Vol. 5, No. 21 (November 01, 2012)

Georgia: From geopolitics to regional politics. A view from Tbilisi

Tedo Japaridze, Amb.
Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee
Parliament of Georgia

Geopolitics is a favorite pastime of many people in this part of the world, journalists, academics, diplomats and voters alike.  That is largely because the Caucasus and the Black Sea region in general are at the intersect point between “the European Neighborhood” and the Russian “Near Abroad” aspirations.  The countries in this region—Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan—have dealt with secessionist threats, with Moscow either at the forefront or backstage; Tbilisi and Kyiv also have experienced so called “color” revolutions, which testified to their willingness to make a choice in the proverbial “East or West” dilemma.  Both countries were subsequently shunned by NATO; both countries currently are negotiating Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Brussels, while Ukraine is in parallel being courted by Moscow as a sine qua non for its Eurasian Union Project. 

For nearly a generation, such contextual factors have forced the countries in the region to make impossible choices or struggle to sit on the fence between East and West.  We clearly belong in the middle, not by choice but out of necessity.  And while many of our choices appear to be mutually exclusive—and are often seen as being “out of our hands”—we have developed a tendency to design policy, over coffee or tea, filled with “must do” items that the “great powers” must somehow be convinced to deliver.  The question, of course, is whether it might be more sensible to make plans founded on what We should be doing.     
The middle is a hard place to be since every change in the poles of the perceived “East-West” relationship has an immediate effect domestically, often beyond the scope of our action.  We have elaborated various strategies of “sitting on the fence,” some more successful than others.  

Kyiv, that is, has been stalling on nearly every major strategic decision, because, on one hand, there is close economic and cultural affinity with Moscow as well as an open and unresolved conflict and, on the other hand, sincere desire on the part of many members of the elite for a western trajectory in the pursuit of the country’s foreign policies.  The division in Ukraine is as much structural as it is unfortunately geographic.  

Tbilisi has been bold in making clear decisions, taking upon itself both direct and opportunity costs. 

Baku has been by far the most successful, committing its country only to multilateral frameworks that do not limit its sovereign options while masterminding a balance of power through its engagement with state and non-state actors—the lines here are quite often blurred—as evidenced by the composition of consortia participating in the exploration of Caspian resources.  

Yerevan is making binding choices that have tremendous opportunity cost, but, nonetheless, the policies it has so far adopted have been effective in sustaining a status quo relatively acceptable to that country.  

In all these cases, however, the region’s location between the interests of two regional powers (Ankara and Tehran), one aspirant global power (Moscow), one economic powerhouse in search of identity and direction (Brussels), and one global power that is evolving with regard to its commitment to the region (Washington) presents these states with as volatile and dangerous an environment as one can get. 

Being in the middle as we often say begs the question “in the middle of what.”  The answer to that is currently far from clear.  Many of us, who have been committed to the idea of a democratic and free market oriented transition and the construction of a greater Euro-Atlantic security space, regularly witness the deleterious effect of having elections with the main question being “East or going West.”  For obvious reasons, our constituencies are susceptible to conspiracy theories, and the political climate is dominated by “either or” dilemmas.  In some respects, this has also been a “convenient” political culture, diverting attention from domestic politics, allowing a number of people to treat states as booty won by less than free and fair elections.  Consequently, there is a sense that political adversaries are divided between “traitors and patriots,” with a side effect of a “winner-takes-all” political culture hardly conducive to democratic consolidation.  Each step we make can be compromised at the next election and thus our transitions are not neat, sequential, and unilinear as many imagine them to be.  And we in Georgia may well see yet another round of the “East-West” rhetorical encounter in the upcoming Georgian presidential vote in February next year.

In view of the above, what will make or break the incoming administration in Tbilisi is its ability to harness a vision with long-term objectives, as well as an adaptable operational plan with short-to-medium term milestones.  In short, this means we must craft a foreign policy that is realistic, and realism in this context implies that we must have a regional scope and depend only on verifiable certainties.  We may, for example, wish for an effective collective security framework, but we cannot count on its existence.  This was made abundantly clear in 2008.  We must work with what we have.

Despite our fondness of viewing ourselves within grand East-West dilemmas—a paradigm rooted in and perhaps more relevant to the times of my generation—that approach increasingly seems passé.  In Washington, which took the lead in capacity building for the Georgian state, the South Caucasus is no longer as high on the agenda as it used to be.  Rather, the talk in Washington has for some time now been about an elusive “restart” of relations with Moscow.  Moreover, today, Washington is more focused on issues other than the Caucasus, including the continued economic crisis, the question of Iran, shifting geopolitical priorities towards the Pacific.  This is why Mikheil Saakasvili’s rhetoric about “a new Berlin Wall” received very little favorable attention in Washington, and that is why the prospect of NATO membership remains “very far indeed,” as also confirmed in Chicago last September.  Despite all that, Georgia will continue to view its ties with the US as a “special relationship,” something that might imply facilitating the reset rather than standing in the middle, including as part of our understanding that the region, while certainly being a locus upon which many strategic interests may collide and intersect, should be an area of free and fair competition, rather than confrontation.   

