On a recent trip in Tbilisi, one of my more talkative taxi drivers peppered me with every question he could muster: on my (understandably ambiguous) ethnic background, marital status, and of course, my opinions of Georgian wine and women. In a weak bid to keep up, I asked a few questions of my own. Ukraine being the dominant theme in the minds of many Georgians, I asked him what he thought of Russia.
“Russia! Good people, but its government is bad; totally corrupt,” he said emphatically, gesticulating wildly while somehow managing to swerve in tight slaloms on Pekini street in rush hour traffic. “In Ukraine, they’re trying to take it all over. It’s terrible.”
“What about the West? What about NATO?” I countered. Did my taxi driver have any faith that Georgia’s years of hard work would pay off in membership—or at least a concrete path to membership—in this fall’s summit in Wales?
“Eh,” he grunted in response. The quick grin that had dominated the earlier part of the ride had evaporated, his eyes fixed on the traffic ahead. “What will they do? What can they do? Nothing.”
The Ukraine crisis in full swing, few Westerners stopped to consider the 15th anniversary of the NATO campaign against Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavia on March 24. Overlooked in the West, other than by a smattering of dedicated Eurasianists and historians, the 1999 war still ripples through Russia and Eastern Europe and colors regional geopolitics.
In late March, some of those ripples swept through an area about 1,200 miles and 15 years removed from the Kosovo war, in a modest cinema on a dusty, trash-strewn side street in Tbilisi. To a small but packed house, the innocuously named Eurasian Institute showed a film that marked the quindecennial of NATO’s intervention in the Balkans. This was no historical documentary, however, but a warning to the Georgians in attendance of a Western war against what it broadly referred to as “Orthodox civilization.” According to the film, the NATO bombing had little or nothing to do with Milošević’s brutal regime, but rather marked a NATO offensive against the western terminus of global Orthodoxy.
Following the film, the Eurasian Institute’s advocates spilled out onto Rustaveli Street, Tbilisi’s upscale downtown boulevard, and lofted signs denouncing NATO and Georgia’s Western-oriented foreign policy. It was not long before the anti-NATO assembly was confronted by pro-West counter-demonstrators, who angrily accused the Eurasian Institute supporters of cowing to Russian imperialism. Bitter arguments soon descended into scuffles between the two sides, whose notions of Georgia’s future stand on opposite sides of the world.
Days later, a related organization, “Eurasian Choice,” demonstrated in front of the old Russian embassy, which has remained vacant since Tbilisi and Moscow broke diplomatic relations after the bloody August 2008 war. A throng of Eurasian Choice activists raised signs countenancing the Russian annexation of Crimea and unfurled banners promoting “peace.” But here, too, the Russia supporters were faced down by groups of Georgians angry to see their compatriots openly pledge fealty to the same country that dismembered their country nearly six years ago.
Civilization. Choice. Peace. These were the central themes of a pro-Russian message in lexiconic convolutions worthy of the Soviet Union in its heyday. To many Georgians, they are a cruel joke at best and a treasonous misreading of reality at worse. But Georgia itself, increasingly isolated amidst a swelling sea of geopolitical “Eurasianism,” can only sit tight and hope the West will appropriately respond to (and Russian ignore) its earnest and steadfast pro-Western foreign policy.
The concept of an “Orthodox civilization” is not new. An idea historically rooted in Hellenist Byzantium, it is today most frequently championed by Russia, which has variously presumed itself to be Constantinople’s successor after the latter’s fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Samuel Huntington’s classic “Clash of Civilizations” thesis even defines a Slavic-Orthodox sphere as one of eight global civilizations. In Huntington’s formulation, Slavic-Orthodox civilization has many common ancestral moorings with the West, but strongly departs in its historical experience since the Great Schism of 1054. In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Huntington’s thesis continues to have surprising relevance. Today, Moscow’s preferred ideology appears centered not on the dictatorship of the proletariat, but a mélange of Orthodox Christian faith intermixed with elements of xenophobic nationalism, anti-Westernism, and deep social conservatism.
