Arguably, the most straightforward entree into the world of Georgian geopolitics is the West-Russia tension at the heart of its foreign policy dilemma. Georgia is a former Soviet republic with longstanding cultural, economic and political ties to Russia in its various imperial incarnations. Yet the political consensus in Georgia since regaining independence in 1991, despite its proximity and many ties to Russia, has largely been in favour of Euro-Atlantic integration.
This is, in many respects, a classic political science conundrum: given Russia's local preponderance of military power, regional economic clout, and the two countries unmistakable (if sometimes grossly overstated) cultural affinities, why hasn't Georgia chosen to bandwagon with Russia like many other post-Soviet states? Conversely, why has Georgia chosen to align itself with the Euro-Atlantic West instead?
The question becomes even more muddled when considering recent events. The premier Euro-Atlantic institutions, Nato and the EU, are not exactly embracing Georgian aspirations to membership with open arms. The likelihood that Tbilisi will accede to either club in the near to medium future appears remote at the moment. Conversely, Russia, though amid an economic reckoning of titanic proportions, has doubled down on a foreign policy of adventurism. Between the two, Georgia's relative regional isolation is sobering.
But, in reality, Georgian foreign policy has never been wholly binary. While the West-Russia dynamic has been the dominant lens through which Tbilisi has presented itself to the world (particularly under the former United National Movement regime), it's actual foreign policy portfolio is – and has always been, to varying degrees – much more complicated.
This may seem like an unremarkable claim. After all, nearly all polities (recognized or not) tend to be more complex systems than the two-word qualifiers they're generally allotted in most media descriptions. And yet, the dominant discourse within Georgia itself, as well as in foreign capitals, tend to adhere to the degree by which Tbilisi leans in the direction of Washington/Brussels/”the West” or Moscow.
In Georgia itself, the political class has largely found themselves hostages to the West-Russia binary formulation. The prominence with which the former UNM government positioned Western integration has made it politically difficult for the current Georgian Dream coalition government, which unseated the UNM in 2012, to emphasize anything else lest they be accused by the UNM or its proxies of being somehow anti-West. For example, shortly after gaining power, some Western commentators (likely UNM aligned) even sought to paint the new Georgian government as part of some imaginary Moscow-Tbilisi-Tehran axis – a patently preposterous claim that has not been borne out in reality.
Georgia remains as demonstrably committed to Euro-Atlantic integration as it has ever been – and has arguably achieved more practical integration with the West in its three years and change in government than during the entire UNM tenure: an Association Agreement signed with the EU, joining the EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, joining the Nato Response Force, and receiving the Nato substantial package after the 2014 Nato summit in Wales.
That’s quite a suite of accomplishment in Tbilisi’s quest to join with the Euro-Atlantic community. But Georgia has not limited its outreach to Europe and North America. Three otherwise unrelated developments speak to Tbilisi’s emerging multipronged approach to international relations: an awarded tender for a deep water port in Anaklia, which lies on the Black Sea coast; confirmation of a long-rumoured sale of domestically built Georgian armoured cars to Saudi Arabia; and past Georgian negotiations with Gazprom over the potential purchase of limited volumes of natural gas.
The Anaklia deep water port, a $2.5bn, 988-acre megaproject, not only provides a comprehensive upgrade to Georgia’s shipping and receiving infrastructure, but also provides a focal point for Tbilisi’s aspirations to be a centrepiece of China’s much vaunted New Silk Road strategy. As much as the Georgian government has sought to integrate with Western institutions, including economic ones, much of the cause for economic optimism these days lies in the east. After years of being a virtual non-factor, China recently emerged as Georgia’s third largest trading partner by volume. And according to 2015 wine data, burgeoning Chinese demand for Georgian wine helped staunched steep declines in Russian and Ukrainian imports; Chinese imports jumped 121%, making it the fourth largest Georgian wine market after Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Anaklia is a work in progress, and the awarding of a tender to a US-Georgian consortium was seen as somewhat anticlimactic among some regional observers (myself included). However, the project has the potential to be a regional infrastructure linchpin and – amid growing Chinese enthusiasm for Georgia – the ideal “hardware” to complement the “software” of a likely China free trade agreement (FTA).
Another recent Georgian win, the announced sale of locally produced armoured cars to the Saudi Arabian military, highlights a different aspect of Georgia’s multipronged strategy. While the contract is reportedly only for a “few dozen” vehicles, the sale represents a coup of sorts for Georgia’s fledgling domestic arms industry. Selling military vehicles to a major military force like Saudi Arabia’s is a big step for a country better known as an eager (and often rebuffed) would-be buyer of Western arms. Instead, Tbilisi is not only demonstrating the capabilities of its budding arms industry, but also invigorating ties with a Middle Eastern regional power. Georgia is often portrayed internationally as a victim or client, but the sale offers a different perspective – Georgia as an independent power.
Even Georgian gas negotiations with Russia in late 2015 to early 2016 represented an added degree of geopolitical sophistication from Tbilisi. In the face of widespread domestic criticism, the Georgian government opened direct talks with the Russian gas company Gazprom over the possibility of importing additional volumes of gas to meet growing domestic demand. While the spectre of Moscow’s deserved reputation for using energy supplies as geopolitical blackmail haunted proceedings, the negotiations appeared to be a hard-nosed decision by the Georgian government to meet short term energy needs while also diversifying away from Azerbaijan’s overwhelming monopoly.
In the end, Tbilisi opted to purchase increased volumes from Azerbaijan – although, almost comically, there’s a strong likelihood that at least some of that gas will be re-exported (or import substituted) Russian gas. But the episode demonstrated the Georgian government’s willingness to consider unpopular options in the service of national interests. On the whole, Russia continues to represent a genuine threat to Georgia, and the Georgian government’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration remains robust, but developing a foreign policy that prioritizes resilience is more important than the tiresome chore of constantly “proving” Western moorings that ought to be, by this point, self-evident.
Georgian ties with the West are already fundamental to the country’s security, economy, and long-term future. And although Tbilisi looks unlikely to be offered membership into Nato in the near future, its continued progress will almost certainly be highlighted at the upcoming Nato Summit in Warsaw. Meanwhile, Western military aid is at an all-time high, and development aid remains strong. Georgia may not attract the same level of political attention as it once did, but interest from Western investors is only growing. In March, a new Western-based investment fund manager, Gazelle Finance, launched operations using Georgia as a “hub” for tens of millions of dollars worth of planned small and medium enterprise investment in Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan.
But while Georgia’s ties with the West are critical, its long-term security and economic future – at least until Nato and EU membership are near-term propositions – will depend to varying degrees on cultivating ties to states to its east, south, and even north. Rather than undermine its relations with the West, cementing such ties and strengthening its geopolitical resilience will only make Georgia a more desirable partner for the West.
Michael Hikari Cecire is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Colchis columnist. Follow him on @mhikaric