Op-Ed by Victor Kipiani, Chairman, Geocase
The country is facing many problems, some of which are so serious that even much stronger states than us Georgians are struggling to find adequate responses to them. Many problematic issues, from top to bottom, are raised by our history and national characteristics, whereas others are reflections of global processes of transformation. These issues can be categorized according to different themes and contents, notably thanks to accumulated knowledge or experience in relevant fields, as well as to an analysis of these issues and their systematic nature.
The disease of a monopoly over an idea
Certain problems can be dealt with rapidly, whereas others might require longer periods of time. Some can be resolved through national efforts, and others only through a proper combination with international resources. But… what could be done (and when?) to tackle the centuries-old fallaciousness of the political culture, the political immorality that is reflected through hypocrisy when evaluating events? What societal or political undertaking can save us when we prefer to follow current trends instead of properly defining our country’s interests, and to replace a thorough analysis of risks and challenges with smug and useless media rhetoric? What could we oppose to the fact that we have been sacrificing a pure and professional evaluation for the coquetry and superficiality of “winning hearts”?
Which approach is statehood-minded in such cases? What standard of behavior can serve the national interest? An “expert opinion” that aims to gain cheap publicity by blindly following current trends and that benefits from a special exclusiveness (for suspicious reasons)? Or developing and adopting new and innovative approaches in order to find proper, rational solutions? I admit that these questions are relatively rhetorical and that it shouldn’t be too difficult to answer them, but only in theory, since in reality we find it as difficult to find answers as we do to take them into consideration when making decisions and carrying them out. We find it difficult to such an extent that by doing so we damage the country’s security and undermine its potential to become a competitive national state, and all this against a background of increased internal and external risks.
In this article, I would like to express my own opinion regarding several urgent topics. It seems to me that these topics are often discussed under the influence of those stereotypical “pincers” which surpass the ability of critical thinking and freedom of opinion, and that these discussions turn “conclusions” and “evaluations” into useless clichés for practical politics.
I also fully acknowledge the fact that going beyond established stereotypes and clichés threatens to attract “anti”, “contra” and “pro” labels; and this is done very adroitly and enthusiastically by those in our country who have spent decades guarding the “Holy Grail” of their analytical thinking and imposing their own “unique and reputable” contribution to Georgia’s futile journey around the same circle. But why “futile” when one of the results is clearly achieved? The contribution of these “Guardians of the Holy Grail” to forming public and political opinions has always been and will always be appreciated—and this is how a certain “monopoly over an idea” is formed; a closed, stereotypical approach that hinders the free and unbiased thinking and discussion that development requires, causes societal processes to stagnate, renders us spineless and incapable of political modernization, and significantly delays the attainment of a degree of maturity in statehood.
To justify oneself?
Before moving to a specific topic, one that takes this sad reality I have described into consideration, I will refer to a few passages from my professional career. Again and again, in order to strengthen the credibility of a few and presumably quite disputable opinions expressed in this article, I hope that this small “marketing” insert will somewhat tame the desire to “label” of the “monopolists” mentioned above and will encourage a more thematic discussion.
Over the past thirty years, the law firm for which I work has been involved in many large geopolitical and economic projects. Notable examples include advising the critically important Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasian pipelines, accompanying the agreement to purchase French-made air defense equipment, acting as a consultant for the US State Department and other Western state or diplomatic institutions, providing legal support to dozens of Western and Asian companies seeking to invest in Georgia, working alongside leading international financial institutions to create often highly innovative financing agreements for various large projects and structuring capital resources, etc.
“Presenting my credentials” should also put a stop to any futile questioning of the style and attitude of the analytical organization whose member I am honored to be, particularly as, for those of you who are interested, this questioning will lead you nowhere.
Let us therefore now move to the main message at hand.
There are issues whose discussion requires maximum openness and honesty from all, and especially among the researchers and analysts whose main mission is to thoroughly diagnose problems in order to help politicians make the best decisions in pursuit of the country’s interests. Moreover, a non-politicized discussion free of any idées fixes and media-related factors is as necessary for internal consumers as it is for the actors of processes beyond Georgia’s borders. I sometimes have the impression that, in this regard, our partners have greater readiness and desire than certain local politicians or public figures have willpower and motivation (and ability, by the way), “pouring out their intellect” on Georgian television talk shows.
Let us discuss this thematically.
