Part of any trip to Georgia getting the most out of local color: the food, the scenery, the Stalin Museum.
But there’s another dimension to Georgia: geopolitics. Divided, occupied in part by Russian troops, Georgia is one of the world’s most at-risk countries and the shadow of new crises with Russia hangs over everything in the country.
Some of Georgia’s problems are, frankly, the fault of bad decisions by its government. The reckless and aggressive Georgian policies toward Russia in the summer of 2008 — policies it undertook in defiance of warnings from the Bush administration and the rest of the West — gave Putin an opportunity to occupy South Ossetia, create a new wave of Georgian refugees, and make trouble for both Georgia and the United States. Even today, there is a certain trust deficit. Many in western Europe for example simply do not trust Georgia’s president and I do not believe that Georgia will be admitted to NATO until either he or his successor convinces skeptics in Europe that things have changed. Most of the Georgians I spoke with, including political allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili understand this. But it is not clear that Georgia’s president or its political process can or will summon up the necessary “strategic patience”.
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, speaking at the United Nations in 2009 (Credit: UN).
In fact, while I was visiting the country Georgia announced a new policy of ‘visa-free’ travel for residents of the Northern Caucasus — including places like Chechnya. The move angered Russia (which wants to keep the lid on tightly in the North Caucasus and already blames Georgia for allowing arms and people smuggling in and out of the troubled region); it also seriously annoyed the United States, which does not does not want Georgia poking at the Russian bear; the US also objects, strenuously, to the idea of Islamic militants crossing the Georgia border and then roaming freely around a country with many US Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats and other personnel. Georgia is trying to attract many more native English speakers to beef up the country’s fluency; good luck with that if militants are crossing over from the North Caucasus.
The visa move also struck a blow at Georgia’s relations with the EU; Georgia’s hopes for easing the restrictions on Georgians working in or traveling to the EU were not furthered by demonstrating a careless attitude toward a serious security issue on its frontiers. One suspects that the foreign investors Georgia seeks desperately to lure are also put off by a decision that, to say the least, does not enhance the security of foreign personnel and installations.
As far as I could determine, the Georgians did not consult with the Europeans, the Americans or anyone else before taking this step, reinforcing the belief that Georgia’s hotheaded leadership is unpredictable and impulsive. The hard and even brutal lesson that Georgia needs to learn is this: NATO’s European members will not accept a rash and headstrong Georgia into the alliance. Ever.
Georgia’s worst enemy could scarcely have harmed the country more.
The behavior of the Georgian president, rightly or wrongly perceived as reckless and rash by both Europeans and Americans, has so spooked the NATO alliance that Georgia will not be joining it anytime soon. The US has no power to change this; European members of NATO are free to make up their own minds and new members must be admitted by a unanimous vote. (A military alliance could hardly run its affairs in any other way; free peoples cannot be bound to go to war in defense of someone else without at some point giving their consent.) The US supports Georgia and Georgia’s aspirations to NATO, but we are not going to make a bilateral security treaty with Georgia like the one we have with Japan.
That leaves Georgia in a pickle. It is embroiled in a series of disputes with Russia, with Russian troops currently occupying Abkhazia in the northwest and South Ossetia in the north-center. Almost 300,000 Georgian refugees were driven from or fled their homes in these regions. With Russia’s blessing, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have declared their independence. Georgian public opinion can be rabidly nationalistic, and the 4.4 million residents (about 85% of whom are ethnically Georgian) are divided by geographical, cultural and clan lines into many quarreling factions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Georgia has known two revolutions and, depending on how you count them, three civil wars and two significant international ones. New wars could flare up unpredictably, though it seems to me that with the Winter Olympics scheduled in nearby Sochi in 2014, Russia is unlikely to seek new conflicts that could spoil its Olympic celebration.
A Georgian magazine laments NATO’s perceived tardiness (photo by Walter Mead).
Hotheaded Georgian policy has made matters worse, but Georgians have a point when they complain that many of the country’s problems are not its fault. As a transit route for oil and gas from the Caucasian Sea and Central Asia to the west (the only such route not controlled by Russia), Georgia engages the attention of many powerful countries; Russia wants to control the pipeline, and the US and the Europeans don’t want that to happen.
Georgia’s situation is to some degree a hostage to developments in Ukraine. While Ukraine’s government was pushing the country toward NATO membership, Georgia’s aspirations seemed reasonable. Now, with NATO pretty much off the table for Ukraine, Georgia (despite its border the fellow NATO member Turkey) seems a long way from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.
The cooling of expansionist fervor in the EU also leaves Georgia exposed. There was a time, not all that long ago, when many observers thought that Turkey and Ukraine would both be joining the EU. It now seems likely (though in my view very unfortunate) that neither country will get an invitation. There is simply no way that Georgia can get in if both of these larger countries stay out. That leaves Georgia out in the cold as far as powerful international organizations and alliances are concerned.
