The recent long-awaited change in government in Georgia has sparked a debate among political observers about how the October 2012 election will affect Russian-Georgian relations. The negative impact will be negligible because bilateral relations cannot get any worse than they already are. We can look towards the future with a small degree of cautious optimism. After all, a dream –whether in Georgia or somewhere else – is only a dream, not a plan of action. There are promises and expectations in both Russia and Georgia, and Georgians want change. However, the reality may be a far cry from promises and expectations.
Even the most resolute and eccentric politicians do not always have a free choice, and they have to act within a limited set of options dictated by society. This often leads to an impasse where none of the parties in an international or ethnic conflict is able to change its position without the risk of losing support at home.
The most contentious Russian-Georgian issue is the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which one party has recognized and the other has not, and there can be no solution within the present-day framework. Just as no Georgian politician would dare move backwards from the general line and renounce the reintegration of these regions because that would mean his political demise, no sane Kremlin official would renounce the independence of these two new countries. This is a side effect of democracy: it is not possible for Russian or Georgian politicians to make any moves without taking public opinion into account.
However, it seems Georgia has overheated to a point where Georgians want to make progress in this issue. And since coordinating the countries’ positions looks impossible, the only maneuvering room consists of setting aside the deadlock and reestablishing relations in other spheres. This was a totally unacceptable option for Mikheil Saakashvili, as he used animosity towards Russia to consolidate the nation and to build personal support at home and abroad. The persistent refrain about the “threat from the treacherous northern neighbor” anxious to have the young Georgian democracy suppressed has been an integral part of his policy, which made the normalization of relations with Russia unrealistic.
Therefore, even the announced desire for change from the new forces in power in Georgia, which is a major problem in the conflict-prone Caucasus, is gratifying to Russia. Understandably, the key principles – refusal to recognize the independence of the two republics and NATO membership – will not be revised, but subtle changes are possible.
First, the change of leadership in Tbilisi is important because an opportunity has appeared to “reset” relations to some extent merely because of the election of new politicians who are not fettered by the previous course. Second, there are objective reasons for easing the anti-Russian hysteria in Georgia’s domestic policy. Emotions over the conflict with Russia, vigorously fanned by the Georgian authorities, helped them largely in their bid to consistently erase whatever positive associations Georgians may have with Russia, its culture, and language. The election of a younger generation is a signal that politicians who remember coexistence with Russia within a single Soviet state are leaving politics. This factor, although fraught with negative implications, offers obvious advantages, which contrast sharply with the gloomy myths of current anti-Russian propaganda.
However, no party can shut itself off from the Soviet past or from the complicated present. Betting on a “permanent war,” although effective in the short term, is not beneficial in the long term. It will not be easy to find a way out of the deep-rooted Abkhazia/South Ossetia deadlock, which was caused not by the August 2008 War, but by previous events. Moreover, attempts to solve the problem in a quick chess game mode (not to mention the blitzkrieg) may bring the parties to a more dismal situation.
Headway might be possible if the situation returns to its original state, i.e. to the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian formats, not to the Russian-Georgian one as presented today. This format helped Georgian propaganda to score more points with the U.S. and Europe, which gladly let the theme of “a small Georgia against a big Russia” edge out the theme of “a big Georgia against a small South Ossetia” – the actual situation on the morning of August 8, 2008, when Georgia attacked South Ossetia. But this does not bring the parties any closer to a solution (if only there is a sincere wish to find one and not to exploit its urgency for personal purposes).
There is public demand for change in Georgia, including in relations with Russia, from ordinary people and intellectuals alike. Bidzina Ivanishvili sensed this demand, exploited it in his program, and won. It may even be that rapprochement with Russia meets his personal convictions. Time will tell since actions speak louder than words.
An analysis of the post-election situation in Georgia and the possible scenarios for development of relations with Russia requires a review of the project that Saakashvili’s team has been trying to implement. The highly probable (but not inevitable) fundamental changes initiated by the new authorities are more clearly seen against the background of their predecessors’ efforts.
THE SOFT POWER OF OTHERS
The Georgian situation, which has drawn far more attention than any other country of the same caliber could hope for, requires a level-headed and unbiased analysis. With a low opinion of the leader of the “Rose Revolution” and his associates, one nevertheless cannot deny that they have a clear idea of the kind of Georgia they want to see and, more importantly, the kind of Georgia they want others to see. In Georgia’s case, the contrast between the image transmitted to the world and the reality is probably the most striking, since the Georgian government’s political efforts have been mainly targeted towards people outside of the country.
