Russia’s Lever

Zurab Chiaberashvili

On 12 September 2013, the European Parliament adopted a resolution about the pressure exerted by Russia on Eastern Partnership countries in the context of the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Paragraph B of the resolution reads:

".... [t]he Russian pressure most recently faced by Eastern Partnership countries progressing on the road to Association Agreements [with the EU], including targeted sanctions against Ukraine's exports, an export ban on the Moldovan wine industry [to Russia], additional obstacles impeding progress towards resolution of the Transnistrian conflict, and security-related threats with respect to Armenia, which are aimed at forcing the Eastern Partnership countries not to sign or initial the Association Agreements or DCFTAs but instead to join the Russian-led Customs Union, which Russia intends to transform into a Eurasian Union, has put them [Eastern Partnership countries] in a precarious position as a result of geopolitical constraints to which they should not be subject."

An interested reader may well ask: Why is Georgia not included in this list of pressures? I will thus try to explain the lever that Russia today holds to prevent Georgia, in a manner similar to Moldova, Armenia and Ukraine, from further solidifying its institutional approximation with the EU.

Russia's Real Interest

First of all, we should recall the Russian "bait" of the 1990s. We remember the rhetoric of the defense minister of Shevardnadze's government, Tengiz Kitovani, and people of his ilk, that Georgia must declare its neutrality: if the Kremlin is free from fear of Georgia acceding NATO, then everything can be settled in Russia-Georgia relations.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili promotes the same theory today: Georgia must not be a bone of contention between the US and Russia.

Was it not Russia that always maintained that NATO's enlargement towards the East posed the threat, and not the EU's eastern enlargement (even though Eastern Partnership countries still have quite a long way to go before gaining EU membership)?

The pressure that Russia has exerted on Moldova, Armenia and Ukraine just weeks ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius has exposed the real interests of Russia. It has become clear that Russia is not only against NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, but also against any integration, be it even of an economic nature, of former Soviet republics with the European Union (excluding the Baltic states which, in contrast to Georgia, managed to flee the "red fence" as early as in the 1990s).

Furthermore, the economic integration of Eastern Partnership countries with the EU, which will result from the signing and implementation of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA), is something that most severely weakens the Kremlin's aggressive politics towards its neighbors. Economically strong countries are the least susceptible to the types of economic pressure that the Kremlin regularly applies towards its neighbors.

The Lever on Georgia

The reason why Georgia is not mentioned in the aforementioned quote (and, in general, throughout the text) of the resolution is simple: all of those levers that Russia is employing to pressurize Moldova, Armenia and Ukraine today, have already been used by it against Georgia, or Georgia has itself invalidated them. Specifically:

- In contrast to Armenia, Georgia does not rely on Russia for ensuring its security. Consequently, Moscow cannot blackmail Tbilisi with the threat of abandoning it "sandwiched" between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

- In contrast to Ukraine, Georgia's energy supply, owing to the policy which the government of the United National Movement pursued, does not depend on Russia, whilst the export of Georgian products to that country was banned by the Kremlin as early as 2006.

- In contrast to Moldova, after Georgian wines were banned on the Russian market, the former Georgian government and the country's wine producers did not start begging at the office of Russia's chief sanitary inspector Gennadiy Onishchenko. Instead, the Georgian wine industry found new markets. Moreover, in contrast to Moldova's Transnistrian conflict, Russia has already exploited the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region issue and, by recognizing them as "independent states," has lost an important lever for influencing Tbilisi.

This takes us back to the main question: what, then, is main lever for influencing Georgia that Moscow has?

The answer to this is also simple: Georgia must adopt or exhibit such processes that will make its Western partners question the country's commitment to democratic and liberal values; the potential of the Georgian economy; and the prospects of political processes being contained within the constitutional framework.

When talking with members of the European Parliament in early September, I noticed several fundamental problems which provide grounds for this "simple" answer.

The event of 17 May, when a throng of aggressive Orthodox clergy and their congregation violently thwarted a peaceful gathering of LGBT rights defenders; as well as the incident in the village of Chela, when local authorities dismantled a minaret late at night – which was one episode in a string of similar events that triggered religious tensions between Orthodox and Muslim residents in the villages of Nigvziani, Tsintskaro and Samtatskaro – prompted many of our European friends to consider the threat of ethnic and religious extremism in Georgia; more specifically, it encouraged them to think about whether the ethnically Georgian and religiously Orthodox majority can put up with people different from them.

