“That Georgia has started sliding back is clear,” one of my East European friends told me the other day, “but it is yet to be seen whether you will backslide to 1993, when you found yourself in the Commonwealth of Independent States, or further back to 1921, when you were incorporated in Russia.” I hope my friend was wrong and that our choice is not limited to these alternatives.
The 2004 - 2012 modernization broke Georgia away from Russia’s orbit and has moved it closer to the European and Euro-Atlantic orbit. The process of modernization rested on six pillars: fast economic growth, effective state institutions, civil integration, increasing energy independence, multi-dimensional foreign policy oriented towards the West, and participation in regional transportation projects. Within 100 days of the parliamentary elections of 1 October 2012, we have witnessed the weakening of all six pillars. Let us analyse the situation that has emerged and see whether there are ways of reversing these nascent tendencies.
The liberal economic environment, having ensured a 2.5 times (!) increase in nominal Gross Domestic Product over the period from 2004 - 2011, has given way to overall uncertainty fuelled by the new government's protectionist attitudes and calls for greater state interference and tougher regulation. The rate of economic growth has significantly slackened: the 7 percent GDP growth in September 2012, slowed down to 5 percent in October and further to 2.4 percent in November. Imports and exports decreased too as compared to both previous months and the previous year. A notable decrease was seen in the import of investment goods, which is directly linked to the drop in production. Foreign direct investments fell too.
State institutions – ranging from village counsels all the way up to the president’s administration – have come under attack. Hundreds of qualified civil servants were dismissed from their jobs only because they had been hired by the previous government. A totalcriticism of law enforcement bodies, politically motivated prosecutions of their leaders and the reinstatement of discredited cadres into the system caused demoralization of employees and shattered the set of values they shared. Publication of the secret passports of special services employees involved in special operations undermined the trust that the state will protect the confidentiality of their missions. Awarding the status of “political prisoners” to the people convicted of conducting espionage in favor of the occupying forces and their subsequent release turned counterintelligence into a senseless activity. From now on, how can an employee of the special services be encouraged to plan and execute difficult and dangerous operations aimed at exposing and neutralizing a network of spies? How can an army officer be convinced that participating in an attempted military coup is a crime, and not an “expression of political dissent”? How can respect for a military commander’s order be instilled into a soldier when the chief-of-staff and the defence minister have been arrested for punishing violators of army discipline? What arguments can prompt a police officer to stand up – often at risk to his own life – to a bandit, drug dealer or paedophile if they are then just released through political amnesty? The first results of these steps have been already seen: increased crime, including killings, burglaries and muggings; an inflow of drugs into the country; instances of financial extortion at customs checkpoints; and a sharp deterioration in the efficiency of state services. The civil integration and reconciliation policy implemented from 2004 to 2012 turned Georgia into a common homeland for citizens of various political convictions, ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs. The Declaration of political accord enabled political reconciliation and entailed the reburial of the corpse of the first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia thus putting an end to the bloody civil war of the 1990s. The punishment of instigators of religious intolerance prevented religious conflicts from being repeated. Within 100 days of the parliamentary elections, however, these achievements have been turned upside down. The drawing up of new political, ethnic and religious lines of demarcation has begun. The demonization and marginalization of the main opposition force – the United National Movement (and, consequently, its 800,000 voters) is under way; instances of restricting the religious freedoms of Muslims have been observed; and Armenophobic and Turkophobic statements have been made but not condemned.
On the premise of delivering on its unrealistic pre-election promises – halving electricity and natural gas tariffs and increasing pensions – the government has damaged the country’s attractiveness for energy investments. As a result, investment projects have frozen. Regular power interruptions have become a reality again, power supply to a whole set of regions has been restricted and the number of lit streets in big cities has decreased. Against this backdrop, the statement from the Energy Minister that, in case of lack of power supply, electricity will be purchased from Russia sounds alarming. Paraphrasing Lenin, “unreal tariffs plus incompetent management equals energy dependence on Russia.”
