Realizing the Georgian dream

 

 

 

With the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, the tranquil images of this Black Sea paradise painted a picture which is far different from the realities of the surrounding areas.

Most media coverage of the region focused on the unrest and potential threats emanating from Chechnya and Dagestan – the latter of which was home to Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

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Yet, forgotten from this list is Abkhazia, the autonomous region of Georgia which sits just 22 miles down the Black Sea coastline from Sochi. It has been the source of major military and political tension between Russia and Georgia over recent years, culminating in a Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

A Georgian ‘reset’ of its policy towards Russia has done much to improve relations between the two countries since 2012. But as Georgia progresses towards a more cooperative relationship with its northerly neighbor, many in the U.S. foreign policy community have begun to questions the motives and efficacy of this shift.

They should not. Prime Minister Garibashvili has no intention of following in the footsteps of Ukranian President Yanukovich.

Georgia is, and desires to remain, a close ally of the West. In order to do so, however, it had to first normalize its relations with Russia.

In Georgia, memories of a failed attempt at treading the path of most resistance towards Russia are still fresh. In 2008, then-President Saakashvili engaged in a dramatic escalation of tensions with Russia, assuming that the U.S. would intervene militarily to protect it from Russian aggression.

Saakashvili dramatically overestimated the U.S.’s willingness to support him, to dire consequences. Russian tanks invaded Georgia under the pretense of protecting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, halting just 34 miles from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

That the U.S. resisted Russian attempts at regime change provided a stay of execution for Saakashvili, but did little to prevent the establishment of a new Russo-Georgian dynamic.

Russia had a green light to exert itself.

The great irony is that the U.S.’s decision not to intervene, as much as anything else, forced Georgia to pursue a more cooperative stance towards Russia. With its pursuit of EU and NATO membership on hold during the conflict, Georgia would stand alone for the time being.

Unable to ensure their security through military means, Georgians ousted Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party in successive elections. They chose instead the Georgian Dream party's a proposal to expand trade ties with Russia, enabling Georgia to insulate itself from Russian aggression, while boosting its exports.

The success of this policy is hard to dispute. Foreign direct investment has returned to Georgia following a dramatic decline during the Russian invasion, Russia has ended its embargo on Georgian goods such as wine and mineral water, and Georgian businesses have better access to an export market of 140 million people.

The overall result of this ‘peace dividend,’ at least in the short-term, has been strong economic growth, rising living standards and a more secure existence for Georgians.

Of course, increased trade relations with Russia carry with them a significant downside: increased economic dependence on Russia and Russian markets. And as the Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated, President Putin is only too happy to utilize economic leverage as a means for political meddling.

Winston Churchill famously opined that “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” Were closer relations with Russia the ultimate objective of Georgian foreign policy, this would be a poignant parable.

But Georgian rapprochement should not be confused with appeasement.

During its time in office, the Georgia Dream party has never wavered in its attempts to accede to the EU and NATO. Georgians would never let them waver.

Post-2008, a reset of relations with Russia was necessary to accede to these organizations, since they do not admit members that are engaged in active conflicts. It is a step that the President Saakashvili was unwilling to take and for this he was electorally punished.

But for Georgia, there was no alternative to rapprochement with Russia.

The path that Georgia has charted over recent years provides no cause for concern. A de-escalation of tensions with Russia has gone hand in hand with a peaceful, democratic transition of power and the signing of an EU-Georgian Association Agreement.

Georgia stands on the brink of EU and NATO integration - ensuring its future as an independent, free and democratic state in a region which has few. This is something worth celebrating.

Botting (abotting@fabiani-co.com) is a Washington, DC-based adviser to governments and commercial entities in Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia. Neither he nor his firm have clients in Georgia or using his firm to deal with Georgia.