Opinion | Time to change Georgia’s self-centered foreign policy

As the year wanes, the political context around Georgia is changing. Mass protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, in Russia’s far-east, spread a breeze of transformation across the post-Soviet neighborhood. Festering regional conflagration also deeply changes the balance of power, creeping ever closer to Georgia – from Libya to the eastern Mediterranean, it now reached the immediate neighborhood with a violent force of renewed war and uneasy peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Author: Giorgi Paniashvili has been in Georgian diplomatic service for 12 years. This article reflects his personal opinion.

In contrast, Georgia’s foreign policy agenda and the rhetoric remain unaltered, frozen in time, centered around one crucial, yet ultimately selfish agenda point of territorial integrity. The doctrine of political egocentrism has long outlived its usefulness. To achieve its national security objectives, Georgia must find its voice on the regional stage and bring possible solutions – not just its problems – to the table.

In charting this quest, it might be useful to recall how Georgia’s foreign policy got to the point where it finds itself today.

Post-war Consolidation 

The tenets of the Georgian foreign policy agenda gained their present shape following the Russo-Georgia war in 2008. The subsequent military occupation, annexation, and “borderization” of Georgian territories, which present a vital national security threat, required timely and decisive action. It was imperative to engage the international partners in managing prompt post-conflict recovery and in mediating the risks.

The effort built on a longer-term premise of the irreversibility of Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Articulating shared perceived regional interest in preventing Russia’s expansionism and stemming its aggression, it went to portray Georgia’s plight as a broader concern to the West.

A handful of phrases coined at this time, “20% of Georgia’s territory is occupied by Russia”, “ongoing borderization and creeping annexation”, “grave human rights abuses and humanitarian situation on the occupied territories” have been in all official talking points ever since.

Keeping Georgia constantly on the international agenda, trying to mold the foreign policy of partners around Georgia’s problems, required tireless effort, improvisation, and self-centered, if not selfish, approach from the Georgian foreign service. There were initial successes – international recognition of the occupied provinces was stemmed, Georgia got a lifeline of financial support.

Diminishing returns: “Reset” and Syria

Twelve years have passed. Georgia was proven right – and some of the Western skeptics wrong – in arguing that Russia’s military aggression against Tbilisi was not an isolated incident, but a sign of a deadly shift in Moscow’s already destabilizing foreign policy. But being the first victim, or being proven right, does not automatically translate into foreign policy advantage.

International relations are dynamic and prone to transformation. The first crack in Georgia’s post-war foreign policy approach appeared in 2010, as President Obama’s administration tried to “reset” relations with Russia. In 2011-2012 it was already clear, that sticking to only anti-occupation and Euro-Atlantic integration talking points was reaching the point of diminishing returns on the time and effort invested.

It got worse. In 2011-2012, the tragic debacle in Syria and Libya quickly drew the international community’s attention away from Georgia-related problems. The ensuing refugee crisis took some additional bandwidth of the European capitals away. It was obvious, that to remain relevant, Georgia’s narrative needed to adapt and change. 

Unfortunately, despite the clear and disruptive involvement of Russia in Syria, Tbilisi has largely missed the chance of addressing the widening geopolitics of Russia’s aggressive expansionism. Georgia treated the events in the Middle East as something distant, and beyond Tbilisi’s reach or concern, when from a purely geographic point of view, the city of Aleppo happens to be closer to Tbilisi than Kyiv.  

In European eyes, Georgia often left an impression of a selfish partner, that lacks interest in issues of crucial significance to its international partners, viewing global affairs from its own, single-track perspective.

Limiting the international recognition of Russian-occupied provinces became the key indicator of success for Georgia’s foreign policy, rather than one of its composing elements. Staying largely silent on Syria for the fear of such recognition proved counterproductive – Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime did recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2018. But worse, by disassociating itself from Syrian affairs, Tbilisi has also distanced itself from the European cause.

Missed opportunity: Ukraine

The developments in Ukraine in 2014-2015 and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia substantially altered the military and geopolitical reality on Europe’s eastern flank. After 2008 war, Georgian officials often pointed out that Ukraine was the likely next target if Moscow’s aggression against Tbilisi was left unchecked. This was often waved off as scaremongering in some key European capitals.

The Crimea debacle could have become a platform for a decisive push for putting Georgia (and Ukraine) under at least a partial shadow of the Euro-Atlantic security umbrella. This did not happen. Apart from the international complications, a politically driven chill in the relations between Tbilisi and Kyiv took precedence over common strategic objectives. When in July 2014 “some unidentified paramilitary units” “using unidentified means” shot down a Malaysian passenger jet over the eastern part of Ukraine, Tbilisi limited itself to expressing condolences.