Again, none of this is Georgia’s fault. The incompetence, corruption and political infighting that doomed the hopes of Ukraine’s Orange Revolutionaries also changed the character of the ex-Soviet space. The serial political and economic crises and failures of the EU have dramatically weakened the ability of EU elites to impose large, unpopular changes like eastward expansion on their sullen and resentful publics. Geography and politics make it profoundly unlikely that Georgia can enter the EU before Turkey does; with Turkish membership looking increasingly as if it is scheduled for the 12th of Never (or the Greek kalends as the ancients used to say), it looks as if Georgia’s accession date will be on the 13th. The growing distance between the new foreign policy of the AK Turkish government and the US threatens over time to make it more difficult for Georgia to please both its Western patrons and its Turkish partners. The confrontation between Iran and the United States continues to cast shadows over the prospects for peace and stability throughout the region.
An American visiting Georgia is in an interesting situation. On the one hand, Georgians are grateful to the United States for our support; more than one person told me that without US help, Georgia would have long since been eaten by the hungry bear. On the other hand, there’s some bitterness that we don’t do more. Where is Georgia’s membership in NATO? Where are missiles Georgia needs to protect itself? Why is the US trying to ‘reset’ its relationship with Russia, and isn’t this a cynical sacrifice of Georgia’s vital interests?
Georgians in the opposition want to know why the US supports the current president. Georgians aligned with the president want to know why we criticize him so much and support him so little. Refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to know why we are doing so little to help them get back to their homes. Members of Georgia’s ethnic minorities want to know why we aren’t doing more to protect their cultural rights.
Many Georgians believe that the Republicans are their true and loyal friends, while Democrats are a bunch of spineless wimps and appeasers. The road in from the airport is named for George W. Bush; if there are plans to name anything big after President Obama, I didn’t hear about them during my trip. Some Georgians were clearly hoping that GOP majorities in Congress after the midterms would bring more support from the US.
These hopes, I think, are misplaced, and only partly because Congress doesn’t have all that much power over American policy towards Georgia. More fundamentally, Georgians seem to have forgotten what happened in the summer of 2008. Various western diplomats I spoke to in Georgia told me that according to their information the Bush administration categorically warned the Georgians in 2008 to avoid responding to Russian provocations. Georgia ignored those warnings, perhaps hoping that the US would have no choice but to back it in a conflict with Russia. The Bush administration felt there was no alternative but to let Georgia face the consequences of its folly. The Bush administration, not President Obama, pulled the plug on Georgia.
Yet Georgians are easily led by their hopes rather than their reason. “Georgia has some very good friends in America,” one Georgian said by way of rebutting my comments that Georgia cannot afford provocative or hotheaded behavior. And there are people in the US whose natural sympathy for a small, threatened nation in a strategic hotspot moves them to say things that Georgians like to hear.
Americans and Georgians would both do well to remember the Hungarian tragedy of 1956. American politicians were talking about ‘rolling back’ Communism, but they were indulging in political rhetoric rather than making serious plans to send tanks across the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately the Hungarians failed to understand that these were just vain and empty words; in part because they were deceived by rhetoric on Voice of America, the Hungarians rose against the Soviets — and were left alone to face the Soviet tanks.
This is not a pleasant message to carry, and I did not enjoy delivering it to a country under the shadow of a partial Russian occupation, but to do anything else would be irresponsible, dangerous and cruel.
There is approximately zero prospect that Georgia will join NATO anytime soon. There is even less chance that the Russian occupation of large chunks of Georgia will end in the near future. Georgian anger and fear given these facts is natural and understandable. But rash Georgian action will only make a bad situation worse — perhaps catastrophically worse.
To improve their situation, the Georgians are going to have to the kind of dull and boring things that many Georgians don’t like. They are going to have to follow a discreet and modest foreign policy, avoiding all unnecessary provocations of Russia and being guided by the advice of their friends. They are going to have to take a very long-term view about Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They need to work on developing the territory they still have, at building a prosperous economy and a stable democracy.
If Georgia can do these things, over time its prospects will improve. As the west (slowly) regains confidence in Georgia’s political leadership, and perhaps also as NATO-Russia relations improve, NATO membership could once again be a realistic prospect. Russia itself ultimately needs stability in the Caucasus more than anything else; a prosperous and stable Georgia would be an important regional partner in helping Russia bring security and peace to the restless peoples of its southern fringe.
I hope Georgia succeeds. This is a beautiful country with a glorious past and an extraordinary culture. But Georgia’s future today is as cloudy as it was when I first visited twenty years (and several wars) ago.