I acquainted with Neil Macfarlane since the last century: it was 1990 when we met each other for the first time at some round table held by the Georgian MFA to discuss the never-ending dilemma Georgia had been trying to resolve for centuries: how to preserve our identity and do that in a more or less secure way, living in a turbulent neighborhood, where different strategic vectors had shooting in and out, had been creating more synergies than strategies; a space where certain imperial and regional big-power interests and ambitions still remain intact, especially Russian ones; a place where regional actors interpret different way and predominately according to their own strategic interests the notions as security, stability, cooperation, even independence and sovereignty.
Since that first encounter in Tbilisi, Neil and I became close friends that fit the category of “usual suspects”. We have been discussing these and many other sensitive issues and problems for more than thirty years. I highly appreciate that friendship but the more significant is the fact that Neil is a very close friend and supporter of Georgia, its independence, sovereignty, delivering to us different strategic recipes on how Georgia should be rational, pragmatic and realistic to pass through those totally unpredictable and turbulent regional and global affairs, unfolding around. And the question I haunted Neil for years: how to escape the vicious spiral of mistakes, blunders, drawbacks and zigzags Georgians have been running for more than thirty years to the virtuous circle of truly and relevant democratic reforms and advantages but without conceding country’s strategic agenda and interests. So, Neil and I decided to chat about these difficult matters.
But before we precede it is my pleasure to .introduce him to our readers: Neil MacFarlane was Lester B. Pearson Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford for 27 years, was head of the Department of Politics and International Relations for five years and a Trustee of the university for four years. He received his doctorate from Oxford, was a visiting professor at the Tbilisi State University and received a doctoral degree (honoris causa) at TSU for service to the development of the university’s doctoral programme in international relations. He has worked on Russia and its neighboring states for over thirty years.
T.J: I am indeed very much grateful that you agreed to talk. We met in the early 1990s in Tbilisi and, as I remember, we were discussing by that time the perspectives after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and whatever was left after that colossal suspension – the newly independent states, including Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia and, naturally, Georgia. Since, the entire world, including the post-Soviet space, has changed, turning from a no man’s land to something else, still not clear, from a scary stability of the “Cold War” up to the stages of “post-Soviet”, “post-modern”, “new normal”, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” and many other, not that clear and precise interpretations and rationale. The worldwide pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appear to have a global and dire effect. In our part of the world the Second Karabakh War has drastically altered the strategic landscape of the South Caucasus. That global paradigm shifts keeps moving at pace. I recently came across Paul Stephen’s latest book, from which an excerpt seems to stand out: “We live in a dark time. Not so long ago we thought a new dawn broke when the Cold War ended, bringing universal peace, general prosperity, worldwide connectivity, human rights, and the international rule of law. Instead, disillusion has overtaken us in the wake of shocks and abounding threats. We face uncivil politics, economic anxiety, and tribal conflict throughout the rich world. Authoritarian nationalists seem the coming thing around the world, rich and poor alike. Peace and prosperity do not. Many believers in the liberal international order now feel, like Marxists in the 1980s, that history has turned against them.” As nationalist and authoritarian forces are emboldened in Europe and the United States, as well as in the post-Soviet space, what do you feel will be the ideological raw material for the construction of our region and specifically of Georgia, in the near future? Why did I pose that question? I have been curious about that for a long time, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: should we be rethinking the history of decolonization to include Russia? Is Ukraine for Russia comparable to the experience of Suez for the UK and France? Are there other comparable examples in our history? Where are we all going, drifting to? How should countries like Georgia to survive those “interesting times” and how to tune to the new strategic arrangements of world politics? And, please, forgive me for that long and a bit chaotic overture.
N.M: Thank you for the invitation. It is always a pleasure to talk to my oldest friends. Concerning the quote from Paul Stephen, I confess I was always ambivalent about the post-1991 “new dawn”. That is not least because I focused on Soviet and Russian foreign and security policy, and also because I worked on post-colonial state-building.
The challenges of the creation of 15 new states out of the Soviet rubble have been daunting, starting with the humanitarian crisis generated by the collapse of the Soviet economy, and continuing with the huge difficulties of creating viable state institutions, building a democratic political culture, stimulating economic recovery, and entering the global economy. In the case of the Caucasus, the challenges were particularly severe, given the rapid emergence of majority/minority ethnic conflicts.
