Monday, December 4, 2023

An appeasement policy: How Georgia lost its friends and got closer to its enemy

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili holds a press conference in the capital Tbilisi.

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As tensions on the Ukrainian border have reached a fever pitch over the last several weeks, the overwhelming majority of NATO and the members of the EU are openly supporting Ukraine through diplomacy and military aid. Official Tbilisi, however, keeps silent. The Georgian government’s complete lack of a response to the Ukraine crisis is utterly unacceptable for the pro-Western Georgians who represent roughly half of society, and who believe that Georgia and Ukraine are together in their fight for freedom. 

To express solidarity with Ukraine highlights the historical friendship between the two countries and their pro-Western aspirations. Thus far, a couple of demonstrations have taken place in Tbilisi, where those who gathered demanded that the government take a more forceful stand towards Moscow.   

Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, David Zalkaliani, broke the government’s silence only after his Ukrainian counterpart called on Ukraine’s allies to join Kiev to support their right to choose a policy path of their own. In response, Zalkaliani re-tweeted the Ukrainian government’s call and stated official Tbilisi’s solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. However, for those who are well acquainted with the power of words, particularly in diplomacy, the tone of the message seemed very cautious. “Threatening any country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is totally intolerable. (Georgia) Stands in solidarity with Ukraine and (the) Ukrainian people”. 

Zalkaliani never mentioned Russia, despite the fact that Moscow will be the likely aggressor in any new conflict with Ukraine. Later, due to Russia’s role in the crisis, the Government of Georgia did not agree to back the text of a resolution that was offered by the political opposition, which would have officially stated the government’s solidarity with Ukraine. Instead, it adopted a counter resolution in which the Russian Federation was never mentioned, which the opposition refused to sign.

“We tried to have the text be principled, but without any extra provocative sharpness,” the ruling Georgian Dream party explained when discussing the content of their resolution.  

The Ukraine-Russia crisis once again highlights how the current Georgian government has radically shifted the country’s political orientation from the actively pro-Western stance that it took only a few years ago. After coming to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream changed Tbilisi’s attitude towards the Kremlin. Improving Georgia’s relations with Russia became one of the major Georgian Dream pre-election promises a decade ago. This political realignment was termed ‘normalization’, but successive Georgian Dream governments have demonstratively changed both the rhetoric and tone in their policies towards Moscow.

The Georgian Dream, and its supporters, see the so-called normalization policy as the most rational approach to dealing with the Kremlin, as well as being the best guarantee against a future military conflict with Russia. There is, however, a very large segment of Georgian society that believes that the Georgian Dream is simply serving Russia’s interests in the country.

While the Georgian Dream does its best “not to irritate Russia” – they’ve even avoided making an official visit to Kiev during the crisis – it is becoming more and more apparent that the Georgian Dream’s approach towards Moscow is nothing short of an outright appeasement policy, one that will likely doom Georgia and leave it without powerful friends and allies on the international stage. This, ultimately, will leave Georgia and its people perpetually stuck in Russia’s orbit.

The Ukraine-Georgia friendship is not only based on emotions and a common realization that their interests converge when it comes to relations with Putin’s Russia, it has also manifested itself in a documented strategic partnership known as the Ukraine-Georgia Framework Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which was signed during an official visit to Kiev by former President Eduard Shevardnadze on April 13, 1993. 

On July 18, 2017, Georgia-Ukraine relations moved to the next level when President Petro Poroshenko visited Georgia to sign the Declaration on Strategic Partnership. During this historic 25 year period, Ukraine repeatedly demonstrated that it was a loyal friend of Georgia, that the term “mutual assistance” outlined in the title of the 1993 treaty has been the basis of real actions between the two nations. 

Georgians remember two cases very when the two countries stood with each other very viscerally. In the latter stages of the Abkhaz War, in September 1993, tens of thousands of Georgian citizens who lived in Abkhazia were forced to leave their homes while trying to escape genocide and acts of ethnic cleansing. Ukrainian rescue helicopters saved the lives of several thousand Georgians during those tragic events. In August 2008, during the most recent war between Russia and Georgia, Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yushchenko arrived in Tbilisi, at great risk to his own life, to support the Georgian people. Together with Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski, he organized the arrival to Georgia of the three presidents of the Baltic States.

But has the Georgian side fulfilled its obligations to the strategic partnership with Ukraine? In 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, official Tbilisi took a neutral line and limited its diplomatic and political activities to only telephone calls to Kiev. The Georgian Dream government has portrayed itself as a friend of Ukraine’s, but the only real cooperation between the two countries has been a program where, from 2015, Ukrainian servicemen who were injured or wounded the war in eastern Ukraine have undergone rehabilitation courses in Georgia, This program has involved the support of the Americans, but have done nothing to help  Ukraine politically or diplomatically during the standoff with Moscow.

Georgia does not represent a superpower with the sort of significant military capabilities that could affect the current tensions. Georgia could, however, be a better friend and ally for Ukraine. Never before has Ukraine faced a full-scale war with Russia as it does today. Yushchenko said in his memories about the 2008 war: “Nothing would work better than moral support”. 

Now is the time for Georgia to show moral support for Ukraine. Unfortunately, at the governmental level, that’s not likely to happen. 

Some in society argue that Georgia serves its own interests by taking a neutral position during the conflict between Moscow and Kiev, but an appeasement policy is not rational for Georgia’s own national interests. The result of this approach is that the West has in recent years become less and less interested in developing its ties to Georgia, both economically and politically. Georgia does, however, still have strong support from its friends in Eastern Europe. They regularly discuss Georgia’s security issues at international forums. The Georgian Dream’s reluctance to show even minimal support to Ukraine, during a very tense time, is a very ominous sign for countries that regard themselves as Georgia’s closest friends.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal holds a videoconference with Garibashvili.

The Georgian Dream should take into consideration that there is no one-sided friendship and it needs mutually reciprocate as relationships on the international level are not limitless. The Georgian Dream’s destructive positions towards Georgia’s allies in the West has left the latter with a rapidly dwindling interest in maintaining friendly bilateral relations with Tbilisi. 

Why Georgia’s silence is more than a disgrace

Putin’s target is much more than just Ukraine’s territory. He aims to reverse the world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War. Putin wants to restore Moscow’s primacy over domestic and foreign policy in all post-Soviet countries, regardless of the status as independent and sovereign nations. 

Most recently, in December and January, Russia demanded that the West provide guarantees that Georgian and Ukraine would never become members of NATO. At the same time, in late January, Russia reminded the Government of Georgia that it must learn lessons from the past by adopting what the Kremlin calls ‘a balanced approach’ towards Moscow and to abandon its Western-aligned course. 

The crisis in Ukraine is undoubtedly edging the world towards a new Cold War. It’s time for Georgia to choose a side and stand with the group of nations that respect democratic principles and international law. The overwhelming majority of Georgians support Georgia’s integration into NATO and its aspiration to one day join the EU. Defining who Georgia’s true allies are is of pragmatic and vital interest if Georgia wants to be a part of the free world. Georgia needs to be very pro-active on the executive level if it does not want to be trapped behind the new Iron Curtain that Putin is trying to construct.

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