While the nadir in post-Soviet Russo-Georgian relations passed with the defeat of the United National Movement by the Georgian Dream coalition in the 2012 parliamentary elections, the subsequent Georgian governments have nevertheless maintained the country’s goal of NATO and EU membership. Over the past few years, however, both polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest a possible shift of Georgian sympathies away from the European and Euro-Atlantic vector toward Russia, including an increase in support for Georgian membership in Putin’s Eurasian Union. Assessing the different geopolitical orientations of the South Caucasus countries, one of my Georgian friends ruefully concluded that “the Armenians proved to be smarter”—surely one of the most wrenching admissions any Georgian could ever make.
Is this renewed Georgian interest in partnering with Russia simply a flash in the pan caused by frustration with the halting, drawn-out process of trying to join NATO and the EU? Or have the Georgians erred fundamentally with their wager on the West? Even as the level of Georgian support for NATO and EU membership remains high, is a reassessment of Georgia’s civilizational trajectory perhaps underway? Could the Georgians behave like the Armenians, orienting their country toward Moscow and accepting Russian bases in exchange for security assistance and subsidized energy?
The complexity of Georgian attitudes toward their mighty northern neighbor defies any simple categorization into pro- or anti-Russian. It has been thus for centuries, and remained so with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Georgia’s brief medieval ascendance as a Christian power with mostly Muslim neighbors came to an abrupt and catastrophic close with the Mongol conquest of 1236. For over five centuries thereafter, the Georgian lands were mostly divided, either among foreign conquerors or feuding Georgian principalities. For most of this time Georgian monarchs were vassals of Muslim empires, principally the Ilkhans, Persians, and Ottomans. Georgian rulers operated on a short leash when their suzerains were at the apogee of their power, and secured greater leeway as their overlords experienced dynastic decline. This ebb and flow in Georgia’s political fortunes was punctuated by occasional invasions, such as the serial devastations of the country by Tamerlane in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The Georgians also endured periods of intense raiding by warlike tribes from the North Caucasus. The cumulative effect was the constriction of the Georgian living space through the extirpation of the Georgian population in some regions, and the conversion of Georgians to Islam and their assimilation with their conquerors.
The expansion of Orthodox Christian Russia into the North Caucasus in the 18th century thus appeared as a godsend to the Georgians, and the rulers of Kartli and Kakheti (eastern Georgia) began to explore transferring their allegiance from Persia and becoming a Russian protectorate. Sporadic efforts culminated in the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk, which established Kartli and Kakheti as a Russian protectorate with Russian confirmation of its internal sovereignty and territorial integrity under the continued rule of the Bagratid Dynasty. As if to underscore the new ambivalence of his loyalties, King Irakli II of Kartli and Kakheti began striking copper coins with the two-headed Russian eagle while continuing to mint silver coinage along traditional Islamic lines.
Irakli’s dalliance with Russia led to a devastating Persian invasion in 1795. To the Georgians’ dismay, no help was forthcoming from the Russian protector. In the aftermath of the Persian depredations, the Russian Empire formally annexed Kartli and Kakheti in 1801, and seized most of the remaining Georgian lands from the Ottoman Empire by 1829.
In many respects, Russian rule was a boon to the Georgians in the 19th century. Their lands were safe from their erstwhile Muslim overlords, and with the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus, the destructive raiding from that quarter likewise ceased. Tbilisi became Russia’s administrative capital in the South Caucasus, and the city recovered from the destruction wrought by the Persians. Consonant with the usual Russian imperial practice, Georgian nobles were welcome to assume positions in the Russian military and bureaucracy. Both the economy and the population expanded apace.
At the same time, however, Russia alienated its Georgian subjects by abolishing the two institutions that had consolidated and preserved the Georgian nation through centuries of foreign conquest—the monarchy, with its venerable Bagratid Dynasty, and the autocephalous Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate. These two moves, never consummated by any of Georgia’s numerous Muslim conquerors, cemented Georgia’s role not as a client state or even a vassal, but as an integral part of the Russian Empire. They seemingly precluded the tried-and-true practice of quietly leveraging and expanding whatever autonomy the Georgians had managed to salvage from their latest conqueror.
The revolutions of 1917 and the collapse of Russian rule in the South Caucasus ushered in a short, tumultuous period of British and German occupation, brief independence under a Georgian national government, and ultimately Bolshevik conquest in early 1921. As the Russian Empire had not been organized territorially along national lines, there was no general agreement on borders among the peoples of the South Caucasus. The Georgians therefore found themselves in conflict during this period with the neighboring Armenians and Azeris, as well as with smaller nationalities like the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, none of whom shared the Georgians’ understanding of which lands constituted “Georgia.”
During the Soviet period, the Georgian intelligentsia and party structures came in for their share of purges, and advocacy for Georgian independence was severely punished. However, the Georgians as a whole did not endure national traumas along the lines of the Ukrainian and Kazakh famines of the 1930s or the mass deportations of Balts, Crimean Tatars, and various North Caucasus peoples. Their architectural patrimony was not subjected to the level of destruction of Russia’s own. The fact that Stalin was himself from Georgia might have spared the country the worst of his repressions. Tbilisi was considered open, relaxed, and prosperous by Soviet standards, and late-Soviet jokes invariably depicted Georgians as wealthy, with the source of their money identified as, or presumed to be, some sort of shady business practice. The major eruption of Georgian national sentiment prior to perestroika came, ironically, in 1956 as a reaction to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policy. Georgian demonstrators were dispersed by Soviet troops, with the number of dead estimated as several dozen to several hundred.
