Recently, I made a discovery of the kind that spices up historians’ books. In my archive, I discovered a draft of a letter by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian President, directed to Secretary James Baker. The date was 1991. These were devastating but hopeful times. Filled with references to George Washington, the letter pleaded for support in the name of democracy, peace and freedom. As a diplomat at the time, my business was to ground this spirit. Hence, this letter never reached the addressee, marked with the note “redraft the letter along the lines Tedo indicated” (that Tedo, would be me). Now, I fear, it is a time when we need to upbeat idealism, if anything, to place our realism in context.
Come 2014, we have a state and we have some means; and we have some allies. We have reformed and developed. We are not devastated, but we are in need of the thrust that imbued our realism with drive. Even in the very dawn of our state, we sought NATO and EU membership. Yet for all our realism, this craving seems as idealistic today as it has ever been. Cynicism abounds. We are no longer a young nation with an aura of entitlement. Our challenges and visions are still understood, empathy or sympathy extended, patience prescribed. We remain post-Soviet, in a time where Central Eastern Europe and the Baltic States have entered our perception as “facts of life.” Although we are now in a position to be contributors to the alliance we seek – in Afghanistan, in the Mediterranean, in Kosovo – we are still guests in a community we seek membership of.
Waiting for Europe, Georgia seems to be in the eye of a storm without a shelter. Only few months away from the NATO Summit in Wales, as a Civil War still unfolds in Ukraine, Tbilisi is called upon to carve a foreign policy trajectory without solid variables. In realism, the state is likened to a rationale individual, calculating the interests of surrounding states, immersed in the balancing and rebalancing act of means and ends. This bottom line driven ethos seems to have informed the passage from the Soviet Space. The end vision was never questioned. It was all about a “return to Europe.”
No more. Paradoxically, what is lacking today is idealism, that is, a vision which imbues with purpose an uphill road of reforms and sacrifices that people are invited, realistically, to accept as inevitable. This was no issue in the early 1990s. In the Baltic States, veterans of anti-Soviet resistance added to their ranks a rich, educated and idealistic Diaspora from both the USA and Europe, which multiplied their capacity. Their resolve to change the variables that informed the calculation of power in the region was made abundantly clear, as they strived to hone new functional economic, infrastructural and military links with Brussels, thereby achieving their conclusive anchoring to Europe. To this end, no cost was spared, social or economic. And Europe was forthcoming.
The vision was fulfilled. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania became viable and flourishing states. Institutional capacity and strong advocacy tilted the balance of power in these former realms of the Evil Empire. While Finland was undergoing a severe economic crisis, seeking to leave behind its role as the bridge between East and West, “Finlandization” was admonished. The Baltic States were invited to join NATO and then the EU, a process completed in 2004, that is, just as the Russian economy and military might were about to take off. Minus Kaliningrad, the transformation is complete and, sooner or later, an understanding with minorities will be achieved.
In the Black Sea, there were more variables in this emerging scale of power. In a region whose European identity was less than confident and shaped through the Tsarist experience, the economic, military, geographic and even cultural weight of Russia was more resolute. States were weak and human resources in short supply. Nonetheless, the region’s significant energy resources created the first functional link with Europe; the “big bang” expansion of 2004 transformed Europe’s mental map; the region was branded “New Eastern Europe.” Color revolutions created hope that this region too would catch up in the long(er) march “back to Europe,” envisioned by Vaclav Havel.
Yet these variables did not resolutely tilt the balance. Russia was grouped in the club of BRICS and the G8; a middle class has been arising, owing its existence to oil revenue. Infrastructural and economic links persisted, which were of enormous gravity in political systems where media and economic power were concentrated. Last but not least, the negative conditionality exercised via a series of occupied territories, or non-states operating as proxy Moscow-protectorates, solidified the power of Russia in the region. The “Near Abroad” is not an acceptable reality for millions of Georgians, Moldovans and Ukrainians, but in 2008 and 2013 the concept proved to be “of gravity.” Russia is back and Europe has its hands full.
In fact, Europe is in crisis. The last European elections indicate that there is anything but a solid vision for the future of the continent as “a Community.” The rise of the extreme right signifies at the very least a rising political wave of state nostalgia, of the kind that makes peripheral and regional interdependence – the conventional wisdom of the 1990s – seem passé. From Hungary to the United Kingdom and all the way France, federalism, common European security and a United Europe do not seem to capture public imagination. The gravitational force of “Europe,” as an ideal, seems to suffer even in Havel’s homeland. This may be an interim phase, but what will be lost at this point in time in terms of policy drive will very much shape the future. On the other side of the Atlantic, how solid is the commitment to the future of Europe, for which two World Wars and a fifty years Cold War were fought over, seems to be an open question.
In this scheme, Georgia has few variables that it can take for granted. Public opinion remains committed to a Euro-Atlantic trajectory; the Baltic States and Poland are fully aware that one cannot enjoy the laurels of recent achievements without a long term vision for the consolidation of the gains made. Historically, progress is not linear. The diplomatic and political elite in Tbilisi is committed to institutional engagement and is idealistically stubborn. However, Europe and the USA are in a self-reflective mode. Caution prevails.
Nonetheless, there is a deadline for the completion of this self-reflective pause. In Wales, Georgia will gain a more solid understanding of how much it can believe and invest in the vision of returning to Europe. This understanding does not merely depend on whether or not Georgia will gain a Membership Action Plan, which it formally deserves, but what happens until that decision is made in Brussels and 28 capitals. Of course, for a Georgian, merely contemplating on this existential question is defeating, especially for a generation that devoted its more productive years and most of its energy in keeping Georgia on this track.
No matter what happens in September, the journey itself has not been in vein. More gradually and less resolutely, Georgia has been building human resources and institutional capacity; respect for these institutions is more solid in Tbilisi than anywhere else in the region. Social cohesion and employment have not been restored for over a generation, but Georgians are not stoic people. They are used to beating the odds. They are realistically ruthless, because they are idealistically committed.
But, there is no escape from the fact that we are facing an idealistic deficit. For Europe, applying pressure to Russia seems impossible without an interim vision. EU member states find themselves calculating the merits of applying pressure, halfheartedly, without drive and commitment, without a common purpose. The Euro-Atlantic community appears as managing the status quo without a sense of direction. Without vision, there is no drive and realism loses its meaning. No calculation can take place without a predefined set of objectives.
At this point in time, the grand vision of 1989 for a united Europe does not resonate with realities on the ground. What is needed is, of course, time. And gaining time requires smaller and tangible idealistic stepping stones. It is not in the variables of power but in the framing of the equation that the balance becomes calculable and realism is possible. If the sum of good will is not about to tilt the balance of power in the region, allies should be working towards a zero gravity zone. We are back in the days where initiative and timing are of the essence. Georgians, amongst others, must be made to think that time is on their side. People can tolerate everything with hope and almost nothing without an end vision. Realistically speaking, there is a deficit of idealism.
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