As the Ukrainian crisis continues to develop, it has become impossible not to mention Georgia and its relations with the West. This is not only due to the similarities in the geopolitical circumstances of the two countries, but also because Georgia is explicitly mentioned along with Ukraine in President Putin’s demands to the West to desist from any future NATO expansion. .
Like Ukraine, for years Georgia sat in the uncomfortable position of being pro-Western without the protections offered by membership in both NATO and the European Union. Yet a country that was once a staunch ally of the West has become mired in accusations of authoritarianism, behind-the-scenes governance and covert pro-Russian sentiment.
Georgia and Ukraine occupied a unique position in the post-Soviet space. Unlike Poland and the Baltics, they have not yet been admitted to the increasingly exclusive geopolitical clubs of Brussels, but they are also not members of the Russian equivalents of NATO (the Treaty Organization collective security) and the EU (the Commonwealth of Independent States).
Yet on the road to Westernization, Georgians were considered to have made greater strides than their Ukrainian allies, a result of the country’s earlier transition to the Western path and its more strenuous measures in the fight against corruption. The bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 was followed by significant U.S. investment, as well as assistance in modernizing its military forces, which later became the largest per capita contributor to the mission of the United States. NATO in Afghanistan: 280 Georgian soldiers were seriously injured and 32 killed. In addition to backing Western-educated, democracy-oriented leaders, Washington and Brussels were also keenly aware that Georgia is home to the middle section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline – the only Caspian pipeline outside of Iranian control. or Russian.
However, despite the first democratic and peaceful transition of power in the country’s history in 2012, which was followed by the signing of a landmark free trade agreement with the European Union and a visa liberalization regime with the Schengen area, recent years have seen small cracks in Georgia’s relations with the West are becoming increasingly divided.
The myriad of reasons behind this had a cumulative effect. But the result is that the West risks losing its only ally in the strategically vital and resource-rich South Caucasus, with the other two countries – Armenia and Azerbaijan – aligned with Russia and Turkey respectively.
The ongoing Ukrainian crisis has been particularly revealing of the failure of Georgian politicians and their Western partners. Georgian politicians have been consistently accused of democratic backsliding, and their growing inability to accept any Western criticism has led to angry exchanges between senior government officials and resident diplomats. This is a far cry from the days when any statement from a Western embassy was met with enthusiastic praise.
Indeed, things have evolved to the point where incumbent Georgian Dream party chairwoman rejected US Ambassador Kelly Degnan’s credentials after criticizing the government’s backtracking on commitments to constitutional changes brokered by the EU.
This was followed by the abolition of the State Inspector’s Service, an independent public body responsible for investigating possible abuses of power. Earlier in 2021, Prime Minister Gharibashvili felt the need to declare that “MEPs are not my bosses” after the EU said it had to “reconsider its relationship with the Georgian government” following the collapse of another agreement negotiated in Brussels between the government of the Georgian dream and the parliamentary opposition.
These events were accompanied by lukewarm statements from public figures about Russia. The once characteristic anti-Moscow rhetoric has been replaced by more measured language. Conservative factions in Georgia – some of which openly push for reconciliation with Russia – have pointed out that the two countries’ shared Orthodox Christian faith makes Russia a more natural partner than Europe.
The Georgian Orthodox Church has certainly played a role in this, with the clearest evidence of factions within the Church harboring pro-Russian sentiments coming in 2019. Russian Communist Party MK Sergey Gavrilov s traveled to Tbilisi within the framework of the Assembly interparliamentary meeting on Orthodoxy, during which he was invited to occupy the seat of the speaker of the Georgian parliament. The riots that followed left nearly 300 injured and the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia.
This week, when asked by reporters if the Church was praying for peace in Ukraine, a representative of the Orthodox Church evasively replied “We always pray” – refusing to name and explicitly condemn Russia. The Church remains a powerful socio-political force in the country, with its leader, Patriarch Ilia II, trusted by 89% of the national population. Liberal factions have long viewed the Church’s influence on public opinion as a danger to Georgia’s Western aspirations.
While the Georgian government has publicly declared its support for its Ukrainian allies, it has been cautious in explicitly naming Russia as the aggressor. A tweet from the Georgian Foreign Minister with a message of support for Kyiv prompted opposition leader Giorgi Kandelaki to respond with “Georgian FM tweets support for Ukraine without mentioning Russia, as if it were Vanuatu which threatened to invade Ukraine”.
This is consistent with the rest of the government’s conduct. Neither Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili nor President Salome Zurabishvili have spoken with their Ukrainian counterparts, and a statement of support for Ukraine has yet to be made. The insistence of Georgia’s foreign minister and parliament speaker on backing the Kyiv authorities seems weak when the country’s top officials themselves refuse to make similar statements.
Yet, while some Georgian figures could plausibly be accused of the usual litany of offenses directed at politicians from the former Soviet Union – namely being selfish, corrupt and possibly pro-Russian – the West must also bear some of the blame. Although Georgia may not yet have reached EU membership standards, it was ready for NATO membership several years ago, as stated by the former head of the US Military European Command Philip Breedlove and former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Unfortunately, the two men did not make their remarks until after their terms ended.
Membership of the alliance has been consistently denied due to Georgia’s occupied territories, which it will never regain without NATO military support – which it cannot obtain until it recovers the two territories. This contradictory cycle has not yet been adequately addressed. It should also be pointed out that West Germany was a member of NATO even when the West still considered the communist east an occupied area.
Continued delays and endless excuses in granting NATO membership have caused some Georgian politicians to lose faith in the alliance. And while the West’s reluctance to provoke Russia is entirely understandable, it is not strategically advised. Azerbaijan is firmly aligned with Turkey and Armenia with Russia; the West cannot afford to lose its influence in Georgia. And while Moscow has been willing to throw its military weight around Ukraine, Georgia and Syria, the Kremlin has been careful not to unduly provoke NATO states. Conflicting ideas about external threats have certainly weakened NATO’s position, but membership still clearly offers the protection Georgians and Ukrainians need.
The West has lost the strategic initiative in the Black Sea region, but it is not too late to regain it. Giving Georgia a concrete NATO membership timetable would not only strengthen the West’s position in a vital and contested area. It would be a strong message to Georgia, Ukraine and Russia that Washington and Brussels will stick to their political and moral beliefs. The pro-Russian sentiment simmering in Georgia would no longer gain popularity if the country were finally admitted into NATO.
Proof for Georgia, hope for Ukraine and a warning for Russia, three aspects that are currently missing from the West’s conduct in Eastern Europe, but badly needed.