Russia: An Internal and External Problem for Georgia


Let us begin by acknowledging that the key element of the identity of Georgian statehood is our exodus from the Russo-Soviet political space and finding our own place in the West. Consequently, for us independence, first and foremost, implies building a Western-style liberal-democratic political system. The completion of this work will answer some fundamental questions: Are we a modern state with European awareness or merely a periphery of empire, still considered a province of Russia? Do we see our existence, our place, confined within the borders of the former Soviet Union alone in only one sixth of the global political map, or throughout the whole world? Do we perceive Georgia as a country whose existence is determined by the interests of a powerful neighbor or as a state existing “in spite of” the interests of that neighbor? No matter how surprising it may seem, from that standpoint it is equally important how we will have democracy function or human rights protected and how we will assess a specific event, for example, Georgians dancing in the State Kremlin Palace. As the Eastern European experience has shown, the successful completion of building a Western liberal-democratic political system depends not only on political exodus from the Russo-Soviet space, but also on the degree of distance and disassociation from it in cultural, religious, ideological and linguistic terms, as well as in everyday traditions.

But in order to disassociate oneself from something, one must understand what that something is. The realization of Sovietism and Russian occupation has, however, only started in the last few years and, therefore, we do not yet have an environment genuinely independent of and free from Russian political, cultural, economic and, especially, religious influence. Even though Mikheil Saakashvili’s government tried to take some steps in this direction, its efforts, for various reasons, did not prove to be very productive: we see statues of Stalin, dismantled several years ago, being re-erected again; we have the government extending apologies to Russia, whilst addressing Europe in a harsh tone; we have an education system which seeks to abolish the most modernized university in Georgia and proposes that its students move to the least modernized Technical University; we have a Church whose leader perceives the West as spiritually barren and pledges eternal love to the President of Russia; we have a Soviet intelligentsia for whom dancing in the Kremlin Palace is tantamount to getting into paradise; we also have “business circles” dreaming of recovering ties with Russia because they prefer laziness and underhand methods to honesty and hard work. The problem has another facet too – for example, instead of taking more rational actions, a group of people with anti-Russian sentiments are calling for the dismantling of a statue to Alexander Pushkin, but their voice is weak and insignificant. However, against this backdrop, the country, at least in terms of its declarations, still strives towards the West.


A decisive factor for our statehood and the nature of our political regime is the form of relationship with Russia we choose. What is better: to make friends with Russia; accommodate its interests; have a pragmatic relationship with it; or to be in hostility? Both making friends with Russia and accommodating its interests means sliding back to its political orbit, whereas hostility with an incomparably larger and more powerful state is doomed to failure from the outset. Clearly, the most acceptable approach for us is a pragmatic policy which means existing “in spite” of the Russian factor and not accommodating Russia’s interests. But such a pragmatic policy will only be productive when we really perceive ourselves as part of the West and make liberal-democratic values our guiding principles. In this case, we must interact with Russia from the position of a state which forms an integral part of the strong Western world and shares its universal values – this is precisely what may become the foundation of the pragmatic policy.

It is a fact that, in the modern world, only totalitarian and autocratic regimes are on friendly terms with our aggressive northern neighbor; only former Soviet republics that have since turned into Russian satellites accommodate its interests. In contrast to that, the more democratic a state from the former Soviet Bloc, the more encompassing Russophobia tends to be. However, this does not at all prevent such states from having pragmatic relations with Russia. One can therefore arrive at only one conclusion: it is impossible to democratically develop and move closer to the West whilst simultaneously being oriented towards the most authoritarian and evil empire in the world. There are no examples of that occurring. Quite the opposite, the more distanced a state is from Russia, the higher the degree of its democracy. But this is only one, external, facet of the issue because the “western” solution to the Russian problem also requires homework. Russia may prove to be more of an internal than an external problem for Georgia. Enduring scars of the Russian empire are most vividly seen on the tissue of the Georgian political system, Church, intelligentsia and the economy.


If the Russian attitude towards the state and its people can be expressed by Putin’s phrase – "the stronger the state, the stronger its citizen," the Georgian state must, in contrast, be based on the reverse: a liberal pyramid which gives preference to citizens and their legitimate interests over the state. A factor impeding building such a liberal construction is the remnants of Soviet political culture in Georgia. Sovietism is the key phenomenon linking Georgia and Russia today. The Soviet Union has yet to be politically neutralized in Georgia; the transition from communist totalitarianism has yet to be completed, and the consolidation of democracy has yet to start.

This process is even more complicated in our northern neighbor. We are now observing a rapid backslide of Russia into authoritarianism instead of democratization. Democracy in Russia seems an impossible mission for the foreseeable future. The Russian political reasoning of today is clearly authoritarian and the concepts of human rights, liberalism, fair elections, power sharing, independent courts and free media are equally alien. With its Putinesque “sovereign democracy”, Russia is nothing more than a rigidly authoritarian regime increasingly isolated from the West. It does not differ much from the autocracies of Alexander Lukashenko or Bashar al-Assad.