In Georgia, a local franchise of the same ideology has metastasized for years. Strangely, some of the same hands that once furiously beat the drums for war against fellow citizens in the Kremlin-backed, breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia now look to Moscow for leadership. Though Nationalists may have directed their ire toward co-religionist Russians, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians in the 1990s, today they target those they believe they share even less in common with: Muslims and other religious minorities, sexual minorities, and even the “decadent” Westerners who are lobbying for their inclusion.
Moscow has sought to build its new anti-Western sphere atop three major, albeit connected, pillars: Slavic solidarity, Orthodoxy, and Eurasianism. Its innermost, core ideology has been a newfound celebration of the Russkiye people (Russians, ethnically speaking), but it also finds room for the resurrection of early 20th-century-style pan-Slavism. It has been upon these two concepts that Moscow has most fervently couched its justifications for the Ukraine intervention.
The concept of Orthodox civilization, which Moscow leverages in non-Slavic regions, recycles much of the same pan-Slavic rhetoric, but jettisons references to ethnicity (and especially the former’s anti-Caucasian streak) and emphasizes “Orthodox values.” For the culturally distinctive Georgians, pan-Slavism offers nothing and Eurasianism too broad and blurry to make much societal headway, but Orthodoxy is a much more compelling totem in the world’s second-oldest Christian state. Georgia’s own Church has deeper history that far predates even that of its big northern neighbor. “Eurasianism,” the outermost band, encompasses elements from the first two pillars as well as the now-ubiquitous post-Soviet vertical society. Though it is purported and exported by Moscow as ideology, Eurasianism effectively functions as a catchall repository for anti-Western reactionaries, Soviet nostalgics, and authoritarian apologia.
In Georgia, the forces of pro-Russia apologia, anti-Western conservatism, and religious nationalism have begun to unite after years of gradual convergence. Throughout 2013 and into 2014, ultra-nationalist and anti-minority protests—often led or supported by unmistakably-garbed Orthodox clergy—have become an increasingly common fixture on Tbilisi’s squares. Horrifying anti-gay pogroms in May 2013, in which Orthodox clergy planned and led violent protests against a handful of gay rights demonstrators in central Tbilisi, were only the most internationally visible examples of militant religious extremism in the ascendant.
More recently, protests by organizations like the Eurasia Institute have branched off from Georgian religious nationalism to advocate for making common cause with Russia, the same country that occupies a fifth of Georgia’s territory. Eurasian Choice has made waves in Georgia for its controversial positions; its Georgian representatives recently traveled to Moscow to meet with counterparts from Russia, Moldova, and Armenia. In private conversations, senior Georgian government officials believe that Eurasian Choice, and probably other similar organizations, are being directly financed by Russia in an effort to gauge and bolster public support for Russian domination.
Another soft threat vector appears to be emanating from the political arena. Nino Burjanadze, whose uncanny political longevity could only be described as zombie-like, has won a new lease on life by hitching her wagon to Moscow. The former Speaker, and a past champion of Western integration, is now the standard-bearer for foreign policy “neutrality”—a local dog whistle for Russia accommodationism. Following President Barack Obama’s unfortunate and over-interpretable statement that neither Ukraine nor Georgia (curiously lumped together) were on the path to NATO membership, Burjanadze was among the first to crow “I told you so” to an already beleaguered and increasingly skeptical pro-West Georgian population.
Burjanadze was among the first to break the taboo in Georgian politics and advocate for restoring full relations with Russia in 2010, even making multiple trips to Moscow for photo-ops with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and caretaker President Dmitri Medvedev. “Big politics” was her mantra, dangling the implication that she, and she alone, could leverage her relationships with the Russian leadership to advance Georgian territorial integrity (though it was implicit that some measure of independence would have to be given up in the bargain). But with painful memories of the Russian invasion still fresh, Georgians failed to flock to her banners in meaningful, sustainable numbers. By the end of 2011, Burjanadze’s political coalition looked like it was destined for oblivion.
