COLCHIS: Georgia’s security conundrum

COLCHIS: Georgia’s security conundrum
Tending the graves of Georgian soldiers killed in the 2008 war with Russia at Tbilisi's Mukhatgverdi Cemetery. / Georgian presidency
By Michael Cecire of New America August 28, 2018

Ten years ago this month, Russia and Georgia fought a brief but ferocious war, which saw Russian forces openly cross international borders in anger for the first time since the Soviet era. Though broadly under-appreciated at the time, Moscow’s 2008 military adventure would come to be widely regarded as marking the return of an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy, carrying over into conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as in a broader, extended strategic showdown with the US and Europe. 

The decennial of the Georgia-Russia war is a potent reminder of the tragic repercussions of that conflict, the seeming intractability of Western-Russia relations, as well as the uncomfortable limitations of Euro-Atlantic security architecture, which did little to prevent the Georgia war or to attenuate Russian militarism in the years since. Euro-Atlantic institutions, and particularly Nato, have not effectively managed the widening corridor of Russia-involved security crises in the years since. Despite the impressive durability of Western engagement in Georgia, and the gratifying symbolism represented by multinational military exercises like the latest edition of Noble Partner, Georgia is as trapped as ever between Nato’s half-hearted overtures on one hand  —  enough to offer Georgians the faint facsimile of forward momentum, if only just  —  and the unforgiving strategic realities of the region, which ever-threaten the fragile stability Georgia has painstakingly won over the years.

In the pale moonlight

Put more bluntly, Georgia is unlikely to join Nato in the foreseeable future, no matter how much “progress” it makes, given Nato’s acute internal divisions over the question of expansion. While expansion should not be taken lightly, the Alliance’s growing categorical aversion to extending the frontiers of the liberal democratic space — albeit in the name of retrenchment — suggests an alliance increasingly unmoored from its founding values. This was a predictable recipe for crisis, and, unsurprisingly, the result today is a Nato whose identity, purpose, and unity is as unclear as it has ever been.

For Georgia and other Euro-Atlantic aspirant states, this presents a troubling proposition. An enthusiastic and dedicated Nato partner, Tbilisi’s commitment to the Euro-Atlantic project has left it in a geopolitical halfway house, earning it the extended ire — and malign attentions — from its powerful northern neighbour, but few tangible security benefits. It would not be an analytical stretch to surmise that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation has been, thus far, a net security negative. To be sure, this is only true because of Moscow’s insistent and varied predations, but it is a strategic conundrum for which Nato or Western capitals have offered no clear solution.

Yet, ten years on from the 2008 war, Georgia’s outstanding strategic uncertainties and unrequited Euro-Atlantic affections are less the stuff of kitchen table talk and more of grist for the foreign policy elite. In the most recent data from the Caucasus Barometer, the annual household survey conducted by CRRC, support for Euro-Atlantic integration fails to register as one of the top issues faced by ordinary Georgians. While 67% profess to supporting Nato integration, only 41% do so with few or no caveats, with 20% largely opposed. Of course, Nato to the average Georgian is a policy abstraction at best, and it’s entirely expected that national security and strategic questions would be subordinated to more pedestrian issues like economic opportunities, pensions, and healthcare. But it does reveal a kind of apathy towards Nato that has gradually seeped into the Georgian political consciousness.

However, even as the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration — Nato or EU — has dimmed with time, Georgia has not stood still. While foreign policy analysts find despair in Georgia’s extended strategic precarity, life for ordinary Georgian residents has seen steady gains over the years. 

Georgia’s unemployment rate (laudably calculated more realistically as of 2017), hit new lows in the last few years, even if it remains high and leavened by underemployment. Tourism in the country is booming, bringing foreign dollars as well as a bevy of positive externalities. The social welfare net has gradually expanded in recent years, most notably through the development of a universal health insurance programme, and looks set to expand further under a new prime minister. 

Anecdotally, the number and variety of jobs available in the country are expanding, even in regional locales long resistant to organic economic development, and the makings of a consumer-driven economy are starting to take shape in even the unlikeliest of places. For an increasingly broader swath of the population, a realistic, middle-class lifestyle is increasingly attainable, and not only in Tbilisi or bigger urban regions like Batumi or Kutaisi. Meanwhile, Georgia may be experiencing a tourism boom, but it’s also exporting its own visitors to Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East at a healthy clip, thanks to growing and affordable air links and an increasingly strong passport (with visa-free travel possible to Turkey, Europe, and Israel, to name a few).

Far beyond the stars

Even if realistic pathways into Europe’s grand institutions look like long shots, Georgia’s “Europeanisation” has proceeded apace. Certainly, the quality of Georgia’s political and social institutions can leave much to be desired, and optimism is often treated in the region as the straightest path to looking foolish. But to which bar should Georgia’s European ambitions be held? Even within the EU’s prosperous conclave, political infighting, economic sluggishness, and radical populism are hardly foreign phenomena, and in many cases even more urgently apparent than in Georgia. Lacking the security guarantees of Nato or the economic insurance of EU membership, Georgia has nonetheless maintained its democratic bona fides while its more democratically “consolidated” brethren to the west have slipped into autocracy — Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, to name the best known cases. Perhaps it’s telling that ten years removed from Russia’s invasion, the war’s anniversary has in some ways been overshadowed for many Georgians by the Constitutional Court’s de facto legalisation of marijuana. 

What if Georgia has become “European” while no one was looking? Although Georgia’s per capita GDP is barely half that of the EU’s poorest member, Bulgaria, it is by most metrics quite “European” in its politics, governance, and social trajectories. Truly, Georgia has its share of crypto-populists, but hardly in size or composition that would be out of the ordinary in almost any other European country — and far fewer in size or influence than many. To be sure, Georgia’s institutions are imperfect, and its democracy is far from being anything approaching irreversible. Yet, as the roiling politics in the West has recently made clear — as “consolidated” democracies rapidly lurch towards authoritarianism — the conventional teleological typology for democratic development was revealed to be so deeply flawed to be virtually meaningless.

The 2008 war was supposed to reveal Georgia’s folly for trusting in the West and daring defy its historical overlord, Russia. In many respects, that message has been delivered, and Georgia is no closer to full Euro-Atlantic integration than it was in that fateful year. But in a larger sense, Georgia today is more European than ever, and Russian regional dominance is rather one-dimensional. Tbilisi may never win entry to Europe’s exclusive clubs, but no one can stop its Westward march — not Moscow, Washington, or Brussels — even if without the false validation of EU or Nato membership.

Michael Cecire is an international security fellow at New America and a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.