In Moscow today, most micro-security concerns gravitate on the North rather than the South of Caucasus direction.  In light of this tendency, there is some scope for cooperation among Tbilisi, Baku, and Moscow, at least when it comes to dealing with Jihadist movements.  As for greater geopolitical narratives, Moscow has bigger concerns, which at times affect the Caucasus landscape, but mostly are completely decoupled.  Syria is a major concern for the entire Caucasus, as are the implications for Russia’s relations with Ankara and Teheran.  In addition, the discovery of new East Mediterranean gas reservoirs, the race for the Arctic Circle and shale gas exploration dominate traditional geopolitical narratives, which might affect the supply and demand of energy and, hence, the economy of the region as a whole.  Ultimately, as the oil and gas sector is itself in transition, securing market share is more about modernization than about conquest, more about exploration rather than monopoly consolidation.  The Caucasus is important, but Moscow is comfortable with the regional status quo; the global landscape is more worrying and, at times, far beyond its scope for action. 
Moscow, as Tbilisi, must maintain a sense of perspective.  While Georgia wants to revise the status quo, the priority for the incoming administration is addressing specific issues rather than dwell on grand bravado rhetoric.  Engagement is not and should not be viewed as “selling out.”  And Russia, as well, must remember that too many regional fronts could grow overwhelming for an aspirant “global player.”

In Europe, the landscape is also changing.  There is no European strategy for the Caucasus.  In 2011, the Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski joined German Foreign Minister Westerwelle in calling for a rapprochement with Russia, but then Vladimir Putin returned to power and the momentum was lost.  Berlin, however, still views Moscow as a strategic ally and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  Russia is thus fundamentally a strategic partner for Europe, perhaps weaker these days than it was, but as a result perhaps more manageable.  To the extent this is true, the ticking bomb of a grand encounter between DCFTA and the Eurasian Union encounter should be diffused.  Let me in this sense join Foreign Minister Sikorski of Poland in noting that “German inaction” should be feared.  Inevitably, however, we cannot dictate policy to Germany.  We could, however—indeed, we should—more clearly express our expectations.

Given all this, Tbilisi will now explore—with caution and realism—the possibility of a more regionally grounded foreign policy.  We need to be modest in our objectives and work with what we have.  Georgia will be investing in a nexus of bilateral and multilateral frameworks with a regional scope, in recognition that a collective security framework is not for the moment possible.  Balance of power and traditional realist discourse will inevitably feature in this scheme, as will “smart and soft” policy instruments.  By definition, since Georgia is partially occupied, we will remain a revisionist power; but from now on, we will focus on resolving specific problems rather than simply pursue rhetorical grand plans.  We will talk to Ossetians and Abkhazians for a change.  We will discuss property, trade, and refugees; we will talk about domestic empowerment of minorities and socioeconomic cohesion; only then shall we address the issue of sovereignty.  

We will work on immediate issues with our own minorities and, only then, with good and verifiable precedents behind us will we explore future schemes of cohabitation with those entities.  Clearly, cementing durable and non-controversial relations with our minorities in Georgia should solidify our friendly relations with both Baku and Yerevan.  And if real progress could be made on these domestic issues, useful precedents could be created for our relations with Tskhinvali and Sukhumi.  In short, we shall no longer take up challenges that we are unlikely to be able to carry through.  And we will always be cautious and aware of timing.  We do not want or need another revolution and one thing that Bidzina Ivanishvilli is not addicted to is martyrdom and heroism.

Towards this end, Georgia will build on existing strengths.  Our relationship with Azerbaijan and, coextensively, with Turkey is founded on a deepening and widening energy partnership that is likely to have a spillover effect in the sphere of logistics.  This vision gravitates around the notion of revitalizing the traditional “silk road,” but beyond that longer-term vision it has already anchored itself on other projects as well, including major high-speed train venture currently under way.  This no doubt will not be an easy path to follow, but this “bridging” potential is both the curse and the blessing of the Caucasus.  And it is a strategy that Ankara has been pursuing, regrettably, despite the absence of foresight on the part of the EU rather than because of it.  At the bilateral level, our relations with Baku must be deepened and broadened.  We hope that our “corridor” potential can develop further, broadening in scope and allowing for far-reaching policy coordination in terms of both macroeconomic issues and security concerns.  In both Tbilisi and Baku, there is a consensus that the more stakeholders we have in the business-project called “the South Caucasus,” the less likely our region will be transformed from a corridor into a bottleneck.  This vision can and should also provide a basis for cooperation with Yerevan as well.  Because the scenario of a conflict between Baku and Yerevan would have tangible and considerable consequences for Tbilisi, we in Georgia have a legitimate interest to offer our mediation services or at the very least a forum for proxy cooperation with a regional scope in areas of common interest. 
Beyond territorial politics, we need to think as a region in order to present a concerted basis for attracting foreign direct investment, for high returns of our currently decoupled and uncoordinated free trade area policies, as well as for combatting problems that all of us in the region face, including such issues as tariffs, passport control, and crime prevention.    

Make no mistake: the context in which the Caucasus exists will continue to limit the content of our regional policies.  The Eurasian Union project is likely to collide with plans in Brussels towards the conclusion of a series of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, a reality that is likely to reflect back on Moldova and Kyiv, less so upon Georgia and Azerbaijan.  Our small states, including Yerevan, do not have economic “added value” for Moscow, although bravado is unlikely to disappear from political discourse in the region.  True, Moscow has said they would be willing to talk to anyone but Saakashvili, but, if small instances such as moving a monument can cause a major diplomatic crisis, it is clear that one cannot be all too cautious in this part of the world.  

Nonetheless, we will seek to engage in addressing “strategic choices” through coordination and consultation with our allies.  We will build upon existing alliances, but all our policies will henceforth be regionally rooted.  Tbilisi will become a factor of stability in and for the region.  This shift is what most Georgians hoped for when they voted for change and, to an extent, this is a change that most of the regional stakeholders wish to see happen in Georgia.  If one insists on continuing to draw Cold War parallels, we see Tbilisi as a Vienna, not a Berlin or a Helsinki.  If we play this role well, we will serve our country, the region, and global security at large.