The Washington Diplomat / June 2016
By Larry Luxner
This spring, Georgia’s 3.8 million people mark a quarter-century of independence from the Soviet Union — and 98 years since their forefathers established the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In fact, the Georgian Embassy in Washington has a lavish “Regaining Georgia’s Independence” reception planned for June 8.
But not everyone back home is in the mood to party.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and while the violence in Ukraine has died down, the former Soviet satellite remains bitterly divided. Fighting also recently flared anew between two of Georgia’s neighbors — Armenia and Azerbaijan — threatening the stability of the entire Caucasus region. And Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and still occupies two of its provinces, continues a barrage of propaganda against its tiny neighbor, raising alarms that history might at some point repeat itself.
Within Georgia itself, human rights organizations claim that the government now in power tries to silence its critics through intimidation, censorship and harassment of opposition politicians and media outlets. Voters are also increasingly dissatisfied with the governing party and the direction of the country.
Meanwhile, even though Georgia saw its GDP grow by 3.5 percent last year, the drop in oil prices draining Russia’s once-booming economy has hurt the Georgian economy as well. And as if all that’s not enough, Georgia’s currency, the lari, has lost 30 percent of its value relative to the dollar since November 2014.
Archil Gegeshidze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, said adversity is nothing new for his country.
“During Soviet times, Georgia ranked second only to Estonia in living standards and was far above all the other Soviet republics,” he told us. “When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, we had to adjust to the new reality, which took time and resources. We had to overcome the artificial hurdles which Russia imposed on us, because Georgia was the first to demand independence — even before the Baltics did — so we were severely punished by the then-Soviet leadership.”
In 1989, massive pro-independence demonstrations rocked the streets of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Soviet troops fired on the protesters, and 20 people died in the ensuing violence. Anti-Moscow sentiment then spread to the three Baltic states, with similar protests breaking out in Lithuania in early 1990.
“Gorbachev’s perestroika couldn’t hide it,” said Gegeshidze, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the reform-minded leader who presided over his country’s eventual collapse. “The Soviet elite was very angry at the Georgians, who had started this independence movement, and that’s why post-Soviet Russia — run by the same elite — began to punish Georgia.
“We live in such a complex environment, with Russia breathing down our necks, and without any meaningful natural resources or oil or gas to export,” the ambassador continued. “But we do have the will to improve governance and decision-making, and build a knowledge-based economy. That makes us really distinct in the region.”
Gegeshidze, 59, was an academic before replacing his predecessor, Temuri Yakobashvili, in Washington. He worked at a Tbilisi think tank, the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, and notes that he’s never belonged to a political party.
By coincidence, Gegeshidze presented his White House credentials along with four other ambassadors on April 15, 2013 — the same day Chechen terrorists attacked the Boston Marathon with pressure-cooker bombs, killing three people and injuring over 260.
“Ours is a true brotherly relationship between a big superpower and a small country,” he said. “Our relationship with the United States is based on shared values and interests, and we feel the U.S. truly cares about our independence and sovereignty.”
Gegeshidze spoke to The Washington Diplomat at length during a recent interview at the Georgian Embassy, housed in an R Street mansion off Dupont Circle. The country Gegeshidze represents traces its history back nearly 3,000 years and is less than half as big or populous as the U.S. state that shares its name.
“We adopted Christianity in the fourth century — earlier than the Russians, the Germans, the French, the Danes or the Norwegians. That’s why we consider ourselves part of Western civilization, because we share the same basic religion with the Western world,” Gegeshidze said, adding that, “Jews first came to Georgia five centuries before Christ. For 26 centuries, Georgians and Jews have been living peacefully, and not a single pogrom or case of oppression has ever taken place. We are very proud of that.”
Gegeshidze is also understandably proud of his country’s rich tradition of winemaking — the country boasts 500 varieties of grapes and its own unique way of crushing them — as well as Georgia’s distinctive polyphonic folk music and its unique alphabet, which is unlike any other in the world.
Less admirable is another Georgian legacy: Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator who ruled the U.S.S.R. from the mid-1920s until 1953, and whose brutal purges and forced industrialization of Soviet agriculture led to the starvation of millions of people.
Yet it was another native son, Eduard Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister during the Gorbachev era helped negotiate détente with the United States as well as several landmark nuclear arms treaties. He also opposed the 1989 Soviet crackdown in Georgia and resigned the following year with a warning that “dictatorship is coming.” In November 1995, Shevardnadze became the first president of Georgia five years after the Soviet Union’s formal dissolution.