This brings me to the new (or is it the old?) Russia. The Caucasus region’s conflicts were exacerbated by Russian policy from the very beginnings of the post-Soviet era. More broadly, anyone with a modest understanding of Russian history would be aware that Russia has faced defeat, invasion, near-collapse or collapse many times in the past. They also rebounded quickly. Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 is an example; three years later, Russia’s Cossacks were drinking in the bistros of Paris. More recently, in late 1940, the German army was at the gates of Moscow. Five years later the Soviet flag was raised over the ruined Reichstag in Berlin. That history suggests that Russia follows periods of disaster with periods of reassertion. And now we have Russia attempting its old imperial adventure following 19th century logic in a completely different world. this is simply the latest episode of Marx’s aphorism that tragedy repeats itself as farce. Turning to your specific questions:
a) Yes, nationalist and authoritarian forces are on the rise: I always thought that Francis Fukuyama was on very thin ice when in 1989 he declared the “end of ideology” and the victory of democratic liberalism. The world is an amazingly diverse space, because human beings and their political systems are amazingly diverse. Many such victories have been declared in the past, not least the victory of European imperialism. In the post-Soviet case, the logical result of the rise of democratic liberalism was pushback from those who resisted that option. Once the US, as the leading state in this reformist agenda, ran into trouble, expending an excessive amount of resources in attempting to pursue the liberal agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan, and beginning to show evidence of decline, it was increasingly challenged by others. Those others included a rising China and an energy-fueled Russia. Russia (or at least Putin and his circle) are attempting to restore Russia’s empire.
b) Should we see Russia’s neighborhood policy in terms of colonialism and decolonization? Russian policy towards its neighbors has followed the standard understanding of imperialism (the use of force and economic power to subject other peoples) and colonialism (the establishment of external administration of other peoples in order to extract resources from them and to improve the colonial power’s position in the imperial competition over territory between empires) since the time of Ivan iv in the 16th century. These early efforts are similar to England’s subjugation of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russian imperialism extended to the Southern Caucasus in the context of systemic conflict with the Persian and Ottoman empires. the peoples of the region and also competing imperial powers resisted. Russia (including in its Soviet form) persisted, assuming full control of the Caucasus region. Although briefly interrupted by the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian civil war, Russian occupation lasted until 1990. With the collapse of the USSR, Russia lost control. Now that it has regained power, it is seeking to reimpose its dominion. So, yes, Russia’s behavior is what it was: colonial and imperialistic. the form may differ, but the essence is the same. For example, it might be useful to understand Russia’s current war in Ukraine in comparison to France’s resistance to decolonization during the war in Algeria in the 1950’s.
c) Where we are all drifting to? The future is a different country; I have never been there. So, I don’t know. But I do know that the outcome depends on three factors: the resilience and unity of peoples under Russian revanchist attack; the capacity of Putin to mobilize Russia’s resources to support his imperial dreams; and the West’s capacity and will to resist the Russian effort to reimpose 19th century imperial practices of international relations in defiance of international law and international humanitarian law, in other words to defend the post-imperial world of sovereign states and peoples.
d) How should Georgia cope with these challenges and attune itself to the new strategic arrangements of international politics? That is a very tough question. First, Georgian leaders should understand the precarious nature of their geopolitical position. It has a long border with Russia. Russia, in terms of territorial and demographic size and military technical capacity, is vastly superior to Georgia. Russia also is resisting “decolonization”. It has steadily interfered in Georgia’s internal politics since 1989. We can conclude that it is hostile to Georgia’s national self-determination, part of which is the desire of the Georgian population to align with the West. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, nobody came to its defense. There is no evidence that the West will defend Georgia in a timely fashion in future to repel Russian aggression. The Georgian armed forces are not equipped to successfully resist another Russian invasion. As such, Georgia needs to sustain a flexible foreign policy that pursues the objectives of the Georgian people while limiting the risks of provoking Russian aggression. That is a difficult road. It is also a long road.
T.J: Let’s move our conversation towards our region and concretely to Georgia. It is too early to talk about a new security system in wider Europe while we still have an ongoing war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, we are observing discussions in the US and Europe about what this new system should look like. As an academic who has extensively written about the security architecture in the South Caucasus and the wider Black Sea area, how would you describe the fluctuating security provisions in the region, and what do you think about the future interplay of regional and global powers in our part of the world, and how could this impact an emerging security architecture for the wider Black Sea region and particularly the South Caucasus and specifically Georgia?