The urgency of the need for regional cooperation
There have recently been active discussions around the idea of a so-called “3+3” initiative. Interested readers will of course already be familiar with this concept, so I shall neither repeat myself nor shall I analyze in depth the recent comment by the Foreign Minister, who called for a discussion of the idea of Georgia joining various “infrastructural projects”, which in turn caused a certain agitation and disagreement, especially against the background of the “3+3” initiative. I will not hide the fact that this comment also dissatisfied me personally. It is true that, by adopting a healthy and unpoliticized approach to this comment, its main message could still be read; but objectively speaking, the Minister should have elaborated a little more, as was subsequently done in an official statement by the Ministry.
I will start by mentioning that the government’s evaluation of almost any topic is always accompanied by a clear definition of “red lines” beyond which actions are incompatible with our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This time was no exception, and has always been the case, for any past Georgian government, and will always be so, regardless of party allegiances among the members of the Georgian government. The reason for this lies with the civilizational choice of the Georgian people, which will always be reflected by its government.
It is also worth mentioning a few essential circumstances of current events. In the beginning, we spoke of rearranging the global political system by bringing regionalism to the fore. As we move away from a unipolar or bipolar world (although many are currently discussing a new USA-China bipolar arrangement), regional centers of influence are acquiring a renewed gravitational role around the world in the formation of “geopolitical weather”. I have repeatedly mentioned the so-called “regional criss-crossing” tendency within the emergence of a new world order and have also discussed the reasons for and the dynamics of its development.
Under these conditions, it is crucial for the sustainable development of the Georgian state to maintain our strategic course without suffering any losses and to build relations with our neighbors (considering existing conditions and possibilities) by adopting intelligible and acceptable rules of the game. And yes, both lines of Georgian foreign policy should be gathered equally at this point: the first being the previously mentioned civilized choice as a main pillar of Georgian statehood and its stability; and the other being the practical embodiment of the truth that serves to minimize the country’s internal and external risks through the adoption of foreseeable and predictable neighborly relations.
The reality is such that, alongside the increase of multivectoral tendencies in the neighborhood, Georgian diplomacy must become more layered. I must, however, repeat that this does not mean either changing the country’s main foreign policy course or replacing it with another. The thing is that the main global players find it difficult nowadays to unconditionally generalize the “piercing geopolitical” influences characteristic of unipolar, bipolar or even multipolar systems, whereas their tactical or strategical cooperation with regional players increases in consequence. In addition to other results, all this is followed by a rearrangement or regrouping of pre-existing regional alliances, as well as by the emergence of new ones, including in some cases relatively amorphous and short-term partnerships. (It is also worth noting that multivectoral politics, both in deed and in effect, have practically become equal to maintaining an active neutrality.)
We, in the South Caucasus, are witnessing precisely such a process. Although the latter has been actively discussed in numerous publications and has given rise to many opinions and evaluations, I believe that every single one of them, while maintaining the impregnability of the “red lines” mentioned above, deserves a calm and emotionless discussion.
After this short review, let us return to the Minister’s comment and the Ministry’s statement. The unrealized attempt of the former and the unambiguous interpretation of the latter demonstrate that, on one hand, Tbilisi does not discuss the “3+3” format due to its composition, and that on the other it cannot do so due to the negative results of its official membership. The official materials that we currently possess should therefore in theory exclude speculation on this topic, but this exclusion is of course complicated by the abundant desire of political and non-governmental “speculators”(?) in Georgia to establish a monopoly over the manipulation of public opinion as well as to “juggle” with the analytical process.
At the same time, observers and the general public ignored an absolutely fundamental aspect of the Georgian Foreign Ministry’s position: the meaning of the country’s function within the modern regional context, i.e. the principal pillar without which a country cannot establish itself in external processes. At first, a country without a function becomes uninteresting, a passive and inactive subject, but it then very soon turns into an object over which regional forces seek to gain and exert influence.
Alongside various important issues, Georgia’s functional assignment is that practical benefit that gives our country a laissez-passer for integration into this new order. It is no coincidence that since the mid-1990s we have joined the process of obtaining this very important permission, and back then this attempt proved to be successful but only for a certain period of time. But like everything else, this too is quite changeable. The speed at which our modern world is being transformed has accelerated, whereas the Georgian Foreign Ministry emphasis on “thinking” was first of all mostly linked to the country’s functional load and emphasized its role in this regard. This is my personal reading of the circumstances, but I hope for greater explanations and efforts to be dedicated to this issue. It definitely deserves this, and indeed requires it.