Our friends were taken aback, not as much by the expression of such extremism (this may have also happened in older European democracies), but by the government's response (or lack thereof). Instead of reacting adequately and in compliance with the Georgian Constitution, the government adopted a soft stance and opted to turn a blind eye to the problems, thereby further encouraging extremism. This very inadequate response to the incidents in Nigvziani, Tsintskaro and Samtatskaro, where local Muslim residents were prevented from conducting their traditional prayers, led to the event in Chela.

Our European friends see a strong link between the wave of violence, which surged against the United National Movement (UNM) after the Georgian Dream's victory in the parliamentary elections on 1 October 2012, and the wave of intolerance towards various minority groups that has been observed since the Georgian Dream came to power.

There is no doubt that 100 percent of those extremists who were mobilized for roughing up the UNM members who arrived at the national library in Tbilisi to listen to the president's speech to the nation on 8 February 2013, also participated in the aggressive rally on 17 May 2013. The problem stems exactly from this: no government is capable of using extremist groups against their political opponents and subsequently reining them in. The mere 100 lari fines that were imposed on the offenders after these incidents do not work against extremism; quite the contrary, they further encourage violence.

Europe, which itself went through a number of ethnic and political purges, is fond of cohabitation – not as a word, but as a fact; based on the coexistence of different socio-political groups. The differences may be religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and also political. Before such political cohabitation took place, the populations of European countries first agreed on a fundamental principle – the societal cohabitation of different religions, ethnicities, races, and sexualities.

To put it in the language of political theory, liberalism, if not always preceding democracy (the establishment of the universal right of suffrage) in consolidated, successful democracies, at least did not lag far behind it.

What is main lever for influencing Georgia that Moscow has? The answer is simple: Georgia must adopt or exhibit such processes that will make its Western partners question the country's commitment to democratic and liberal values; the potential of the Georgian economy; and the prospects of political processes being contained within the constitutional framework.

The current government of Georgia not only fails to prevent extremism (and thereby encourages it), but is itself a source of this extremism by declaring political cohabitation as the root of all current problems: the only thing it is promising the population in the run-up to the presidential elections this October is an end to cohabitation with political opponents. This, however, makes our European friends, who have already been shocked by the events of 17 May and the story of the removal of the minaret in Chela, think that the end of political cohabitation will be followed by a new surge of violence against minorities.

The development of the Georgian economy directly depends on the inflow of foreign investments. However, investors are reluctant to invest their capital in such countries where they see confrontation between political forces, rather than cohabitation, and the risk of conflict, including that of a religious or ethnic nature.

By launching a full-scale military operation in Georgia in August 2008 and subsequently occupying 20 percent of the country's territory, Russia pursued the aim of scaring away investors and weakening the Georgian economy. Even under such adverse circumstances, Georgia managed to continue its economic growth in the years that followed. Only now, against the backdrop of widespread violence and aggression in the country, does the Georgian economy face the threat of entering a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover. We must keep in mind that the EU does not need a new Greece as its friend and neighbor, but a healthy economy which will not, at some point in the future, become dependent on subsidies from Brussels for its survival.

We need economic growth not just to show off to Brussels or for ensuring that Georgian families have higher incomes (though this is a very important aspect), but because economic decline and the impoverishment of people is a source of extremism itself. Furthermore, during a budget crisis caused by economic decline, the government is unable to ensure the smooth operation of state institutions, which might have disastrous consequences at a time when any type of extremism needs to be eliminated.

Let's look where we live today – in a violent, aggressive environment with economic stagnation and political uncertainty created because of the announcement that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili will step down from his position after the election. Is this not an environment which will make our European friends think twice about before they take a step towards us? Is this not an environment that encourages Russia to become more aggressive towards Georgia?

The answer is again "simple." Today, Georgia is run according to the ideology of the Georgian tabloid Asaval-Dasavali, notorious for its xenophobia. This newspaper, however, is the Kremlin's main pillar in Georgia today.


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