“If you wanted to survive [during Soviet times], you had to adjust and play by the rules of the game,” Gegeshidze explained. “But in the meantime, you had to be smart enough to preserve your very unique culture. In 1978, when [Communist Party leader Leonid] Brezhnev wanted to revisit the constitution and make Russian the official language of all 15 Soviet republics, it was the Georgians who protested. Then the Armenians followed. We eventually managed to keep Georgian as the official language, but we had to live with the reality that this was a most brutal regime.”
From Tbilisi’s point of view, the brutality continues to this day. Only eight years ago, Georgia fought a brief but bloody war with Russia, losing control over two disputed territories in the process: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia received $4 billion in postwar assistance, including $1 billion from the U.S. government.
“It was a very brief war, with several hundred casualties on both sides. But Russia now occupies 20 percent of our territory, while in Ukraine’s case, the Crimea and Donbass constitute just 7 percent of Ukrainian territory,” the ambassador said. “It’s a priceless loss for Georgia. This was one of the most unfortunate consequences of the 2008 war.”
Besides Russia, only three countries now recognize the two breakaway republics: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru.
“We are constantly spending our diplomatic resources and urging our friends here in the U.S. to prevent other countries from recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” said Gegeshidze, noting that his country has yet to restore diplomatic ties with Russia that were broken in 2008.
However, Yakobashvili, the man Gegeshidze replaced as ambassador, counters that Georgia’s ruling government hasn’t done enough to raise the alarm about Abkhazia and South Ossetia — and he isn’t happy about the way things have gone back home since he gave up his post following the last elections.
“The previous government had a very active non-recognition policy, and we had serious allies including the U.S. and Europe,” he told The Diplomat. “Nobody’s interested in redrawing the world map. Unfortunately, the current Georgian government has abandoned talks about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and this is a very good time to talk about it.”
Yakobashvili, who now runs his own Washington-based think tank — the New International Leadership Institute — says he wishes the current government in Tbilisi would be “more pro-active” than it is now.
“We are entering a lame-duck period, and the [Obama] administration is not keen on having a very active foreign policy. Nevertheless, it’s the job of every country’s representative here to elevate their issues as much as possible,” he said. “What’s disturbing to me is that in my time as ambassador, we were working with the U.S. administration to advance bilateral issues and solve problems.”
The current Georgian government, however, must spend its time explaining what Yakobashvili sees as “selective justice” and the lack of press freedoms, specifically “the very open attempts to shut down independent media, especially Rustavi 2” — a reference to Georgia’s most popular TV channel, whose owners are close friends of the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Rustavi 2 is the primary media outlet for pro-Western forces in Georgia, including Saakashvili’s opposition party.
In 2012, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili’s party in parliamentary elections. Since then, the brash, Western-educated Saakashvili — who spearheaded a series of reforms but was criticized for authoritarian tendencies and antagonizing Moscow — has moved to Ukraine, where he was appointed governor of Odessa in a bid to rid the region of corruption.
Meanwhile, Tbilisi has revoked Saakashvili’s Georgian citizenship and pursued charges against the former president for abuse of power. Human rights groups accuse the ruling Georgian Dream coalition of a political witch-hunt.
Despite the criticism, Georgia continues to enjoy support inside the Beltway, especially given the anti-Russia climate on Capitol Hill.
On March 23, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), co-chair of the Georgian Caucus with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), introduced a nonbinding resolution expressing the sense of the House of Representatives to support Georgia’s territorial integrity.
In late April, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili came to Washington, where he spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace on current events in the Caucasus.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), in introducing Kvirikashvili, praised the current government’s “constructive engagement with Georgia’s political opposition.”
“Georgia has many friends in Congress, and I’m proud to place myself at the top of that list,” he said, urging his audience to keep lobbying for the country’s eventual admission to NATO.
In his speech, Kvirikashvili warned that South Ossetia was planning a referendum on joining Russia — similar to Crimea’s controversial 2014 referendum opposed by Ukraine — and that this was “absolutely against international law” and would further inflame regional tensions because “the situation in the occupied region remains very fragile, and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating every day.”
Before Georgia’s 2008 war with Georgia, Abkhazia was home to 550,000 people, while much smaller South Ossetia had 60,000 inhabitants.