While the Ukraine crisis overshadowed Georgia’s problems in European corridors of power, Tbilisi acquiesced to the decoupling of the quite symmetric Ukrainian and Georgian topics in talks with the Kremlin. Official Tbilisi also showed open displeasure with the ex-Georgian servicemen joining Kyiv’s side as volunteers in Donbas.

For these and many other reasons, the strategic axis of Tbilisi-Kyiv is no longer in place. The two countries, beset by their own special problems, but confronted with a common adversary, have drifted apart and are now facing adversities without much mutual support. Once again, a heavy price has been paid for self-centered foreign policy.

New threats – muted response

Developments in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine have exposed new types of threats, including the increased influence of ISIL and other large quasi-state terrorist organizations. As the US has pivoted away from Europe, the wider Middle East has rapidly emerged as a theater of regional competition between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. The security risks this competition generates go beyond the potential use of the Russian military capabilities in Georgia’s occupied provinces to feed its regional adventures. The use of chemical weapons, widespread recruitment, and deployment of mercenaries under the cover of plausible deniability, hybrid warfare, including cyber- and information threats, expanded use of surveillance and combat drones by both state and non-state actors – all of these threats are real for Georgia. Tbilisi needs allies to address them.

Mutual political support is the currency of exchange in foreign policy. Yet the Georgian voice is barely heard among the Europeans when it comes to, for instance, supporting democratic development and upholding human rights around the globe. Tbilisi often avoids taking a stand when it comes to international conflicts or tensions, for fear of irking Moscow and/or triggering the chain of recognition of its own occupied regions by the parties that seek Kremlin’s favor or are particularly susceptible to its pressure.

Today, Georgia’s voice is also missing in geopolitical discussions regarding Ukraine or the Middle East. Tbilisi is absent from the scene as discussions on human rights violations, demonstrations, and suppression of political opponents in Russia and Belarus rage in Europe. Georgia did not make itself heard on political developments in Moldova. Due to the entrenched fears related to the recognition of its occupied regions, Georgia abstains from speaking out against the death penalty.

When it comes to Russia, Tbilisi is coy. Georgia had no articulated stance on the Salisbury attack or on the poisoning Alexey Navalny with deadly chemical agents. To maintain minimum solidarity with the West, Tbilisi did expel one technical staff of the Russian section in the Swiss Embassy over Sergey Skripal poisoning case and silently joined the EU statement on Navalny poisoning. Even more shockingly, Tbilisi kept silent on the killing of its citizen in the center of Berlin, which the German prosecution has attributed to Russia.     

Need for change   

Georgia continues to draw on a credit of support from its European and US allies when it comes to supporting its own non-recognition and the anti-occupation policy but offers little support in return. But that support is not limitless, and neither it is unconditional.

Calling the allies’ attention to Georgia’s problems requires ever-increasing effort and resources from a tiny and yet fledgling Georgian civil and diplomatic service, while little political effort is made to replenish that credit of support by taking an active stand wherever Georgia’s friends might need it.

Overwrought, Tbilisi’s foreign policy grows increasingly recalcitrant, becomes at best reactive and at worst passive on any number of internationally important topics: climate change, migration, the rule of law. Some isolated initiatives by the Georgian Mission in the UN and those by the Georgian President in this sense are mostly rhetorical and so ad hoc, so unsupported by the general policy and information machinery, that they are unfortunately often met by public ridicule.

The problem is coming closer to home. The escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh exposed once again the dangerously changing international context while emphasizing an urgent need for adaptation and transformation in Georgia’s foreign policy. Tbilisi was hard-pressed to maintain neutrality in this conflict between the neighbors but doing so without taking an active stance came dangerously close to becoming a thoroughfare to the conflicting regional powers’ interests.

Decade-long foreign policy approaches, positions, and perceptions are proving themselves useless, if not dangerous, against the background of the developing strategic reality in the region. 

Georgia cannot defend its foreign policy interests by focusing only on Georgian challenges. Emphasizing the integrity of values with European and US partners and ardently promoting shared interests are the best ways to ensure the due attention of friends and allies to the Georgia-related matters. 

Georgia’s foreign policy should learn to organically link its own security agenda with the emerging international trends and context. By ensuring such linkage, Georgia might expect the solutions to its problems to emerge from ongoing, today’s discussions rather than from setting right the decade-old grievances.

The regional reality around Georgia is being unavoidably altered. To survive, Georgia must act and adapt, rather than wait and see.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)