As Vladimir Putin broods in the Kremlin wondering what his next foreign policy moves should be, is Georgia on his mind? asks Denis MacShane.
The small Black Sea and Caucasus state has always been a bother for Russia. With its 3,000 years of history and one of the oldest languages in the world, the heady mix of ski-able mountains and tropical coastal resorts, the mélange of nationalities – Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkic, Abkhazian, Ossetian (the best conductor in England, the LSO ‘s Valery Gergiev, is Ossetian) with minority languages and religions in addition to one of the oldest orthodox churches in the world, Georgia is the most exotic of all the nations that once formed part of the Tsarist then Soviet imperium.
It is the only country Russia has invaded since the end of communism. The land-sea- air assault on Georgia in August 2008 preceded by a few weeks the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Neither geo-economics nor geo-politics has been the same since.
Having de-oranged the Ukraine with the election of the Kremlin’s old protégé Victor Yanukovich and the imprisonment of the vaguely pro-western Yulia Tymoshenko, Putin wants to uproot the Rose revolutionaries of Georgia and as in 1921, though using modern methods, bring Georgia back into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
It is important that the October parliamentary elections are democratic and pass off without any of the excesses of Georgian politics of the past two decades. The OSCE and Council of Europe must be massively present to ensure that the elections are seen to be fair and to stop any smears that may be spread by defeated candidates. [Premier Mikhail] Saakashvili has repeatedly said he would not seek a third term as president and has told me so to my face. Now there is talk of changing the constitution to allow a more parliamentary system with a powerful prime minister. But staying in power by hopping from president to prime minister has been discredited by Putin and the problem of post-Saakashvili Georgia as the tenth anniversary of the Rose revolution looms large.
Kakha Gogolashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies and a former diplomat has set out three futures for Georgia:
· The first is to continue American Enterprise Institute-style neo-liberal economics with “no regulatory restrictions…. a highly commoditised labour force and with a low level of social protection.”
· The second is “reconciliation with Russia … Go back to the Commonwealth of Independent States and join the Russian-Belarus-Kazakh customs union” so that resource-rich Russia will share its wealth, providing gas and oil at low prices. Georgia will regain the lost Russian market for its wine and other agro-products.”
· The third is to “ally with EU policies” and “gradually gain a share in the EU internal market and transform the economic and social environment into an ‘EU-compatible’ one.”
Gogolashvili prefers the latter. “European integration is a way for Georgia to reach political, economic and social stability and prosperity.” He acknowledges that Georgia will remain committed to economic liberalisation “with low taxes and minimal interventions for some time.” (Kakha Gogolashvili, “In search of Georgia’s economic model” in ‘South Caucasus – 20 Years of Independence’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Berlin, 2011.)
Georgia remains the most interesting of the post-Soviet states. Too close to Moscow and too far away from the EU and Nato centres in Brussels, Georgia missed the chance for clear EU and Nato integration that the Baltic states and the Black Sea nations of Bulgaria and Romania obtained by the end of the first decade in the 21st century.
Russian military might crushed Georgian independence in 1921 and Russian military intervention de-routed Georgia’s hopes of full Western integration in 2008. James Nixey of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in his Chatham House paper “The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia” (June 2012) argues that the 2008 war has not strengthened Mosow’s hands. None of the states in the region supported Russia’s claims that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are independent states. In contrast to Kosovo, where nearly 100 UN members, including most of the major world democracies, have been granted recognition despite energetic Russian-led opposition, the two Georgian regions exist only as Russian creations. Nevertheless, Nixey concludes that Russia has lost influence or control over the fate of Georgia. Despite “the West’s inconsistent and confused engagement” argues Nixey, “Russian heavy-handedness means that, for Russia, the battle is already lost” to again be the dominant and domineering power over Georgia and other Caucasus states.
Despite the current economic and political difficulties facing the EU, perhaps it is time for Georgia to see its future as a European nation and state.
This is an extract from a longer report for the London-based Foreign Policy Centre.
Denis MacShane is a British Member of Parliament and a former Europe Minister. He chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Georgia and works with Georgian MPs at the Council of Europe.