In mid-2013, Burjanadze burst back into public view just in time for the fall presidential elections. By then, the insurgent Georgian Dream coalition (GD), founded and led by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, had unseated the increasingly repressive United National Movement (UNM), leaving a fragile cohabitation between the GD government and President Mikheil Saakashvili of the UNM. Looking to make a mark in the 2013 presidential election, Burjanadze shifted her rhetoric from the circa-2010 “big politics” slogan. Somewhat downplaying her Russia ties, Burjanadze instead looked to capture parts of the electorate increasingly dissatisfied with Georgian Dream because of persistent unemployment and what some saw as GD’s snail-paced efforts to correct the excesses of the previous regime. Contrary to the typical Western framing, one of the more frequent complaints among ordinary Georgians is that GD is actually too soft on its predecessors; even today, as a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows, nearly two-thirds of the country advocates corrective judicial action against former regime officials. Backed by an enormous influx of vaguely sourced money (widely accepted in Georgia as Russian funding), Burjanadze was able to win a 10 percent vote share in 2013—a disappointing outcome considering the impressive war chest, but enough to surprise many in Georgia and overseas.
Weeks away from Georgia’s June 2014 local elections, Burjanadze looks set to join battle once again. So far, the generous checks that buoyed her campaign in 2013 do not appear to have materialized. In the weeks ahead of the 2013 poll, Burjanadze’s face was seen on more Tbilisi billboards than even Georgian Dream candidate (and current President) Giorgi Margvelashvili, much less the sharp but political millstone-laden Davit Bakradze. That’s not the case right now—at least not yet.
But Burjanadze has other things going for her. As if on cue, her rhetoric has swerved into the burning culture wars that have singed Georgia over the past few weeks. A landmark anti-discrimination bill, crafted and drafted by the government and liberal Georgian NGOs, was nearly derailed by the Church’s last minute demand to remove language protecting the rights of sexual minorities. Reportedly, a number of parliamentarians wavered after the influential Church’s entreaty, but for the timely intervention by none other than Ivanishvili, whose influence in the new government continues despite his departing the premiership in late 2013. But there was no wavering for Burjanadze, who slammed the bill as an attack on Georgian values and compared homosexuality to incest. The bill eventually passed unanimously—only for Burjanadze to bemoan it as “unnecessary.”
Nino Burjanadze’s increasingly Church-aligned rhetoric is being matched by political action. Tellingly, her Democratic Movement-United Georgia political group has allied with the Christian Democratic Movement (CDM) for the local elections. The CDM was once seen as a moderate Christian democratic alternative to the ex-ruling United National Movement (and frequently accused of being “fake opposition” built by the UNM for the sake of pluralistic appearances); now it appears to be assuming a more stridently religious nationalist tone.
Despite her maneuverings, it is still unclear if Burjanadze will be able to make a bigger splash in the upcoming elections. While the stakes are higher now than in years past, following decentralization reforms that now allow for the direct election of municipal executives, local elections have traditionally been relatively low-key affairs in Georgia. And Georgian Dream, though its popularity has taken hits because of the stubbornly high unemployment rate, remains the country’s dominant political power and will likely expand its already commanding position.
However, pro-Russia forces may not need a big win to continue their upward climb. Georgia is by all appearances a very religious society, but it does not hew perfectly to the Church’s dictates; when it suits them, Georgians have shrugged off the Church’s demands. Past Church denunciations of the Harry Potter books and Halloween were mostly met with shrugs, and Georgia’s abortion rate continues to be one of the highest in the world. The big danger isn’t Georgian theocracy or even an Armenia-like elite consensus on Russian subservience. Pro-Russia forces don’t have to win to achieve many of their aims. Instead, some measure of demonstrated public support, through votes as well as street demonstrations, might be enough to shift the goalposts in Georgian politics.