N.M: To judge from my previous answer, I have already arrived in Georgia and the Caucasian region! But to continue on that theme I would like to step back a bit to consider Georgia’s position in the international system. Europe and the US are only one part of the structure facing Georgia. Georgia sits in a four-level game. The first level includes its Southern Caucasus neighbors. The second concerns the three neighboring regional powers. The third encompasses the European region as a whole. And the fourth is the broader global system. These four levels are interdependent; what happens in each one affects behavior in the others. Events at all four levels have direct or indirect implications for Georgia and its security. Concerning the first level, Georgia has ably managed its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse. The latter two states have been at war with each other over Nagorno Karabakh since 1988. Of course, Georgia’s position in these bilateral relationships has been made easier by a simple geographical fact: both depend on Georgia for direct access to the sea and the world market. However, in the same period there has been a significant shift in the local balance of power, given the strengthening of Azerbaijan’s energy-based economy and its increasing military capability, demonstrated in their incomplete victory in 2020 in the renewal of the Karabakh war. Azerbaijan’s growing strength is an issue that Georgia needs to keep in mind.
At the second level, the Southern Caucasus is surrounded by three much larger and stronger states which have competed for the area between them for centuries, at great cost to Georgia and its south Caucasian neighbors. At a basic level, the geopolitical incentive for them to compete for control of the space between them remains. At the moment, this potential for conflict is mitigated by the comparatively good relations between the three neighboring powers, all of which are distracted by other concerns beyond the Caucasus. again, Georgia has managed its relations with these neighbors and near-neighbors well. I include Russia here, despite Georgia’s serious problems with Russia in 2008. However, that brief lapse suggests strongly the risks of tipping too far towards the West without a security guarantee and the dangers of a deliberate rhetoric that profoundly alienates the Russian side.
At the third level (the European security system), a discussion of the implications of the Ukraine war for security structures in the region is already underway among policy-makers and academic experts on both sides of the Atlantic. From my point of view, the emerging new system seems to resemble the Cold War and older European and international orders based on great power rivalry. The Cold War, European order involved the use of force either to gain or to hold territory (in Russia’s case) and strengthening deterrence and robust defensive and retaliatory capabilities (in NATO’s case). NATO has spent the last thirty years searching for a post-Cold War mission. Now it has a new one which is the old one. Essentially, this shift pits an expansionist Russia against the Western effort to contain it. This is not a picture I like but it appears to be an emergent empirical reality. I liked the post-Cold War “one Europe whole and free” vision but unfortunately, it did not reflect reality. By “reality” I mean that the West was reluctant to embrace its new former Soviet neighbors (including Russia) that emerged out of the collapse of the USSR. The war in Ukraine has changed this position. NATO and the EU are now actively debating not if, but when, to include Russia’s near neighbors into their institutions and to extend the consequent security guarantees to those neighbors (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) when conditions permit. Those conditions are different in each case.
At the fourth level (global geopolitics), a number of trends are worth mentioning. The US has had a debate over the merits of continuing commitment to NATO in the context of rising threats from China and the growing challenges the Americans face in the Indo-Pacific region. However, after a period of debate on the commitment to Europe and NATO, given the growing challenges they face in the Indo-Pacific region, the US has been pulled back in to the European security nexus because of the Ukraine war. This reminds me of a line from the Godfather: “I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back in.” There is now a resolution in the US senate calling for the Pentagon and other agencies to develop a Black Sea strategy. We can expect greater American military, economic and political engagement with the region. Concerning China, there are three matters to consider. One is the increasing Chinese economic engagement in the Black Sea area arising from its belt and road initiative. However, in the context of its own economic challenges and a degree of disillusionment with the policy as a whole, China seems less active on this front. Second, Russia has drawn closer to China, partly as a result of the Ukraine war and Russia’s increasing economic and diplomatic isolation. China is clearly taking advantage of Russia’s vulnerability to draw it into a dependent situation. Also, they have common cause in the struggle against the West. It is unlikely that China will significantly resist Russia’s effort to preserve its dominance over the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. The Chinese profit from Russia’s stumbling efforts to restore the empire.
