started by importing questions rather than pre-packed answers, by caring about structure rather than merely façade. Georgia is far from this. At one time, Georgia was a thriving agricultural producer; today, we are shamelessly depended on imports for our basic nutrition. If we are to remain globally relevant, we need, as Ivanishvili has said, to start thinking local, on a small-business and grassroots level. This is the next transition we must make, both for our sake and our allies'. Both sides, again, need to stop pretending that the status quo equals stability.

This has domestic and foreign-policy implications.

Domestically, we need dynamic stability rather than authoritative security - in a word, a democracy where elections can be lost. This is critical, because for our economy to diversify, for political leadership to become responsive to grassroots demands, our leaders must become accustomed to the fear of losing. In turn, politics must become more surprising, less predictable - and thus arguably, more stable. Our allies must realise that a safe bet is not always a winning ticket. Above all, our American and European friends must address this question: "where is our money, earmarked for institutional development, civic empowerment and democratic consolidation, being spent?" If those reports are accurate, their tax-payers are being taken for a ride.

Internationally, it is important that diplomacy serves the objectives of conflict- resolution, not merely the freezing of issues and a sort of bravado-competition amongst leaders. By insisting on such priorities, Georgia would meet the needs of our allies for a dependable partner. This means not an "open-vector" diplomacy of the kind experienced in other parts of this region, but rather engagement - of the type that does not involve tanks, and preferably with the help of our allies, who would be more eager to focus their energy on solid diplomatic initiatives than figuring ways to avoid an open confrontation without losing face.

The democratic case

Georgia is clearly a country of the west, of European identity and orientation if not yet a member of the European Union. But we must not expect that our allies will descend upon Georgia as peacemakers as well as security guarantors. Nato membership, when or if it comes, will solidify our security; it is not "an exit strategy." EU membership, when it comes, will solidify our economic and social cohesion; but our socio-economic structures cannot be designed in Brussels. In sum, we need to work and quit praying.

Georgia's closest allies are today entangled in unprecedented crisis. Even so, I propose that now is the time for them to consider the benefits of political change in Georgia. The "Georgian Dream" coalition is a promise of democratic evolution in what began many years ago; its members are people not unknown to our allies, who can credibly argue that this is a reform-minded movement committed to ensuring that the resources and energy spent by our allies in this region will bring high returns for many years to come. We are talking about a peaceful power-transfer rather than regime-change.

All this suggests an answer to the question I posed above, "what is a nation's security?" I would say this: to be an ally that is both predictable and reliable is the key to building long-lasting relationships - be it with market forces, with states, including our opponents in the neighbuorhood and, not least, your own citizens. This is the position we need to be in a year from now. Change, like death, is certain; how this change comes about is in our hands; and in the hands of our allies. There is much to do if we are to make Georgia a prosperous, stable and secure democratic state.

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