In spite of bruising internal politics, there is currently a broad consensus within Georgian society favoring integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the European Union. However, that public support is being taken for granted by Western officials, who seem to blithely assume that being pro-West is somehow an immutable characteristic of Georgian society.
In truth, being pro-West in Georgia’s neighborhood is hard, as should be plain from the Russian forces occupying Georgian territory and the countless refugee camps strewn across the country. Georgians do appear to feel a genuine civilizational affinity for Europe and the West, but polls also consistently show that Georgians also see the Russians as a kind of distant, if politically estranged, kin. And while multiple NDI polls over the past year have shown a significant uptick in Georgian’s perception of a Russian threat, there has also been a concomitant surge—from 12 percent in March 2013 to nearly double that this past April—of public skepticism that Georgia will ever join the Atlantic alliance. (Only 14 percent think Georgia will join NATO in the next four years.)
Georgians’ patience is not inexhaustible, nor should it be. Unless serious moves are made to more fully integrate Georgia within the Atlantic security community, Georgians may feel that they have no other choice but to pursue more accommodationist policies with Russia. By reintroducing a Eurasianist political constituency to Georgia, pro-Russia elements look to shift the center of gravity in Georgia away from its pro-West consensus. Once Euro-Atlantic integration is up for debate, they probably wager, anything goes.
A Georgian Membership Action Plan for NATO isn’t an impossibility this fall, but neither is it the only means of bringing Tbilisi further into the Euro-Atlantic community. The planned signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement with the European Union will be a notable achievement on its own, assuming it’s carried off as planned in June, but the real prize to ordinary Georgians would be the promise of visa liberalization to the European Union and, perhaps in the long term, a deep and comprehensive free trade area, which would be a significant boon for key Georgian exports. Further down the line, an EU membership would not be an inappropriate development.
On the security side, Georgia’s path to NATO membership must also demonstrably advance. Georgia is an increasingly stable, albeit imperfect, democracy and a much more capable military power than it was even only a few years ago. A lower middle-income country, its per capita GDP ranks it closer to recent NATO addition Albania, but its economy is showing new signs of life after posting more than 7 percent growth for the first quarter of 2014. More concretely, Georgia has proven to be a capable and reliable security partner through its outsized deployments in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and, soon, to the Central African Republic. With about 10,000 Georgian troops having been trained, equipped, and seen action at the highest NATO standards, Georgia’s army is now regarded by defense planners as being at a higher level of readiness than even many existing NATO member states. By any objective measure, Georgia is at least worthy of a Membership Action Plan.
But there are other options as well. In his visit to Washington, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made it clear that he is not asking for others to fight for Georgia. Rather, his message was to for Washington to give Georgia the tools and means for it to defend itself—namely, the sale of advanced anti-air and anti-armor defensive systems. This is reportedly being discussed favorably by the U.S. government, which ought to do what it can to help Tbilisi seem like a less tempting target for the Kremlin. Another such measure is the legislation proposed by Senators John McCain and Bob Corker that would upgrade Georgia to the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally. Even if Washington cannot convince a handful of skittish European allies to bring Georgia into the Atlantic alliance, it certainly has the ability to appreciably upgrade its bilateral relations with Georgia to the level of such countries as Thailand, Jordan, Argentina, and Pakistan.
Options abound, but one direction should be off limits: doing nothing. Russia has shown in Ukraine that it is willing and able to launch attacks against its sovereign neighbors. More fundamentally, it has shown that it seeks to disintegrate the post-Cold War global order. Russian troops have already carved out satrapies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but its ambitions hardly end at the separatist regions’ administrative boundaries. The West has enjoyed an extended period of goodwill in Georgia since the late 1990s, but the reinvigoration of Moscow-backed groups in Georgia may indicate that that period may be coming to a close. If the West hopes to contain Russian expansionism and consolidate hard won gains in the volatile Caucasus, the United States should meet Georgian progress with a serious and substantive upgrade in relations. What that will look like exactly is a worthy topic of discussion, but it is long past time that Georgia’s Western choice translates into the deeper integration its people deserve.