It is too early to say what the future holds for the Black Sea region but several factors should be mentioned. One is obvious. Two littoral states (Ukraine and Russia) are at war with each other. The future of the Black Sea region depends on the outcome of that war. The second is also clear. Ukraine is emerging as a major regional military power. This will alter the regional structure in the event of peace between Russia and Ukraine. Third, having pondered the Black Sea as a distant issue for years but failing to develop a strategy for the Black Sea, NATO and the EU are now actively developing one. Institutionally, I note that this strategy and the changes just described will exclude BSEC and also the OSCE, two other institutions active in the region. Finally, as mentioned above, the future depends on the evolution of Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies, not least because Turkey controls naval access to the Black Sea. And don’t forget, Turkey has a structural interest in Georgian independence; it maintains the buffer between Turkey and Russia.
T.J: What should Georgia learn from Ukraine? As you remember, in 1993 Georgia and Ukraine signed a strategic treaty on political and economic cooperation and mutual assistance in case of different kind of emergencies or contingencies. Ukrainian volunteers fought next to Georgian soldiers during our wars with Russia in Abkhazia and SO region. Georgian volunteers have been fighting in Ukraine in different structures of the Ukrainian armed forces since 2016. And the relations between these two nations historically were always brotherly and cordial and that’s been going on the same way nowadays despite the reemergence of some thorny elements on the governmental levels. So, what should Georgia and Ukraine learn from each other, including the experience of dealing with Russia, including the collective and institutional memory of armed confrontations instigated by Russia against Georgia and Ukraine?
N.M: In the current moment, given the regrettable tensions between the Ukrainian and Georgian governments, mutual learning is difficult. To be blunt, it is not clear that your Government would be willing to learn from the Ukrainian experience or vice versa. Also, there is a question whether Ukraine and Georgia are comparable cases. Ukraine is a big; Georgia is small. That is to say, Ukraine has defensive depth while Georgia does not. Georgia is also not comparable to Ukraine in terms of population size, economic weight, and developmental prospects. But, speaking in the abstract, Georgia can learn several things: the importance of close relations with NATO and the EU because they provide some cover for Georgia’s independence in the face of Russian pressure; the need to reach out broadly and effectively in the broader international community through diplomatic connections but also public diplomacy; and the need to invest further in defensive capability since Russia has shown it is willing to try to eliminate its neighbors. Although Georgia alone is not capable of defeating a full Russian invasion, the more difficult and costly Georgia is as a target of Russian military action, the less likely the Russians are to undertake such action against Georgia. Also, the larger the Georgian effort to defend itself is, the more likely it is that the west would assist it in doing so.
T.J: A couple of follow-up questions. How would you describe the shifting security arrangements in the region, and what do you think about the future interplay of regional and global powers in our region, and how could this shape an emerging security architecture for the wider Black Sea region and particularly the South Caucasus?
N.M: I don’t have anything further to add here, given earlier replies.
T.J: As the closest regional power to the West in the South Caucasus is Turkey, is Ankara’s Russia policy a model for us? In general, how would you identify the role and mission of Turkey in the South Caucasus? Just to remind you that Turkey played a very active political, economic role in the South Caucasus, specifically in Georgia and Azerbaijan, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which later, in the mid – 1990s due to some reasons and factors dissipated but emerged anew and strongly after the Second Karabakh War. Now for the first time throughout the years we have Turkey’s military presence in the S. Caucasus – Turkish soldiers control certain strategic areas – important trade and commercial corridors and check-points – in the de-occupied Karabakh territories. What will be the role and mission, I would say, a strategic function of Turkey in the light of recent developments in global affairs, especially after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and Turkey’s attempt to become a facilitator on resolving some so- called “difficult matters”, including material characters (grain)? I would appreciate it if you could look at my questions through the prism of the outcomes of the recent presidential elections in Turkey. In his first post-election “balcony speech” President Erdogan promised to make Turkey great again. What will that mean, in your opinion, taking into account how important strong and stable Turkey is for Georgia’s own security and stability?