This unhappy incident was reprised in 1989, as the Soviet Union was starting to unravel and Georgians again began agitating for greater leeway, even independence. On April 9 Soviet troops cleared demonstrators from Rustaveli Boulevard in central Tbilisi by attacking them with batons and spades, leaving 20 demonstrators dead. The perceived brutality of the incident not only inflamed Georgian nationalist sentiments, it also poisoned Georgian public opinion against the authorities in Moscow and paved the way for the ascent to power of the fiery nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Georgia on November 14, 1990.
Gamsakhurdia’s “Georgia for the Georgians” approach alarmed the country’s numerous ethnic minorities and stoked separatism among the Abkhaz and Ossetians. At the same time, his anti-Russian rhetoric irked Moscow and motivated Russian Communists and nationalists to support the separatists. Finally, Gamsakhurdia’s inept governance plunged the country as a whole into anarchy and civil war, paving the way for his own ouster in early 1992 and the triumph of Russian-abetted separatism in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who benefited from a little Russian facilitation in emerging as Gamsakhurdia’s successor, took a very different tack, eschewing anti-Russian rhetoric, bringing Georgia into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and accepting Russian military basing in Georgia. It is scarcely remembered today, but when the First Chechen War broke out in 1994, the only country that unequivocally supported Moscow was Georgia. After all, Chechens had fought on the side of the Abkhaz, and the subsequent war in Chechnya seemed to demonstrate the wisdom of a common Russo-Georgian front against separatism. The implied tradeoff, at least in Georgian minds, was that Georgia would be Russia’s best friend in exchange for help restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity.
And for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, there was a palpable ambiguity in Moscow’s attitude toward the separatist regimes in Georgia. However, notwithstanding Shevardnadze’s conciliatory efforts, there remained a powerful current of Russian support for the separatists. This support was justified intellectually by the assessment that Georgia’s separatist entities are totally beholden to Moscow in a way that Georgia proper could never be. Georgia would always have the ability to build relationships with other centers of power. The separatists had no such option, and therefore represented Moscow’s best bet in the South Caucasus.
Quite apart from any dispassionate assessment of whether Russia’s interests would be better served by supporting Georgia or the separatists, Shevardnadze personally labored under the burden of Russian hatred for his supposed role, as Gorbachev’s foreign minister, in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, even as he tried to make Georgia Russia’s best friend, Shevardnadze constantly had to watch his back. He survived several assassination attempts, most notably one in which Igor Giorgadze, whom Moscow had imposed on Shevardnadze as his security chief, was implicated. After the attempt Giorgadze fled to Moscow, which rebuffed extradition requests by claiming that the Russian authorities did not know his whereabouts—a circumstance that didn’t prevent him from providing multiple interviews to Russian journalists.
By the end of Shevardnadze’s rule the bankruptcy of his “best friend of Russia” policy was evident. During the Second Chechen War, Chechen separatists were able to establish a foothold in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Rather than training and equipping the Georgians to clean them out, Russia proposed to send in its own forces. With the Russian peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia already taking on the character of a foreign occupation, the Georgians understandably declined, turning instead to the Americans for a train-and-equip program. Moscow was irritated but had only itself to blame if the imperative to weaken Georgia had become an even higher Russian priority than ridding the Pankisi Gorge of Chechen fighters. As his wager on friendship with Moscow showed no sign of paying off, Shevardnadze increasingly sought to court NATO.
Moscow’s reaction to the fall of Shevardnadze and the ascent of Mikheil Saakashvili was rich in irony. Russian national chauvinists, who had cursed and undermined Shevarnadze for a decade, suddenly raised a howl of protest that their Eduard Amvrosiyevich had been toppled by an American stooge. Moscow’s undisguised support for separatism in Georgia was highlighted by the negative Russian reaction when Saakashvili quickly reestablished central-government control over the Ajara region, deposing a Russian-backed local warlord, Aslan Abashidze. Moscow, the implacable foe of separatism in the North Caucasus, was taking a completely different approach on the south side of the mountain range.
Indeed, any lingering Russian ambiguity about supporting Georgia’s separatists had vanished very soon after Putin came to power. Moscow abandoned any pretense about facilitating the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, blaming all impediments on Tbilisi rather than the separatists. The negotiating fora for resolving the separatist conflicts were occasions for Russia to berate and pressure Georgia rather than to seek a formula for restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity. Moscow openly seconded Russian officials to the separatist administrations, began mass issuance of Russian passports to the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and menacingly proclaimed Moscow’s intention to defend these newly minted “Russian citizens.”