A system of energy and transportation projects known as the Southern Corridor serves the aim of directing Central Asian and Caspian energy resources and transportation flows towards the West. This system of projects links Georgia through a partnership chain with the European Union, on the one hand, and with Central Asia, the Middle East and broader adjacent regions, on the other. Recent “questioning” of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway project has shaken Georgia’s reputation of being a reliable partner, which the country has been building for years. The particular case of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway involves completion of a 6,500-kilometre-long main railway connecting China, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Turkey and the European Union within several months. The new government has expressed its political support to neither the Nabucco gas pipeline project nor to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline project (the transportation of Turkmen natural gas to Europe via Georgia through a new undersea pipeline in the Caspian Sea) or the AGRI (Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector), a project envisaging the construction of a liquefying facility in Georgia to export natural gas to the European Union.In terms of foreign policy, Georgia is losing its attractiveness as a success story of state transformation. What the United Nations (2nd Place in the UN Public Service Awards for the Public Service Hall of the Ministry of Justice and the Electronic Government Procurement System of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development), the World Bank (Top ten in the ease of doing business index),Transparency International (the fastest progress in combating corruption), the US State Department (sustained protection of freedom of religion and fundamental achievements in the fight against trafficking) and many other respected international organizations considered a role model, has since been branded by the new government as “lies” and “window dressing”. Several important events from the EU and NATO integration programme have been postponed. Instead, to the detriment of other priorities, Russia has become a priority direction.
The normalization of relations with Russia is desirable, but at what cost and by what means should this occur? The first steps in this direction are problematic. The danger of ceding much and receiving nothing or incomparably little in return looms large. Georgia has started negotiations with Russia without observing the three golden conditions for a relationship with that country: demand rules to the game, choose an impartial referee and ensure transparency of the process. The most significant agreements with Russia of the past few years – the Six-point ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008, the Geneva talks and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) – were made by observing those very conditions. Those agreements where these conditions were not observed proved to be most unsuccessful. Among these was the agreement of 27 July 1993 on the withdrawal of heavy military equipment from Abkhazia, which was followed by the fall of Sokhumi within a month, or the 1994 Moscow agreement by which Sokhumi separatists were recognized as a party to the conflict while Russia served as a mediator. Neither the mandate of the Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, nor the negotiation rules between Mr. Abashidze and his counterpart Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin, have been determined (or at least been made public); the content of their first meeting is largely unknown as well. Moreover, there is no impartial referee who would facilitate the negotiations, monitor the observance of the negotiation rules, and report objectively about the process. Neglecting these rules may cost us dear. Russia will first and foremost try to take the issue of Georgia off the agenda of its own political dialogue with both the United States and the European Union on the grounds of having pursued direct dialogue with Georgia. Another negative result could be an increasing danger that the occupied territories will be recognized. During the past three months, our diplomacy has paid less attention to those regions of the world where Russia is actively lobbying for the recognition of the occupied territories. What might be the probable motive behind this lack of action? Is it that “we’d better not irritate Russia”? The third and perhaps main threat will be discussed later in this article.
Is it still possible to reverse the above listed tendencies? Yes, it is. For that to happen, the following steps must be taken:. The government must revert to a model of fast liberal economic development where place for social programs will be found without incurring damage to investment and large infrastructure projects. The government must find the courage to admit that a decrease in tariffs would only damage our future. Instead, it should develop targeted programs of monetary allowances for socially vulnerable families.
2. Assaults on state institutions must stop; a moratorium must be declared on the mass dismissal of civil servants; local government and self-government institutions must be allowed to function normally within the mandate and terms defined by the law.
3. The values of civil integration and political pluralism must be declared at the governmental and parliamentary levels; legal measures must be undertaken against inciters of religious intolerance.
4. A forum of energy investors must be called where investors will be assured that the state will firmly defend their interests; identical signals must be sent out through diplomatic channels.
5. Criticism of the internationally recognized achievements of Georgia aimed at discrediting the country must be stopped; the mandate of the prime minister’s special representative must be defined as the one to facilitate the return of Georgian goods and services to the Russian market in accordance with WTO rules and published; the main content of the first meetings with the Russian side must be made public; Switzerland, as the official mediator between Georgia and Russia, must be asked to mediate in the Abashidze - Karasin talks; Georgia must restore its diplomatic activities in those geographic regions where Russia is most active in terms of persuading countriesto recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
6. Georgia must reaffirm the continuity of its policies to its chief energy and transit partners.
Now, about the main threat: just recently, when commenting about the administrative-territorial arrangement of Russia, Mr. Putin recalled the Russian Empire’s subdivision by governorates (provinces) as an effective administrative model and, in so doing, cited the example of the “Tiflis province”. “No Georgia existed back then,” our northern neighbour said. It does not require much reasoning to guess that by speaking about the past, Mr. Putin in reality meant the future. The “Tiflis province” is not nostalgia but is Mr. Putin’s Georgian dream.
Whether or not Mr. Putin’s dream comes true is up to the Georgian people to decide. They need to decide whether they want to choose the lesser of two evils and backslide either to 1993 or to 1921, or if they want to move forward – albeit with pain and mistakes, but still forward – towards the civilized West.