N.M: The first point is that Turkey’s policy towards Russia is not a model for Georgia. The two countries’ placement in the regional system is not comparable. Turkey can do things that Georgia cannot do. Second, as we know, Erdogan won the presidential election handily despite expectations that he might be in trouble owing to the bad condition of Turkey’s economy, high rates of inflation, the rapid decline in the exchange value of the Turkish lira, and the dysfunctional government response to the devastating earthquake in the south of the country a little while ago. The election result was partly a result of the use of government resources to support the president, severe restrictions on leading opposition personalities, and the one-sidedness of state media coverage. Even so, it also reflects his tight hold on his base in Anatolia and his appeal to devout Muslims. His “balcony speech” was a pretty standard appeal to unity and the embrace of Turkey as an independent and rising great power regionally and globally. It also emphasized the disloyalty of his opposition and a promise of retribution. It was hardly an appeal for reconciliation and coming together. It was “my way or the highway!” It is not clear what this attitude has to do with democracy. It is true that a strong and stable Turkey is important for Georgia’s own security and stability. Turkey is comparatively strong and stable, despite its economic difficulties. It is also a key economic partner for Georgia. It is, however, deficient on a number of standard indicators of democratic governance (for example, free and fair elections, and independence of the judiciary, the media, and the body that administers elections) but it appears to be stable, which is good in principle. The devil is in the details. stability for what? And at what price?
In terms of the promise to “make Turkey great again”, that depends how Turkey’s rise is envisaged by the president. For example, it might mean resisting Russia in the Caucasus. It might mean attempting to increase its influence in the region – reflect on your own comment about the reinsertion of Turkish military presence into the region in the aftermath of the 2020 Karabakh war. His reference to the “Ottoman slap” is also a bit disturbing, given the historical role of the Ottoman empire in Georgia. But it is too early to reach a definitive conclusion. Turkey has many distractions beyond the Georgia and the Caucasus (Syria, Iran, the maintenance of their relationship with Russia in view of the Ukraine war, and developing its relationship with NATO and the EU). The Caucasus is secondary to these concerns. Turkey’s relations with Georgia have been cordial and constructive for a long time. I don’t see any substantial reason for change. Georgia’s diplomatic imperative is to make sure these relations remain positive.
T.J: Let’s talk about Georgia’s other historical neighbor, Iran, a country with a long institutional and collective memory, which is very important for Georgia’s stability and security; especially in the light of more than strategic intensification of Russia – Iran relations, specifically Iran’s support of Russia’s military activities in Ukraine. Where should Iran be in our strategic calculations?
N.M: Ah, Iran! We have talked about that for years. I have said for years that Iran is important country for Georgia, but that it does not represent a strategic challenge not least because Azerbaijan lies between the two. In current circumstances this remains true for other reasons. Domestically, Iran continues to suffer from sanctions that are having a disastrous impact on its economy and population. The government faces further serious potential for domestic unrest. It also faces major diplomatic and security challenges in the Persian Gulf region and in Iraq, as well as serious problems in its relations with the west. Its focus, therefore, is the Middle East and the US. The same goes for its evolving relationship with Russia. As you said, Iran has a long historical memory that would include multiple episodes of aggression and war between the two. Besides, the Russians are kaffirs. Iran is pursuing its current Russian track for pragmatic reasons: sanctions relief, continuing Russian assistance in the development of its civilian nuclear power programme, and also revenue from weapons sales. It has nothing to do with Georgia. Iran has no direct conflict of interest with Georgia. It has had normal relations with Georgia since 1991. There is no reason to expect significant change. As far as Georgia’s strategic calculations, Georgia has a strong interest in maintaining the current situation in the bilateral relationship.