Georgian leaders and ideologists believe that the country should break away from the Soviet mentality, from which all the former Soviet republics have found it hard to escape, and become the quintessential Western liberal “soft power.” According to this group, Georgia should be an exemplary model for successfully implanting that ideology in a given country and for further emulating it in the region. Georgia as a model to follow became an idée fixe for Saakashvili, who would meticulously blow up any praise of Georgia’s experience of reform in the former Soviet Union and beyond (Even the election defeat is being used for maximum propaganda effect: the losing party is presenting things as a peaceful handover of power and thus another point scored by Georgian democracy, which it has built). Any tangible or virtual success is used as propaganda according to U.S. promotion campaign paradigms; the way product advertising is done on the home shopping network. The Georgian authorities say: “We’ve chosen freedom and the incredible has happened!”, a phrase that remarkably echoes “I’ve bought this wonderful appliance and my life has changed dramatically!” Also, Tbilisi invariably keeps pointing out that some neighbors are very angry over Georgia’s choice and, consequently, wish to take away these wonder-working values from the Georgian people.
Such propaganda is reminiscent of the first years of Soviet power and of the enthusiasm the creators of the new social order had, who presented each achievement as a jab at their enemies (external or internal – foreign spies and hirelings). Those policies rested on the unshakable assumption that the opponents of the new Soviet power and people were “writhing in impotent spite.”
Yet the enthusiasm with which the Georgian authorities have promoted the “example to copy” with the active support of the U.S. and European countries, suggests that this was exactly what the Georgian project was about; i.e. another way to advance the “soft power” of others’ (not our own).
Actually, Georgia’s real successes, and not propaganda stunts, can and should be viewed with satisfaction and balanced optimism. First, it is gratifying to see things changing for the better for people in Georgia (who are close to us despite their political problems). There is also the hope that nations successful in domestic affairs are less vulnerable to nationalist fervor and, consequently, are less militaristic. The establishment of real democratic institutions and independent media on the basis of economic and social success offers a certain guarantee of political pluralism that prevents reckless moves by top officials.
After 2003, Tbilisi indeed took advantage of its chance, because the richest and most powerful nation in the world is interested in the success of tiny Georgia and in recruiting new “clients” in its wake. Georgia was given the unique opportunity to become a model, a shop window for the benefits of “the right” geopolitical choice. Of course, it is pitched as a choice of values, but the practice itself (the bid to join NATO, participation in the West’s military operations, siding with the West in the standoff against Russia and its integration projects, and propaganda in the post-Soviet space) leaves no doubt on this account.
There is nothing new about the Georgian model, except perhaps for the methods of its implementation, subject to the instruction and strict control of “senior fellows.” As a French commentator wrote after a visit to Georgia, “the recent ‘Mishists’ do not enjoy complete freedom of action. These diligent disciples of the West are subject to constant monitoring, as loans and assistance are only given under the condition of democratic progress.” “The greenhouse” conditions in implementing the project, the small “test field,” and powerful support with the complete dependence of the Georgian leader on a foreign manager who cannot afford to fail in his design, has enabled Tbilisi to achieve a degree of success that is not only remarkable for the country, but also suitable for promotion beyond its borders.
IS INDEPENDENCE SECONDARY?
The usefulness of Georgia as an example is questionable given the special initial conditions that are hard to emulate elsewhere. Ukraine failed because it was “too big.” Yet this is not important, as the most important thing in any advertising campaign is that everyone talks about the product and that there is widespread media coverage.
For example, Tbilisi would readily interpret any reform in other post-Soviet countries as copying the experience of the Georgian “pioneers,” rather than acknowledge its historical expediency. As Georgia’s pro-government theorists claim, “building a successful nation-state is a key factor of our soft power. Whether Russia admits it or not, the reforms Russia has been trying to implement – albeit unsuccessfully so far – were obviously prompted by changes in Georgia. Georgia’s main export is its successful reform model.”
We could wish the Georgians success in further utilizing their unique position (which is transitory and the reaction of Georgia’s foreign patrons to Saakashvili’s election loss is another proof of this) with the maximum benefit for society and the economy. But the narrowness of the Georgian reform model is evident as it is rooted in the specifics of its implementation. Georgia has not been transmitting, but re-transmitting values as a kind of a relay station, not as an original source.
Indeed, Georgia has gotten used to transmitting an idea different from what was declared initially: self-sufficiency and independence in foreign (and even domestic) policy are secondary compared to the right geopolitical – that is, value-relevant – orientation. Finding the correct support appears to be more important than gaining real independence. The propagated ideas are not valuable per se (i.e. easily implementable without paying “dividends” to the right holder and fulfilling geopolitical commitments, such as the mandatory road towards NATO membership), but are transmitted exclusively under the terms of “the license holder.” It is a kind of ideological franchising when a small economic entity is allowed to use a well-known brand and secure some revenue, yet the lion’s share of profit goes to the trademark owner. Everybody knows McDonald’s, but few are interested in the achievements of its local outlets, even if these achievements are considerable.