In this respect, when concluding our discussion of the regional question, I would mention signs of a pale but possibly careful optimism of a (frankly speaking forgotten) Georgian activism. A “peaceful neighborhood initiative” was recently mentioned, and Tbilisi will hopefully encourage efforts to make this initiative worthwhile in the region. The spirit of this initiative is welcomed, but its details remain unknown. Although such details would of course be linked to numerous objective or subjective factors and their specific nature would be shaped as progress is made, none of us is naïve: we understand the current conjunction and we acknowledge our possibilities. But it is vital to remember that ceaselessly being dynamic and proactive is the very source of our existence as a nation and a state. Moreover, both the good and the bad aspects of Georgia’s historic role also lie in the fact that, more often than not, in order to achieve our own results, we would not only walk our share of the road but also that of others as well.
Eastern Partnership and/or “Trio”: progressing along our own path?
Let us begin a short while ago. A summit of the EU and Western Balkans was recently held in Slovenia. Its agenda was dedicated to the EU integration of the “Balkan Six”—an issue which has recently gained particular importance and has become a test not only for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro’s full EU membership but also for the Union’s real readiness to pursue its eastward expansion. Opinions among EU members are split on this topic, and not only with regard to the Balkan Six and the progress of their reforms: the attitudes of certain EU member states towards Russia, China and Turkey as well as their interest in political or economic angles are additional important factors. If we set aside internal Balkan processes for a second, it is particularly noteworthy that the word “expansion” engenders noticeable levels of resistance in EU countries.
Presumably, the answer to this resistance could be the various quasi-integrational attempts of several Balkan countries (e.g. the “Open Balkans” initiative), as these improve their readiness for greater coordination and integration around overall European themes.
One specific angle (reviewed here) can help us to discuss the “Eastern Partnership”, particularly as the political and economic test of Europeanness for this platform is much more difficult and complex than it is for the Balkans. It should be enough to mention that the West still considers the Eastern Partnership countries as a so-called “buffer zone”, whereas Russian influence over these countries is increasing daily; and this problem is rendered even more acute by the open aggression and occupation of territories belonging to several members of this “Associated Trio”. As a result, the integration of these countries into the EU causes great difficulties and “arch-problems”.
What should Georgia’s approach be towards European integration in such conditions? Where and to what extent do our interests overlap with those of the “Associated Trio”, as countries much closer to us in terms of their geopolitical aims?
I think that the best response of “Senior Europeans” would be the greater Europeanization of this Trio and the deepening of their EU integration in various sectors. Alongside various bilateral programmes with the EU, I would also consider establishing an overall regional market for the “Trio” with unified rules and regulations. In addition to previously mentioned bilateral processes, i.e. when we carry out reforms whereas the EU fulfills its promises, a greater synergy of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine within a regionally important trilateral association would serve as an optimal response to Western European skepticism.
Besides economic components, a much greater rapprochement and consultations between the foreign policies and national security systems of the “Trio” would be equally useful. It is a fact that knocking on the doors of the EU and NATO on our own and uniting our call with those of others are two diametrically different situations. Alongside these two components, I believe that the West would welcome a more systematic approach from the “Trio”. The institutionalization of cooperation along foreign and security lines, both among the “Trio” and with the EU, would also improve the effectiveness of the fight against hybrid threats and disinformation.
The reader will have noticed that we began by discussing the “Eastern Partnership” before shifting to the “Associated Trio”, and this was neither a coincidence nor an accident. Despite declared support for the “Eastern Partnership” (of which the European Parliament’s paper of the 16th of September 2021 on EU-Russian political relations is a further example), moving towards the EU along the route of this “partnership” will be much longer than via the “Trio”. It is not only about the ambiguity of certain EU statements regarding the Eastern Partnership, e.g. “everything but institutions”; nor is it about speculation that the “Eastern Partnership” is an attempt by the EU to distance itself from the countries of the partnership. Yet nor is this thesis groundless… Essentially and importantly, the failing of the “partnership” in terms of European integration is a lack of overlap between the interests of its main members, making this union even more amorphous and “imminent” membership of the EU even more unrealistic.
Accordingly, I believe that the reality is that moving towards the EU along the “Associated Trio” path offers better prospects, for through such a homogeneous union Tbilisi could make it relatively easier for the EU to take practical counter-steps. Alongside the previously mentioned Europeanization, both parties to the integration process, i.e. us and them, must make political decisions. And this, along with common European values, rests upon the profitability, acceptability and pragmatism that are so characteristic of the modern world.