T.J: So, we logically and meticulously moved our conversation towards Georgia – Russia relations, which you and I, as I recalled above, started talking about since the last century. You are one of the best scholars and analysts in that area – you have written and published myriad of articles and reports, advised many international organizations and institutions as NATO and the EU and you are more than familiar with the details and nuances of those more than – mildly speaking – vibrant, dramatic as well tragic affairs. So, how to deal with Russia in general and concretely with Putin’s Russia? How should a country like Georgia, which will never have the capacity to change its “geography”, interact with a country like Russia where the imperial ambitions and imperial mental maps are still valid, including in the heads of the most die-hard “democrats” and “liberals”, as defined by the Westerners? We – maybe not all – in Georgia understand why the “Collective West”/US may need so – called “cooperative Russia” and retain with her “situational relations” – arms control, climate, strategic balance, international terrorism, different asymmetric challenges and threats. However, it’s looks kind of axiomatic to me (and especially after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine) that the “Collective West”/US will never have that “cooperative Russia” until Russia does not fix and settles her relations not only with her immediate neighbors from the so-called “former-Soviet space”, now independent and sovereign states, but with her imperial mental maps where, quoting personally Putin, “Russia does not end anywhere”. So, how should Georgia deal with a country that occupies 20% of its territory? Of course, restoration of direct flights and visa-free regime between Russia and Georgia are good and positive developments but these are not the most thorny and painful problems we should fix with Russa –firstly our territorial integrity, doesn’t it? Shall we hope that the resolution of that more than sore problem will follow -up? Is that possible in general or hypothetically, as some in Georgia still hope that newly borne “normalcy” in relations with Russia will tackle the problems of the occupied territories? By the way, our mutual friend Tom Graham in the recent conversation with me sort of urged us to find a way to coexist with Russia, despite the latter’s past aggression and continued occupation of Georgian territory. I would say a typical “kissingerian” kind of assumption. So, how to deal with Russia realistically and pragmatically without conceding our own strategic agenda and goals? So, what’s your take on those “simple” problems?
N.M: I was expecting us to arrive there. This has already been a long interview. So, I’ll be brief. Since you quoted Thomas Graham, I’ll quote another “kissingerian”, Winston Churchill: “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” I would not go that far, but I acknowledge that understanding and predicting Russian behavior is a real challenge. In a way, I agree with Graham’s “kissingeresque” suggestion. After all, Georgia as a small state surrounded by larger neighbors is in a politico-geographical world where “the strong do what they will and the weak accept what they must” to quote Thucydides. Georgia cannot defeat Russia and Georgia can’t move to California. Russia is an imperial power. A key point in this realist understanding is that small states can balance with larger ones to redress the bilateral balance of power. Unfortunately, at the moment there are no strong balancing options. So, it makes sense to try for coexistence. That does not mean surrendering other options, such as the evolving relationship with, as you put it, the “Collective West.” Coexistence with Russia should be combined with a continuing effort to draw closer to the EU and NATO, given the security guarantees that membership would provide. Concerning the occupied territories, there is one way you could sort that out. Rejoin the CIS, join the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and abandon your cooperative arrangements with NATO, the EU, and major Western states such as the UK while turning Georgia into an authoritarian oligarchic regime. In short, to become a colonial possession of Russia again. I assume that outcome would be unacceptable to the Georgian people. You would also lose your financial and technical assistance from the west. If I am right here, you will have to continue to live with Russian occupation of 20% of your territory until Russia changes, just like Ukraine will continue with its war until Russia changes.
Many years ago, you suggested to me that Georgia’s survival depended on the democratization of Russia. There is a lot of truth in that. In other words, the future of Georgia depends to an extent specifically on Putin’s disappearance and more generally on Russia moving beyond its colonial view of the “Near Abroad” and, instead, treating its neighbors as sovereign states with which they cooperate on the basis of mutual gain. Putin’s disappearance alone is not sufficient to get there since those around him may share his views on the neighborhood. Likewise, a possible though unlikely complete defeat of Russia in Ukraine will not be sufficient. what is required is a fundamental change in Russian political culture. That will take time, if it happens at all.
T.J: Let’s move back to our regional problems and talk a bit about the current state of affairs and perspectives of the South Caucasus. As I noted above, the Second Karabakh War dramatically changed it strategic landscape, balance of powers there, opened perspectives for new trade and commercial interactions but still, as I feel, there’s one missing element in that strategic new image: politicians, scholars, experts still speak about the South Caucasus not as a whole region but an area composed of three separate states with their own strategic agenda and goals. I like very much Laurence Broers’s (from Conciliation Resources and Chatham House) observation on the connectivity issue. As Mr. Broers acknowledges, that “connectivity embraces not only access and transit, but also the nature and density of other kinds of connection: the civic ties, transnational networks, everyday interactions and communities of practice that embody a networked connectivity between and among societies and social spaces.” Indeed, the South Caucasus connectivity capacity is currently focused on a “thin”, as defined by Mr. Broers, conception of connectivity focused on large, state-directed infrastructural projects, rather than a “thicker” conception of connectivity encompassing actors and spaces beyond the state. I have been thinking about that a long time and you and I, by the way, have talked about that for years. Has the Second Karabakh War that reconfigured the entire landscape of the South Caucasus opened doors for that kind of quiet conversations without TV cameras and press among some wise, experienced enough individuals on those “elements of “thicker connectivity”? Has time come for that? What’s your take on those perspectives?
