PART II: Russo-Georgian Dystopia

The following is the second of a two-part series.

Russian sanctions might not be that impressive, but they are extremely dangerous for Georgian unity. Russia has been destabilizing that unity since Georgia’s independence in  1991, first through its proxies— Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists and militias— and then later more openly from 2004 onwards.

The Kremlin’s political aims behind the sanctions are obvious. Russian officials do not have high expectations for their numerical impact, but the propaganda accompanying them could have a more powerful impact. The Ivanishvili victory in 2012 and promised political and media tolerance has opened doors to Russian propaganda too; since then, banned Russian media outlets have started freely broadcasting in Georgia, while the anti-Kremlin, Georgian-funded, Russian-language television network PIK was shut down.

Russian propaganda is especially vocal in trying to push the narrative that Turks are the historical enemies of Georgia; over the past few days, there has been a storming media campaign trying to destabilize locals’ moods in Adjara, a Georgian autonomous republic that has been hurt by the Russian tourism embargo. The Russian television network NTV similarly launched a collection of fake stories based on fearmongering about the imminent Turkish annexation of Adjara and higher living standards for Turks than locals, amid other topics.

Ivanishvili is not a pioneer of normalization politics. Saakashvili himself started with the same promise back in 2003. In 2004, he visited Moscow with the intention of doing “everything to put an end to the shameful (Russo-Georgian) relations.”

That was hope for many Georgians when, in 1992, the country welcomed Mr. Edward Shevardnadze, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, for a visit. It was widely believed that Shevardnadze was able to deal with the Russians and could bring peace to Georgia. He quickly became the archenemy of Russia, however, in the same way that Saakashvili did and similar to what may happen with Ivanishvili if he loses his nerve.

A question often asked is, was it that bad to “surrender” to Russian requests, accepting the status quo and waiting for better times to come? A basic problem with this approach is that the Russian-engineered status quo is progressive, not stagnant. From 1991 to 1994, Russia firmly put its military foot into Georgia and never stopped its provocations there, some of which sparked a brief Abkhazian war in 1998. Ten years later, in 2008, Russia moved further with another war and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the country is currently trying to find other weak spots for further destabilization, all of which demonstrate Russia’s desire to continue making inroads in Georgia.

Historically, Georgians are well aware of what “status-quo” means for Russians. When Russian politicians and scholars refer to “saving Georgians from Muslim enemies,” they forget the fact that this so-called humanitarian act of saving was nothing more than the historical annexation of Georgia in 1801, when Russian Emperor Alexander I issued a manifesto on joining the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti. In reality, Russia has been the only enemy of Georgia to have entirely abolished its statehood.

It took Georgia 190 years (excluding the brief independence period from 1918 to 1921) to restore its independence. Georgia finally regained sovereignty in 1991; its full independence from Russia, however, is yet to come. Georgia has been an integral part of the Russian economy for almost two centuries; such a deep footprint cannot disappear overnight. When asked about the reasons why Georgians may still like to export to Russia, the representative of a consulting company PMCG, answered simply that “it's easy to position products there.”

In recent years, Georgia has been trying to deviate from the Russian economic orbit. Ivanishvili’s government brought free trade and a visa-free regime to Georgians with the European Union. However, it is extremely hard to change business customs and habits that are engraved into society itself. It becomes even harder to get rid of the historical assimilation when the connections are driven by pragmatic economic factors. Russia is the largest market bordering Georgia, followed by Turkey. Turkey has been Georgia’s single largest economic partner over the last few years, which, in effect, means it is the only neighboring market comparable in importance to Russia. It, too, is a target of Russian propaganda. The other two countries bordering Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are too small in size and purchasing power to compensate for the Russian market.