Gegeshidze noted that “after the war, the overwhelming majority of Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia and became IDPs [internally displaced persons]. Some went to Russia or Ukraine and became refugees in those countries. The current population of South Ossetia is 15,000 to 30,000, but unfortunately, the only job-creating industry there is the Russian military base, and many of them are leaving.”
He worries that Moscow may be gearing up for another attack on his country.
“Will it happen again? Of course,” declared the ambassador. “Why did Russia go to war with Georgia? To force Georgia to change its foreign policy orientation. This was about preventing Georgia from realizing its free choice of joining NATO and eventually the European Union, and deepening our partnership with the United States.”
The result, he said, is that some countries in the 28-member NATO alliance have been intimidated by an increasingly assertive Russia.
“That’s why it’s difficult to find consensus on Georgia within the alliance,” he explained. “We are very much supported by the U.S., but some other countries are thinking twice, especially after the Ukraine crisis, when Russia — having gotten away with Georgia in 2008 — created a crisis on a much larger scale by annexing Crimea and freezing that conflict. This is a continuation of what Russia started in Georgia, because a successful Georgia or Ukraine would set a very difficult precedent for Russia in the post-Soviet space. It would show other countries that Georgians and Ukrainians chose a different path for development which leads to a higher standard of living.”
In fact, Georgia has an economy of $35 billion (adjusted for purchasing power parity) and per-capita GDP of $9,500. In 2014, its economy grew by 4.8 percent in 2014 and is expected to grow 3 percent in 2016. The country also fares well on many economic freedom and transparency ratings.
In 2014, Georgia signed an association agreement with the European Union, which was unanimously ratified by the bloc’s 28 members — much to the consternation of Russia, which has suffered as prices for crude oil have tumbled.
“When Russia has economic difficulties, the regime becomes even more authoritarian and brutal in order to justify its existence,” said the ambassador. “They try to find scapegoats and that makes them even more dangerous. That’s why NATO remains as important as it was a year ago, or five years ago, for a small, weak country like Georgia against potential future aggression from Russia.”
On that note, Georgian and American soldiers, under the auspices of NATO, recently held a major training exercise that infuriated Moscow, which accused the bloc of “aiming to deliberately destabilize the military-political situation in the Caucasus region.”
Whether Georgia actually ever gains formal admission into NATO, however, is a matter of fierce debate. “I think we are technically ready in terms of meeting NATO requirements for membership,” Gegeshidze said, estimating that it could take another five or 10 years. “What remains is a political decision on the part of NATO members.”
While the U.S. has beefed up NATO military resources to the Baltics in the wake of Russian saber-rattling in the region, admitting Georgia into the security bloc isn’t high on the totem pole of priorities.
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has derided NATO as “obsolete,” saying the Cold War-era alliance siphons off American taxpayer money while subsidizing European nations.
Many experts also say that admitting Georgia as a NATO member would needlessly provoke Moscow, especially at a time when tensions in Ukraine have simmered down. Russia, which would see the move as a Western encroachment on its backyard, could possibly retaliate. And because an attack against one NATO member is considered an attack on all, the bloc would be forced to come to Georgia’s defense — an obligation some in Europe, and the U.S., aren’t willing to shoulder.
“There are two rival concepts here in town about aiding post-Soviet states with lethal and nonlethal weapons,” said Gegeshidze. “One school of thought says assisting these states will provoke Russia. Others say no, it will deter Russia. These two have to reconcile. Unfortunately, this rivalry prevents us from reaching an agreement.”
Of more immediate concern is a recent flare-up in the sporadic border war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Up until a 1994 ceasefire, the Armenians and Azeris fought a war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in the region’s de facto independence despite being internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. The fighting left anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people dead on both sides, including as many as 200 so far this year.
“From an academic standpoint, frozen conflicts are never frozen. Unless they are solved, they can explode at any time,” said Gegeshidze. “Our official position is to be friends with both of them. We have very good relations with Azerbaijan, and correct relations with Armenia. They understand that we have to be neutral, and that we cannot play an active role as a peacemaker or intermediary between them because the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has such deep roots.
In his U.S. Institute of Peace speech, Kvirikashvili warned that “we are very concerned because it can destabilize not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the whole region, and even the wider Caucasus. I hope we will be able to cool down this conflict and decrease tensions. What we could do is to offer Georgia as a venue for discussions of long-term solutions.”
Given Russia’s commitments to fellow Christian Orthodox Armenia and Turkey’s guarantees to protect predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, Kvirikashvili lamented that the latest outbreak of violence “can destabilize the whole region, and you can imagine how disastrous this would be.”