I hoped to publish this in an American newspaper during Speaker Usupashvili”s visit to Washington DC, a very successful one, by the way! I wanted Americans to read that message about Georgia and the recent developments there. I did not succeed, but I want to share it with you and maybe through your publication to reach Western politicians, policy-makers, experts and analysts.
Georgia has just passed a significant milestone on its road to democracy: it has had a peaceful transfer of power, and it is now passing another: the formation of a specifically Georgian kind of “cohabitation,” one that will require patience and understanding on all sides. The first of these achievements is important because Georgia has no experience with peaceful transitions, as the three previous changes since the end of Soviet times were extra-constitutional. But the second will determine the country’s future for many decades ahead.
Unfortunately, President Mikheil Saakashvili and his allies who lost the elections have succeeded in convincing some in both Georgia and abroad that what has happened is not only regime change but also a victory for Moscow against the West. That is not only wrong, but it is dangerously counter-productive.
It is wrong because it distracts attention from the reality that there is not “road to the West” on offer and even more because no-one in Georgia wants to turn back to Moscow. And it is counterproductive because it means that we in Georgia who need the understanding and support of European and transatlantic countries have not yet received the kind of clear signals that we hope for.
The new government in Tbilisi is committed to the Partnership for Peace with NATO and to a free trade agreement with the European Union. We recognize that to expect anything more than that from either of our Western partners at present is to engage in wishful thinking. Unfortunately, some Georgians, including President Saakashvili, have engaged in such thinking in the past with disastrous results but continue to do so even now.
Russia is pushing a Eurasian Customs Union, an idea that has attracted the usual suspects but one that can have no attraction for Georgians until Moscow ends its reliance on brute force and the occupation of Georgian territory, something we do not see on the horizon. That does not mean that Georgian diplomats can afford to ignore Moscow, but it does set real limits on what they can expect to achieve and those limits affect the current government in Tbilisi just as much as they did any government before it.
In dealing with Russia, we must avoid both appeasement and provocation. What does that mean? Georgia must engage Russia and see cooperation with it even if for the time being that much remain compartmentalized. We must regain access to the Russian marketplace. Tbilisi must try to think out of the box and beyond the occupation of our territory, even though we will never negotiate on our sovereignty over the portion Russia occupies and the portion it does not. And in doing so we must move from the “either/or” approach of President Saakashvili to the “both/and” approach of successful diplomacy.
Doing this is not going to be easy, and that is why it is so important that Georgians understand the need for such a realistic approach and why it may be even more important that our Western friends do so as well. We need them to recognize that while Georgia lives in a dangerous neighborhood, the South Caucasus is not the Balkans and that the approaches Europe and America have adopted in the latter won’t work in the former.
Europe and the United States need to reframe their regional policy tools in order to allow Georgia and the South Caucasus more generally to play the role of a bridge rather than a barrier. We must not become a new Berlin Wall as President Saakashvili seems to want. If we have to take something from the past, it would be better to become a Vienna of the 1950s, a place where diplomats from both sides of the divide could meet and engage in tough talk but real negotiations.
This is not going to be easy for anyone, not for the West, not for Russia, and certainly not for Georgia. But all of us need serious consideration of alternatives rather than the striking of poses however impressive they may seem. We need to change our expectations of what is possible and to recognize what is not. And that is why we need our Western friends.
Georgia needs time to consolidate its democratic gains, and we can gain that time if and only if both Georgians and the West agree to de-link the East-West encounter from the needs of democracy and freedom. That may not sound glamorous but the pursuit of this promises more achievements on the ground than those who offer poses alone can ever deliver.