It is important to bear in mind that these Russian actions antedated Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. It was Russian antipathy and meddling that generated Georgia’s turn toward the West, not vice versa. I have sometimes mused that Russia’s governing elites must have met in secret conclave in the early 1990s and decided that Moscow’s top priority in the South Caucasus would be to drive Georgia and the West unwillingly into each other’s arms. Certainly Russian policy was so successful at alienating Georgians that one could be forgiven for supposing that a Euro-Atlantic vocation for Georgia was the Kremlin’s actual intent.
However, Georgia’s civilizational reorientation, myopically abetted by Moscow, has run up against a natural barrier. The Balts, with their deep historical and cultural ties to Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia, were welcomed into Euro-Atlantic institutions as long-lost family. Not so Georgia. If Westerners found Georgia a fascinating and even beguiling place, it was due to its exoticism, not its familiarity. Georgia’s historical and cultural influences were Byzantium, Persia, the Arabs, the Turks, and latterly Russia—not Europe. If Westerners didn’t instantly recognize Georgia as a long-lost patch of their traditional patrimony, that’s only because it wasn’t. This is not a deal-breaker for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, but it is definitely an obstacle.
Georgia has long been part of the Russian information space, which has had an effect on Georgian perceptions. Among the Russian concepts most influential on Georgian security thinking has been the conviction that the West bears unremitting hostility toward Russia. Given this shared Russo-Georgian perception, how could Georgians not expect the West to come substantively to their aid in any confrontation with Moscow? Given the presuppositions, NATO’s failure to admit Georgia and blanket the country with American bases ought to come as a surprise to Russians; it certainly has perplexed the Georgians. Indeed, it has taken Georgians a while to grasp the fact of the West’s fundamental ambivalence toward their country.
The question is not whether granting MAP status to Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest Summit would have forestalled the subsequent Russian invasion—it clearly would not have done so. Rather, the issue is whether the Alliance is willing to do anything substantive short of full Article 5 guarantees to protect the security of prospective members. For Georgia, the answer in the years prior to the 2008 war was an unambiguous “no.” That answer was loud enough to be clearly audible in the innermost recesses of the Kremlin.
Moscow apparently figured out the lay of the land before Tbilisi did. A string of Russian provocations beginning with the 2007 missile incident at Tsitelubani raised barely a ripple of protest from the West. Each Russian move, seemingly inconsequential in isolation, cumulatively amounted to a creeping Russian annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The West constantly admonished Tbilisi not to overreact to Russian provocations, but never saw fit to urge Moscow to stop them.
I hope my Georgian friends can forgive me for saying so, but I do not particularly romanticize about a Georgia oriented toward the West at the cost of permanent enmity with Russia. No, my vision is even more utopian than Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. I dream of a Russia that appreciates Georgia’s uniqueness and respects Georgian sovereignty enough to serve as a worthy partner, rather than a compulsory overlord, for Tbilisi. Unfortunately, however, in the post-Soviet order, Moscow has taken on the historical role of the Persians, Ottomans, and North Caucasus tribes in dismembering Georgia and eliminating the Georgian population from various areas. Under the present circumstances, Russo-Georgian reconciliation would require Tbilisi to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and abandon any hope of returning Georgian refugees to those regions. Moreover, there would be no guarantee even then that Moscow would not resume its divide et impera approach to Georgia, perhaps fanning the embers of separatism in Ajara; awarding Javakheti to the Armenians, Russia’s “loyal millet”; or even anointing local warlords to serve as Moscow’s proconsuls in other parts of Georgia.
For better or worse, since 1991 Moscow has made a strategic choice in the Caucasus to favor those groups who have no option but abject dependence on Russia, rather than to court people like the Georgians who could be persuaded to cooperate with Russia, but who have—and would like to maintain—wider options. The Armenians have not been smarter so much as simply trapped. If their gamble on Russia—their only real option in any event—has been paying dividends so far, the Armenians should pocket them while they can. If Kremlin policies should lead to another systemic collapse of Russia like in 1917 and 1991, Armenia—and even more so Russia’s separatist clients—will fall fast and hard. Disorder on its northern border would not be pleasant for Georgia either, but at least Tbilisi would be able to restore the country’s territorial integrity. Russia is great and powerful; Georgia is small and inconsequential. Still, the day might come when the Russians could sorely benefit from Georgian friendship, and perhaps come to regret their shortsighted wager on separatism.
Georgia finds itself facing a dilemma. The West respects Georgian sovereignty and is willing to provide modest assistance and encouragement, but does not view the country as a natural fit in the Euro-Atlantic family, and is in any event thoroughly absorbed by other, more compelling problems. By contrast, Russia cares deeply about Georgia. Alas, this Russian attention is Georgia’s misfortune unless Moscow reverses its policy of favoring a weak, divided, and ultimately subordinate Georgia. Hence, neither a wager on the West nor on Russia offers any short-term solution to the pressing problem of the country’s sundered territorial integrity and consequent constriction in Georgian living space.
Georgians with a historical perspective will recognize the parallels with periods in their country’s past, when Georgia had to maneuver uneasily among mightier powers and seek whatever advantage wherever it might be found. Unfortunately, the sense of déjà vu is scant consolation for the current generation of Georgia’s elites, faced with guiding their country through the latest tribulation in its long and turbulent history.