NATO: So close and yet so far…
The problems that Georgia’s NATO membership faces are linked to one key issue: the differences of opinion among Alliance members regarding Eastern enlargement. From one summit to another, instead of the promises of 2008 being kept, we simply receive even more promises. Also, considering the anachronistic inclusion in the last summit’s declaration of an “individual membership plan”, I would read it as yet another appeal to “mark time”, if not actually another step back.
In general, expanding the Alliance has become a test of the modernization of the Western world as well as of its ability to adapt to the rapidly changing global security environment. As a result, we have ended up in a situation in which, alongside Tbilisi’s attempts to become a NATO member, we are also witnessing the Alliance’s own attempts to redefine itself in new contexts.
According to current data, Georgia has still not clearly been given a specific date for its NATO membership; and as for the country’s “individual membership” plan, we still do not know what more we could do to achieve greater specificity. Additionally, there is also a need to clearly define what our partner countries may expect (in terms of defense and in other areas) from a country which, despite hundredfold pressures in this most complicated region, continues to be the standard bearer of the course of Western geopolitics.
We have therefore reached a demand for the primacy of political will: we have been waiting for NATO members to show unity and make a bold political decision for a long time. Moreover, considering current processes, it seems likely that we will have to wait much longer still. If this turns out to be the case, it would be most unfair and should be mentioned immediately.
The word “unfair” was not mentioned accidentally. Georgia is currently much more advanced on the path towards NATO than, for example, Bulgaria and Romania were back in 1999 or Albania in 2007. Moreover, the picture of influences in the Black Sea region is changing very rapidly, requiring less talk of “values” and greater agility and dynamism in defense of “interests”.
The situation requires an honest and specific conversation with our Western partners regarding the “rules of the game”, in parallel with which the Georgian side is only left with the “option” of not stopping, not even for a second, its constant and unstoppable (!) work to fully and qualitatively reform its military and security sectors as well as its economy and democratic institutions.
Yet working on such changes should be done without self-satisfaction, groundless PR and reproaches. Real and comprehensive change is first of all useful to its real beneficiaries: our country and our society.
Also, if we cannot compel our partners and allies, we should at least call on them to turn our cooperation into an inter-allied effort, so that when they make a political decision, this relationship would only lack a signature.
Alongside Tbilisi’s necessary political and diplomatic efforts and before NATO’s possible replacement or the inactivation of its safety umbrella, I believe it would be appropriate to discuss the so-called security “compensation” model. This, too, has become a much more frequent subject of discussion, and I shall now underline the two main formats that such a model can adopt.
One of them is structuring a certain kind of alliance based upon territorial arrangements around the Black Sea. The Black Sea’s role in the overall Eurasian system has been mentioned many times; the region really has unique meaning as a “security lock” at the geostrategic crossroads of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet states, Turkish space and Russia’s “New Kaliningrad” (the Crimea). It is therefore time to take practical steps towards making this evaluation a reality.
As an alternative (or overlap), one could also consider transforming Georgia’s bilateral strategic partnership with the U.S. into a bilateral strategic alliance; and here, too, with great results in terms of security. When mentioning this model, it is worth noting the recent visit to Tbilisi of the U.S. Secretary of Defense and considering what practical results this visit could have.
At the same time, such cooperation should encourage Georgia’s regional position and stability. Efforts to strengthen the country’s security should first of all be conditioned by our national and state interests, ensuring our citizens and society enjoy the peace and development that they need to prosper. It is equally important to note that this would in turn improve the stability and peaceful prospects of the wider Black Sea region and would be completely desirable for the South Caucasus—a neighborhood in which territorial integrity and civilized coexistence are fundamental principles.
In a word…
Our discussion of these topics is yet another invitation to debate these matters among ourselves in a realistic and specific manner. I believe that formulating such an approach would help practical policy makers to establish a principle-based and yet flexible position. Georgia cannot enjoy the luxury of being “incapable to agree” when considering the question of the country’s safe development. At the same time, systems of relations based upon framework agreements with our partners and neighbors can only be formed through a technocratic, rational and applied analysis. It is time for Georgian politicians to abandon their chest-thumping patriotism and creation of fake media effects in favor of reflecting reality, for only the latter can lead to practical, tangible and long-term results.
Op-Ed by Victor Kipiani
Main photo source: 112international