Georgia, its distinctive features (which are rather attractive for Russians), and its true soft power are disappearing in several universal maxims carrying ideological weight, but have no national tune or character. As Georgian ideologists point out, “Georgia leans on values similar to the Western soft power policy… The important thing is that it leans on universal values.”
This formula may look very attractive and impeccable, but it deprives Georgia of itself as a unique country with remarkable people. It suggests the existence of “Georgia as part of the West” (like it was “part of the Soviet Union” once) that stubbornly sets itself against Russia in all spheres. Curiously, the continued emphasis on “Georgia is not to be associated with Russia” is indicative of its secondary position with respect to Russia, too. Spreading the “seditious” idea that Russia is actually not very concerned with the value implications of Georgian reform (indeed, Russia is more concerned about potential military threats) endangers the very concept of reform with moral collapse. Whether or not Ivanishvili’s team will want to change this state of affairs towards staging Georgia per se is a separate issue that will be interesting to discuss in the framework of the new reality. Future development will indicate the vector of political trends.
A thoughtful analysis shows that the values of Georgia and Russia are actually identical. Neither country calls for adopting the Juche Idea, build a fascist or mafia state, or infect the Fundamental Law with corruption. Both countries have specific problems and ways of implementing similar ideas and principles, which is only natural for any two states of different sizes. However, this natural conclusion is ideologically inconvenient, because it dismantles the image of Georgia as a model.
The deficiency of the Georgian model’s dependence affects not only its dialogue with Russia, which has been reduced to a minimum, but also its domestic affairs. Georgian politicians, including the opposition, have to travel repeatedly to Washington D.C., which is, in effect, the decision-making center for Georgia – to make assurances of their loyalty and to obtain permission for their policies.
In Georgia, U.S. political campaigns sometimes seem to be more important than domestic ones. The National Interest writes: “Ivanishvili is waging a vigorous fight not just in Georgia but, almost inevitably, in the second arena of Georgian politics – Washington. He has hired a string of lobbying firms to represent him and his Georgian Dream movement. In what must be an unprecedented contest for a small, poor country of four million people, Washington’s Podesta Group (representing the Georgian government) is now dueling it out with Patton Boggs (representing Ivanishvili).”
The election has shown the winner, at least for now.
The Georgian economy has problems and it continues to depend on foreign assistance. As Professor David Yakobidze said: “we draw remuneration for the use of our resources in other interests, which takes the form of cheap credits and goal-oriented grants. Nevertheless, they are a heavy burden on our economy. Figuratively speaking, we’re building a sand castle, or, a pyramid without a base. Today, it is obvious even to a naked eye that Georgia cannot live on the revenue it produces.”
Foreign assistance has always been linked to certain political conditions. U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Bass said: “The extent to which Georgia continues to receive and to merit a disproportionate (!) amount of interest and attention and investment from the United States, as it has up to this point, will continue to depend to a substantial degree on the extent to which it continues to be at the head of the class in its region and among the successor states in strengthening its democracy.” In other words, the amount of economic assistance will directly depend on the success of the Georgia promotion project.
The U.S. Ambassador made it clear to the Georgians that support would depend on the rate the country assimilates universal values and on the success of the “mental revolution,” complaining that traditional thinking regarding ethnic and religious issues was still an obstacle. This vividly shows how the Western values to be assimilated are placed in stark contrast to Georgia’s national ones, i.e. its genuine, not derivate “soft power.” And this is crucial for understanding the way the concept works: there should be no separate original Georgia (Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, etc.), but standard patterns to implement universal ideas. Not the “soft power” of Western countries, but the “soft power” of the West as opposed to the rest of the world.
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Georgia has entered a new political era that will show how much the “rose revolutionaries” have managed to achieve. Have they laid the foundation for new developments that will endure in a new social environment or is their activity mere labeling and blowing bubbles? In any case, the experience will be instructive.
I believe that humanitarian work could be the most realistic sector where Georgia could make tangible progress. Cultural exchanges are continuing between neighbors. Consequently, this sector should not suffer from the actions of politicians since ordinary people need it. Perhaps it would make sense to consider an exchange of full-fledged cultural and information centers in both capitals (and in other towns in the future). Now that political and diplomatic contacts have been suspended, Russians and Georgians would welcome progress in this area. While avoiding sensitive issues, such moves might serve as a major confirmation of the earnest intentions of the new Georgian leaders.
In any case, things cannot get any worse than they are now. So why not try to improve them?