The distance from Tbilisi to Moscow by road is 1,975 kilometers. Other capitals or quasi-capitals which fall within that same 2,000 kilometer range are: Tehran, Iran (1,156); Baku, Azerbaijan (580); Yerevan, Armenia (276); Baghdad, Iraq (1,600); Erbil, Iraq (1,225); Damascus, Syria (1,642); Beirut, Lebanon (1,650); Amman, Jordan (1,850); Jerusalem, Israel (1,972); Ankara, Turkey (1,400); Istanbul, Turkey (1,640); and Kyiv, Ukraine (,1888). Due to sanctions and wars, the cities located in the Middle East are not feasible trading partners, especially via land transportation. The closest EU member state capital city is Sofia, Bulgaria (2,190), and that is the poorest EU capital. Berlin, Germany—which could be an equal replacement for Moscow—is 3,600 kilometers away from Tbilisi.

The Georgian economy produces very few, if any, consumer goods that are in high demand. Its major exported goods are agricultural, excluding scrap and commodity, and even those are not exported in large quantities. Even with free trade and direct sea access, it is not easy to penetrate the European market with agricultural goods, as Europe itself has its own agricultural champions, including Spain and other Mediterranean countries.

To secure full independence, Georgia needs to change its economy’s structure. Tourism has been the latest addition to its economy, but that sector, too, has fallen into a geographical trap. Georgia needs to open up to the world which lies beyond 2,000 kilometers—a challenging task, but not an impossible one. Finnish Nokia phones, Swiss watches, or even Cayman offshore services are sold all over the world no matter how far consumers are. So far, the Georgian Dream government’s economic decisions are controversial and have not been very helpful in improving the diversification and quality of the Georgian economy.

Another essential component of a modern economy is technological knowledge transfer; while the Batumi Technological University project seemed like a step in the right direction, it was shelved and eventually abandoned. The same happened with several much-needed infrastructural projects. The most important among those, the Anaklia deep seaport, is a downscaled version of President Saakashvili’s mega-project Lazika, which was supposed to be an extra-judicial city and seaport—the Black Sea equivalent of Dubai. Even downscaled, however, the project is struggling, and it recently became a hot topic after Georgian law enforcement agencies opened a probe against its Georgian investors, immediately putting a question mark over its implementation. The East-West highway construction is also experiencing heavy delays; in 2016, the government promised to finish the construction of 800 kilometers of road, but, to date, only 67 kilometers have been finished.

Georgia is a poor country. Its per capita income is about $5,000. Even with full dedication, a poor country with security problems and demographic challenges (its population is 3.7 million and is declining) cannot make a break-through on its own. Ideally, Georgia would have been better off under the comfortable umbrella of the European Union, and even better under the NATO military shield. But the actual policies of these organizations toward Georgia remain as they have always been: a “restricted access open door policy.”

Last month, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo spoke out in support of Georgia’s economic diversification, expressing hope “that Georgia will complete the implementation of the [Anaklia seaport] project.” He elaborated, stating that “its implementation will strengthen Georgia’s ties with free economies and will not allow Georgia to be under the economic influence of Russia or China. These imaginary friends are not driven by good intentions.” China is the newest addition to the Georgian gamble, and the United States has long been questioning China’s intentions with the One Belt, One Road initiative. The question to ask is, what is the alternative? TRACECA, a European international transport initiative, ended without fulfilling its goals, and U.S. foreign aid is seen by some as having been “derailed.”

On June 25, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe invited Russia back to the organization, a move which effectively destroyed the Ukraine invasion-related sanctions and demonstrated no acknowledgement of Russia’s ongoing bullying of Georgia. 

Similarly, in August 2012, Russia was admitted to the World Trade Organization with the rigorous assistance of the Obama administration; the admission coincidentally took place on the fourth anniversary of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Georgia is too small to be a driver of the world agenda. It is, however, an important part of  Russia’s “near-abroad,” an area which has been clearly marked by the Kremlin as a potential target for annexation, or at least influence. If the United States and others want to contain Russian destabilization efforts, they should start by stabilizing the “near-abroad” areas like Georgia, and must avoid making further concessions to Russia.

Kaha Baindurashvili is a research fellow at the New Europe College in Bucharest and formerly served as the Minister of Finance of Georgia (2009-2011). Kaha covers Eastern European and Central Asian politics and economics. He graduated from Williams College, Massachusetts, with a degree in Development Economics (MA). Kaha’s Twitter account is @kbaindur.