Eurasian Neighbors of Russia (II): Georgia

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Georgia is the first Eurasian neighbour of Russia who suffered a territorial loss in the post-Soviet period. From constructivist approach, the main reason of occupation of Georgian territories by Russia is the problem of national identity of the country. In this analysis, we will try to examine the Georgian foreign policy taking into account its national identity.

Georgia is defined as a Caucasian country besides Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Caucasian Mountains which divide Russian Caucasus from these three countries has been in fact a geographical border between Eurasian Empires and Middle Eastern empires especially of those based in Iran. From this perspective, Georgia was a part of the Middle Eastern world. However, as Georgia is located in the north west of the mountains, its territory was open to invasion from the north as well. In this regard, the impact of Eurasian nomads in the formation of Georgian identity cannot be ignored. Even more, Kees van der Pijl claims that the Kingdom of Georgia was founded by Kipchaks, the nomads of Eurasian steppes.[1] Besides its place in Eurasia and the Middle East, Georgia is the only Caucasian country with access to the Black Sea. Historically, this geographical location of the country was the determinant factor in the formation of the national identity of Georgia. Its interaction with Byzantine Empire through the Black Sea contributed to its Christian identity. In one word, we can say that the national identity of Georgia was anchored to the European, Western and Christian world.

With the colonisation of the region by the Russian Empire, the Georgian identity acquired Russo-Eurasian dimensions. In the nineteenth century, Georgian intelligentsia with the influence of the trend of nationalisms in Europe managed to form a national awareness of Georgians. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, the nationalism of Georgians was one of the strongest in Tsarist Empire. After the fall of Russian Empire, the country became part of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, the Georgian elite was active in the Soviet bureaucracy. The fact that the Soviet Union was formed as a state during Joseph Stalin; a communist with Georgian origin, and that the last minister of foreign affairs of the USSR was Eduard Shevardnadze, an ethnic Georgian, reveals that the Georgian elite internalised the Soviet statehood.

Nevertheless, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic nationalism was not only the main force behind the formation of sovereign Georgian state but at the same time, it was a problem the Georgian government faced vis-à-vis Abkhazian and Ossetian nationalists. The first leaders of independent Georgia were aware of the fragile identity of the country and therefore tried to emphasise on the local, regional identity of Georgia. For instance, although it sounds utopian,[2] the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia pursued a “pan-Caucasian project”. This was an initiative which aimed to solve Caucasian problems with Caucasian themselves. Unfortunately, the euphoria in the first years of independence prevailed, and the project soon became unsuccessful.

The second president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, as a professional diplomat was aware that Georgia should pursue a balanced, calculated and multi-vector foreign policy. He defined Georgia as the heart of Eurasia. As the reflection of this national identity, the country became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1993. In 1999, Georgia became a member of the Council of Europe. It seemed that the Eurasian and European directions of foreign policy were balanced.

However, the Georgian population is inclined towards the West and see themselves as the part of Europe. In this state and nation building process which developed in parallel with “de-Sovietization”[3], Europe became instrumental. The chairman of the Georgian Parliament stated that; “I am Georgian. Therefore I am European”. From this perspective, Russia was perceived as the coloniser and the Soviet period was defined as the “dark years” of the country. The European inclination is especially apparent in Georgian youth. From their point of view, the Georgian government’s policy to somehow balance the foreign policy did not respond the needs of the Georgian people. There is no doubt that interaction of Georgian people with Europeans through different projects contributed to this process. Also, people were not satisfied with the performance of the government. Under these circumstances, integration with a European-Western institution such as the EU and NATO was seen as the only way to improve the economic and social conditions of the country. In other words, the soft power of Europe was determinant.

In 2003, after the so-called Rose Revolution, the pro-Western wing of the population brought to power a new generation with new ideas. From foreign policy understanding, the revolution signalled the end of the balanced policy. It meant the shift of Georgia from Eurasia to Europe. The war between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia deteriorated Georgia-Russian relations. Moscow recognised the independence of these two regions which in fact were against the CIS settlements. As a result, in 2009 Georgia left the CIS. Although after 2013 presidential elections, the Georgian government tried to improve its relations with Russia, the general trend towards Europe and the Euro-Atlantic world did not change.

In the final analysis, Georgia’s foreign policy priority is based on incorporation into Europe. There is no doubt that this policy is providing its results in improvement of domestic politics and economy. Today Georgia is evaluated by other post-Soviet people as a model country. It is evident that its territorial integrity cannot be restored without convergence with Russia. It can be summarised that Georgians exchanged a part of their territory for the European identity of the country. Unless Georgia abandons its hard-won European identity, Russia will never return Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia. Nevertheless, taking into account the economic prosperity and democratic atmosphere of Georgia, in the long run, it can be expected that seceded territories will wish to join Georgia. For that purpose, Georgia should continue its reforms to become an attractive soft power.

[1] Kees van der Pijl, “Nomads, Empires, States: Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy”, Pluto Press, London, Volume I, 2007, p. 87.

[2] Kornely Kakachia–Salome Minesashvili, “Identity Politics: Exploring Georgian Foreign Policy Behavior”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, April 2015, p. 4.

[3] Kakachia-Minesashvili, a.g.m.