Renewed confrontation in Georgia?



European Union membership “is a historical choice” for Georgia, according to Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze (above).

“We are not a country which just decides to join blocs,” he told the Atlantic Council. “The Georgian people are aspiring to be part of European society and a full-fledged member of the European community, which is based on shared interests and values. …Being integrated with the EU means that we are building strong democratic institutions in Georgia; strong statehood; and a better future for our country.”

Georgia “is an island of stability, democracy and liberty” in a turbulent region, he wrote in The Hill.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Janelidze met in Washington Tuesday for lengthy discussions on security issues in the Caucasus region and the two countries continued commitment to developing closer political and economic ties.

Although the likelihood of a full-blown war between Russia and Georgia is low, one cannot rule out renewed confrontation between the two countries in the next twelve to eighteen months, says David J. Kramer, senior director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, tensions have periodically resurfaced over the disputed area of South Ossetia; Russia has never fulfilled its obligations under the Six-Point Cease-Fire Agreement (also known as the Sarkozy Plan) that ended the fighting, he writes in a Council on Foreign Relations Contingency Planning Memorandum:

The current Georgian government has sought to improve relations with Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his 2015 end-of-year press conference, indicated an interest in restoring normal ties between the two countries. But upcoming events, such as the July 2016 Warsaw North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and Georgian parliamentary elections later in the fall, could trigger renewed tensions and even a military crisis. Depending on how Georgia’s status as a prospective member is handled at the NATO summit, the Kremlin could decide to ramp up pressure against Tbilisi. Should the United National Movement (UNM) party of former President Mikhail Saakashvili, whom Putin loathes, look poised to win parliamentary elections, Russia might intervene to prevent or respond to such an outcome.

It is in U.S. interests, after all, to maintain strong support for Georgia, as well as other countries bordering Russia, Kramer adds:

Doing so will preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity and support their efforts to develop into democratic, market-oriented societies more integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community. Putin exploits weakness and wavering; he understands and respects strength, and that is the face the United States should show.

Consequently, the United States should:

Work actively with leading Georgian figures to prevent internecine political battles and encourage all sides to abide by democratic principles, due process, and free elections.

Ensure that Georgia avoids dangerous political polarization and remains on the democratic path, especially with upcoming parliamentary elections. The United States should stress the importance of and target assistance toward ensuring a level playing field, ending the politicization of the judicial process, and supporting strong and independent media and a vibrant civil society

The legacy of Misha Saakashvili (right) and the reality of Bidzina Ivanishvili cast long shadows across the Georgian landscape, notes Luis Navarro, former Senior Resident Director for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia. Misha inherited a failed state, modernized it and set it upon a Western course. Bidzina arose as a result of Misha’s overreach, and now his GD coalition has the potential to bring the nation to its long desired destination, he writes for the Eurasia Review (in an article first published by FPRI):

But that could all be undone by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream’s rationalization and short-sighted encouragement of anti-Western/pro-Russian elements inside the coalition and across the political landscape. Accepting the legitimacy of pro-Western opposition parties as the best alternative to the GD’s inevitable departure at some point in the future is the nation’s best insurance for achieving and sustaining their presumptive common cause. Together, the GD, UNM, Free Democrats, and other self-proclaimed pro-Western interests should take comfort in the knowledge that even opponents who have betrayed and threatened one another in the past can and should reconcile in the face of a greater existential threat.

Georgia is one sad post-Soviet place, according to the World Happiness Report, which for the second year running rated the Caucasus nation as the most downbeat country in the former Soviet Union, notes Giorgi Lomsadze.

All of Georgia’s major actors demonstrate a commitment to democratic institutions and values, according to the latest Bertelsmann Index:

Saakashvili’s acknowledgement of the defeat of his party and return to the opposition without taking any serious illegal actions, as well as the relatively peaceful “cohabitation,” from October 2012 until October 2013, of President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, are important steps in transition to democracy. Unfortunately, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the opposition United National Movement still have not yet arrived at more constructive forms of interaction in parliament and beyond. Nevertheless, while not all democratic institutions are held in high respect by the population, few doubts are voiced regarding their legitimacy, or a preference for any less democratic system of governance.

But, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the International Republican Institute in February 2015, only 25% of respondents view Georgia as headed in the right direction, Bertelsmann adds:

This number is significantly higher than results provided by National Democratic Institute surveys: in August 2014, 40% approved of the country’s direction and in March 2013, the percentage was 58%. In February 2015, 55% said the country is going in the wrong direction (compared to 16% in August 2014 and 8% in March 2013). This decline is certainly due to the deteriorating economic situation and the government’s response to it. Asked whether Georgia is a democracy now, 46% of respondents said yes (in March 2013: 43%), compared to 39% (in 2013: 38%) who said no. Almost half (47% in 2015; in 2013: 51%) declared that democracy for them meant freedom of expression and a free press, while 43% (44% in 2013) declared that democracy meant equality of all citizens before the law, and 35% (35% also in 2013) considered democracy to be the protection of human rights.

Georgia still struggles with issues connected to its justice system, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, rights of LGBTI people, and cases of torture and other ill-treatment, according to Amnesty International’s recently-released annual report 2015/2016:

AI takes note of the fact, that political tensions in Georgia emerged following the release of clandestine videos of prison rape from the period when the United National Movement (UNM) was in power and leaked communications between former president Mikheil Saakashvili and TV station Rustavi 2. A 26% devaluation of lari against the US dollar increased economic vulnerability for many families. Removal of South Ossetian border posts at the administrative boundary line and detentions of people heightened tensions between the central government and Tskhinvali, while the International Court launched an investigation into the events of the 2008 war.

NDI and IRI are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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