At the same time, Putin’s neo-imperialism and the drive to recover Russia within the former Soviet borders is becoming increasingly vivid. This aspiration is known under the name of the Eurasian Union, which the Russian government started to build in 2010 and which it plans to give its final shape to by 2015. The Eurasian Union is an attempt to create an imperial super-national identity in Russia because, as Count Sergei Witte, a highly influential Russian policy-maker of 19th-20th centuries, said, Russia can only exist as an empire.

Consequently, in contrast to imperialism and authoritarianism, the Georgian internal policy that may be called anti-Russian must be based on two main postulates: democratization and liberal civic nationalism. The successful implementation of these projects, in fact, means de-Sovietisation; it means the rule of law, human rights, a liberal economy, real self-governance, fair elections, independent courts, free media, pluralism, tolerance and civil patriotism. There is no doubt that the further we advance by these listed parameters, the more protected Georgia will be from “internal” Russian influence and the closer it will come to the Western democratic world and security system.


Freedom in Georgia is also obstructed by a form of religious collectivism that can be called political Orthodox Christianity. True, today Russia is not a theocracy, but the Moscow Patriarchate is in fact an integral part of its political system. Orthodox Christianity is also a pillar of the new imperial ideology, Eurasianism. Moreover, Putin’s authoritarianism uses the Moscow Patriarchate against political opponents in the domestic arena, whilst actively exploiting the “spiritual” possibilities of using the Church against the West in the international arena.

Consequently, distancing Georgia’s domestic and foreign policy from Russia also means the state observing the liberal principle of a separation from the Church; not using the Church against political opponents; not involving it in election campaigns; not becoming a source of enhancing the Church’s influence and wealth; and not commending its activities in the political arena. One can say without any reservation that the closer the Church comes to the state, the greater the threat of collectivization of consciousness. At the same time, it is this closeness between the state and the Church that makes the Georgian Patriarchate gravitate towards the Russian political orbit. It is the very capacity of the Georgian Church to influence the government and mobilize people that attracts interest from Russia – it entrusts the Church with the concrete mission of bridging the ideological and political gap between the two states of a common religion.

Therefore, the further the state distances itself from the Church and the less the Church “cares” about the state, the less temptation there will be for the Church to pursue state interests, especially when those interests coincide not with our own, but with the interests of Russia. This will consequently render certain jobs inside the Church worthless – the Russian spies in the Georgian Church will lose their benefits.


The cultural space of Russia can be nominally divided into two categories: the progeny of Soviet traditions and anti-Soviet traditions. The communist totalitarian state completely controlled culture – only underground culture and cultural products prohibited by censorship existed outside that. Everything called Soviet culture bore a

concrete political meaning. No matter how free Soviet artists and intelligentsia were from the party-ideological clichés, they were victims and tools of Soviet power anyway. For example, let’s take the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who reacted to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague with a tough, remonstrative poem. Nonetheless, Yevtushenko remained a named Soviet poet. In contrast, another Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, who never wrote a poem about the Prague Spring and in general was not engaged in any anti-Soviet activity, was exiled from Russia because he existed “in spite” of the Soviet Union. In other words, Brodsky did not fit into any of the Soviet models of an artist – the communist totalitarian state could not finance, could not befriend and consequently could not use him.

Looking at Georgia’s cultural environment, we will see that Russia is much stronger here than in the political area. Georgia’s intelligentsia is also scarred by the Soviet tradition; its creative activity is still largely conditioned by the state. To gain their loyalty, the state must constantly cuddle them, finance them, provide them with flats and other perks and, consequently, put them in its service. Therefore, the freer culture is from the fatherly care of the state, the more liberated it is from Soviet ideological clichés, the more private it becomes and, consequently, the more attractive its creative products are.

Interestingly, the extremely delicate sensitivity of the Georgian intelligentsia to their ideological center, Moscow, has become especially conspicuous after our singers, dancers, artists, and stage directors found themselves in the path of someone named Gulbaat Rtskhiladze, the head of the pro-Russian Eurasian Institute in Georgia, who encouraged them to start singing with one voice about the reestablishment of Russian-Georgian friendship. The reasoning of the Gulbaat-type intelligentsia may also be that they, consciously or unconsciously, experience an acute crisis because of freedom; they feel emptiness and worthlessness and the only way they think they can escape this is to find shelter under the paternal care of the state and the cover and comfort they, as the privileged intelligentsia, received under the traditional Soviet “shell.”