N.M: I agree with you that politicians, scholars, and experts do not speak of the Southern Caucasus as a region. That is partly because a region involves geographical contiguity, but that is not enough. There has to be shared historical experience, shared cultural attributes, interdependence and connectivity. The southern Caucasus fails on the last two criteria, particularly shared cultural attributes and connectivity.
Two further comments. The first is that, as you know, I have been puzzled about the lack of engagement with neighbors in the South Caucasus for years, and also about the lack of “connectivity” with them. If the states of the region do not stand together, they will fall separately. Reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is unlikely in my lifetime. So, a tripartite connectivity is unlikely but a greater focus on building bilateral connections with both makes sense for Georgia. My second point would be that “connectivity” needs to occur at both elite and societal levels. To be “thick” it needs to be deep and sustained. Of course, this depends on whether the three states and societies want to get to know each other – to connect. But that is a different conversation.
T.J: Naturally, Georgia is always on my mind! Georgia defined its foreign policy vector long ago. The country’s aspirations to join the European Union and NATO are enshrined in our Constitution. Now, some in Georgia observe that thanks to Ukraine’s fight against Russia these goals seem within reach. However, according some Georgian pundits, the Georgian authorities have been sending vague signals regarding Georgia’s NATO aspirations recently as they are more focused on obtaining EU candidate status by the end of the year, which as we know, depends on the implementation of those 12 EU recommendations. How do you envisage Georgia’s place in the new security system in Europe after the war in Ukraine?
N.M: It is not clear to me why the war in Ukraine makes Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO more reachable. If Georgian Ukrainian relations were better, that might be true but they are not good at the moment. Leaving that aside, it is now reasonably clear that NATO is not ready to move forward towards Ukrainian or Georgian membership in NATO now. As for the EU, it would be difficult for the Union to refuse candidacy for Georgia if the twelve recommendations were implemented by Georgia. Whether they will be implemented is another question. And, as for candidacy, becoming a candidate means you get another set of requirements to be implemented. If I am not mistaken the average delay between candidacy and membership is over ten years. Fundamentally, the future of these aspirations depends not only on the EU and NATO willingness to grant them. It also depends on the level of commitment of the Georgian government to the effort. That implies major and sometimes painful changes in Georgian government and society.
T.J: Again, back to “new normal” in Georgia-Russian relations. Amid Western sanctions on Russia, trade between Georgia and Russia is increasing. The uncontrolled migration of Russian citizens to Georgia has made them a challenging economic factor, while Georgia is becoming increasingly dependent on the Russian economy. Many Georgian and western observers admit that Russia is aggressively pushing to turn Georgia into a gray zone for sanction circumvention, as evidenced by recent provocative moves by the Kremlin regarding flights and visa waivers. Observers admit that Georgia lacks any solid strategy on Russia and has failed to address the growing security risks it creates. According to the same experts, the authorities appear to be a frightened victim passively waiting – and thus inviting – the aggressor to make the next move and dragging Georgia back into its sphere of influence through hybrid means, propaganda, and soft power. If all those assessments are valid, what should the Georgian authorities do to avoid remaining on the wrong side of the new security “curtain” after the war in Ukraine?
N.M: I think I have covered this before. To add a bit, I agree that Georgia does not appear to have a solid strategy with regard to Russia. I would add that Georgia does not appear to have a solid strategy towards the west either. To steal a phrase from a distinguished Georgian politician, “I am Georgian, therefore I am European” is not enough. Eloquent declarations are no substitute for concrete strategic action.
Concerning sanctions, Georgia is not alone in Russia’s efforts to enlist its unsanctioned neighbors in their attempt to circumvent sanctions. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkey have all been mentioned. It is worth noting that these sanctions are not universal. They are principally EU- and US-mandated sanctions. They are not binding on Georgia or the other states in the international system, unless they choose to sign up. There is no restriction on Georgia trading what it produces into Russia. What creates the problem is transshipment to Russia of products originating in countries that are sanctioning Russia. There is a risk that the EU and the US (along with other sanctioning states) could impose penalties on Georgia if Georgia served as a corridor for the transit of goods from sanctioning countries.
This is a specific area of the broader question: what should Georgia do to stay off the wrong side of the new security curtain after the Ukraine war? On sanctions, Georgia should be sure that no sanctioned goods are transiting Georgia. That is a customs procedure and should not be too difficult to enforce. The more general issue is how to avoid alienating the West by developing closer relations with Russia in the middle of a war of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The answer is pretty clear: don’t deepen relations with Russia. The EU and NATO understand the delicacy of Georgia’s geopolitical position and the risks that come from this situation. they do not expect Georgia to cut off its relations with Russia. They also understand the security and economic reasons for coexistence with Russia. However, taking pro-Russian positions on the Ukraine issue or assisting in the violation of sanctions against Georgia would cause serious problems both immediately and in terms of Georgia’s longer term European trajectory. To the extent that the Georgian Government is committed to its European trajectory, it should avoid rhetoric and actions that suggest it is moving towards Russia.
T.J: In recent months, the Georgian authorities have made a number of concerning statements. They have indirectly referred to the United States and Europe as “global war forces,” claiming that these forces are trying to drag Georgia into the war. Government-controlled media has also opened a public discourse on Georgia’s neutrality status, directly attacking Western allies and openly pushing narratives used by the Russian propaganda machine. Critics have noted recent anti-Western statements by the Georgian authorities and growing anti-Western propaganda. It is unclear what is behind these strange shifts in rhetoric. Some analysts believe that the Georgian authorities are simply trying to balance its relationship with Russia and the West. Others believe that they are under pressure from Russia to adopt a more pro-Russian stance. It is also possible that the authorities are simply trying to deflect attention from its own failures. Whatever the reason, these statements have raised concerns about the Georgian government’s commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic integration. It remains to be seen whether the government will be able to reverse course and regain the trust of its Western allies. In your opinion, what are the possible reasons for the recent shift in rhetoric – or maybe in politics as well – and what are the implications for the future?
N.M: Concerns about the Georgian government’s commitment to European and euro-Atlantic integration are legitimate, given recent statements by leading government and governing party officials. Here I would add that they also raise questions about the government’s commitment to the country’s own constitution. I am referring to the constitutional commitment to a Western and European orientation. I am not close enough to the Georgian Government to understand the reasons for such statements. But it is fair to say several things here. If it has actually been suggested that the West has joined Russia in the category of global war forces (whatever that means), equating the West’s defense of Ukraine with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is silly and insulting. It is also destructive of prospects for Georgia’s European vocation. Words are remembered and have consequences.
As for neutrality as an alternative, every country has a right to choose their foreign policy. If that is what the Georgian people choose, that is their right. However, under current circumstances that would, to my mind, be a bad choice for Georgia. It would leave the country defenseless against Russia and would undermine the rationale for western economic engagement with and assistance to Georgia. That is to say, the effort to coexist with Russia is understandable. But going too far is likely to have painful consequences. Belarus is a good example.
T.J: And my final question: What’s the strategic interest of the United States in Georgia? What’s Georgia’s strategic value (if there’s any) and why does the United States care about Georgia’s internal capacity and democracy-building more than thirty years and never leaving Georgia alone in its uneven gambit with Russia? What’s the purpose of the United States in that regard?
N.M: The United States has no major strategic interest in Georgia, although that may change if the initiative to develop a US strategy for the Black Sea comes to fruition. It also has no major economic interest even if we take into account Georgia’s role as a conduit for trade with Central Asia. Take a look at US trade and investment data.
Americans value Georgia as a historical exception to the general authoritarianism of the former soviet states. Georgia was seen as a beacon of democracy and reform for the region. Many American political figures also have genuine affection for the Georgian people. These are perishable goods. affection is no substitute for mutual advantage in a strategic relationship. To quote a Scottish ballad: “Love grows old and waxes cold.” If Georgia wishes to sustain and deepen its relationship with the West, it needs to ensure that coexistence with Russia does not go too far and it needs to preserve and strengthen its own democratic institutions.
Tedo Japaridze is a former ambassador to the US and ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.