It is a pity that modern Georgian culture, as a rule, flees from freedom because its displays are more attractive in the very condition of that emptiness. Were it not for the bold reflection of the outdated intelligentsia on that emptiness, a new creative light would have indeed shone from Georgian culture. For example, it was exactly a cultural sense and realization of extreme emptiness and vulnerability in the early 20th century that gave birth to Franz Kafka on the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


The Russian market is, of course, attractive but that vast prospect hides great threats too. It is a well-known fact that the merits the Bolsheviks brought to Russia were not as much enabling the return of lost lands by force as they were the development and implementation of the plan of industrialization. The communists came to realize that the unity of the empire was impossible to maintain by political methods alone and they spared no efforts to build up shared economic structures and operations. That planned, command-type economy called socialism worked in full harmony with Soviet totalitarianism and, together with political and military means, ensured the existence of colonies within the common former imperial space.

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, one can repeatedly hear statements from Russia about the need for restoring old economic ties. Today, Russia sees economic integration as the main prerequisite for reinstating its hegemony in the former Soviet republics. An example of that is the project for a customs union which is viewed as a basis for the creation of a new Eurasian empire. The political significance of economic integration can also be seen in Russia’s desire to restore the railway link between Armenia and Abkhazia, something that was so easily shared by the Georgian government.

Thus, the desire for a restoration of economic ties has a clear imperialistic objective – the old Soviet economic system was such a network with threads coming from the center, concentrated in the center’s hands and manipulated by it alone. It is also quite logical that the supporters of the restoration of economic ties are, at the end of the day, conscious or unconscious supporters of the restoration of the empire. The Russian empire and Soviet totalitarianism are, in this aspect, one and the same.

Therefore, the Georgian economy, free from state interference and regulations and working towards gaining access to different markets, may, to some extent, perform the function of a protective shield from Russia; so long as the temptation of the vast Russian market will not carry us away.

Questions to be answered

Yet another reason why we find it difficult to adequately perceive Russia is that we have not fully studied, realized and assessed the 200-year-long period of Russian dominance in Georgia. We have not investigated what type of governance Georgia fell under as a result of annexation and what the internal factors were that paved the way for that historical tragedy. We have not answered questions as to what happened to our state institutions, economy, religion and culture during that period; we do not fully know how we resisted the occupation or how we collaborated with the enemy.

“I am a Russian by my job, by the bread I eat and the direction of my thought. I am a Georgian by origin and language. It is necessary to erase the difference that lies between these two words. It is necessary to derive one word from these two words – Russian and Georgian – and fix that word fast in the awareness of both the government and our people.” The author of these words was Dimitri Kipiani, a 19th century Georgian publicist, writer, translator and a leader of the liberal nobility. Who was he? Was he a loyal officer of the Russian Empire, an ardent Georgian patriot or both? Perhaps, this very duality, this schizophrenia, became that condition of slavery which Georgian politicians, representatives of the intelligentsia and clergy most comfortably fit into throughout the last 200 years.

At the same time, we must objectivity answer the questions: What did the end of the Russian Empire bring us except evil in 1918? How was it, for example, that it was in the time of Tsarist Russia that the European-style political, scientific, cultural, religious and business elite were formed in Georgia, which, in 1918 spearheaded the establishment of a Western-type democratic state, the opening of the university, the autocephaly of the Church and a free economy? We must, of course, also evaluate the results of Soviet totalitarianism. How come the communist empire bequeathed us chauvinism on the scale of state ideology; fundamentalism; rampant corruption; crime lords and organized crime; a scientific and cultural elite – the so-called red intelligentsia – who lagged far behind the times and international context; ignorance of state administration; civil war; conflicts; poverty; authoritative leanings in society and the authorities; and a longing for a relapse into slavery?

These questions must be raised in a very sharp, radical form because we have already lost much time in not doing this. We have even been late in taking actions such as lustration.

Illegitimate joviality

“In 1803, Georgian princes and princesses got together in the English palace in Peterhof [Saint Petersburg] entertaining themselves by recalling stories of their past. Giorgi Tsitsishvili, the father-in-law of King George [XII of Georgia, the last king of Georgia] was there too. Recounting an attempt to depose the King [George XII] and the story of the abolition of kingship, some of them accused Parnaoz of plotting it; he was the youngest among the King’s brothers and sought the throne for himself. To those accusations about Parnaoz, Giorgi Tsitsishvili said, ‘leave Parnaoz alone; why are you blaming him? Parnaoz used to say: am I not supposed to reign some fine day according to my father’s will? I want to have my reign now!’ – that is how Georgians recalled the events of the past; with laugher and joviality they tried to relieve the bitterness of losing the kingdom and their right to reign!”

Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili used to say that Georgia’s secret of surviving the deadly influence of the Russian empire lies in some reasonless, illegitimate joviality of Georgians – perhaps, a joviality of the kind described by Platon Ioseliani, a 19th century Georgian historian, in the above quoted tragicomic episode of the members of the House of Bagrationi closed off in the rich palaces of the Russian emperor. But now, in order to prevent us from again falling into such a no-win situation, from finding ourselves left to the fate of our illegitimate joviality vis-à-vis Russia, both inside and outside the country, we need rational calculation, courage and labor in our relationship with Russia and not a characteristic lightheartedness and romanticism.


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