Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
The growing role of Georgia in both Eurasian and Middle Eastern security affairs is notable among Western strategists. The country’s geographic position makes it an ideal partner for the US in shoring up its interests in both Ukraine and the Middle East. The government’s generally pro-Western policies since 1991 have also made Tbilisi a key partner for regional countries with similar ambitions. Further, Georgia has developed positive relations with several key Euro-Atlanticist oriented states in Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Baltics States, and Ukraine.
Ukrainian-Georgian relations are particularly close, with both countries’ post-communist political development sharing similar trends. The states’ respective color revolutions similarly failed to realize substantial reform while foreign policy shifts away from Russia precipitated military conflicts. In many respects, the two countries are in similar geopolitical positions. The domestic policies of both countries are torn between Western and Russian interests, while pro-Russian breakaway regions undermine both Ukraine’s and Georgia’s territorial integrity and foreign policy development.
Georgian Volunteers in Ukraine
At least 100 Georgian military veterans are currently fighting with Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. According former General Giorgi Kalandadze, “Our compatriots are taking active part in special-task detachments of the Ukrainian army.” He further emphasizes that Georgian military servicemen are not paid and serve as volunteers.
Outside of the regular Ukrainian armed forces, Georgian volunteers are known to be participating in the country’s territorial defense battalions. Whilst there is no official Georgian military presence in Ukraine, “Georgian society’s sympathy for the Ukrainians’ fight for independence and territorial integrity is clear, and helps explain why, despite great risk, some Georgians still go to eastern Ukraine to fight.” Some volunteers have even tried to form a Georgian National Legion for the Ukrainian military.
The Donbass and Azov Battalions have Georgian volunteers, many of whom have been far from media shy. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, one volunteer explains that he has lived in Ukraine for many years and considers the country to be his second homeland. He wants to repay the Ukrainian nation for the help they offered during the wars with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 1992 and 1993.
Post-Soviet ties between Ukraine and Georgia run deeper than unofficial military cooperation. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko are reportedly personal friends. Saakashvili speaks Ukrainian fluently, having studied at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. His government even unveiled a statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, in Tbilisi in 2007.
Since the end of Saakashvili’s administration Georgia has taken a more pragmatist foreign policy, balancing Western and Russian geopolitical interests, a move which differs from Kiev’s recent turn toward an EU oriented path. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his willingness to engage the new government in Tbilisi, even on the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A House Divided
Caucasian politics are never that simple; much like pre-Maidan Ukraine, Georgia’s political elite are deeply divided among pro-Western, pro-Russian, and pragmatist camps. The rivalry between Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili dominates the Georgian political landscape and inhibits the formation of a clear foreign policy path for Tbilisi.
Former Georgian President Saakashvili is highly unpopular in Georgia, having led the country into the disastrous 2008 war and perpetuated corruption. He currently stands accused of abuse of office and is sought for questioning in connection with the murder of former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. He is currently living in exile (primarily in New York) but vows that he will return to Tbilisi. His nationalist, pro-EU, and pro-NATO message is likely losing appeal, especially given that most Georgians support continued negotiations with Russia to normalize relations between the two countries. Support for closer cooperation with other post-Soviet states also remains high in Georgia. However, reentry into Moscow’s sphere of influence and support for full Eurasian integration remains a minority opinion in the country
In December 2013, Saakashvili spoke to EuroMaidan demonstrators voicing his support for the country’s pro-EU turn. He has also made public speeches in Lviv, where he claimed that the Russo-Ukrainian War would “be the end of Putin” and that “Ukraine is saving European Civilization.”
Georgians in Kiev’s New Government
Far from being the only Georgian in Ukraine, the Poroshenko administration has appointed several of Saakashvili’s co-nationals to government positions. These include the Health Minister Aleksandre Kvitashvili and Economic Advisor Lado Gurgenidze (who was Georgia’s Prime Minister during the 2008 War). Both were given citizenship via Presidential Decree.
It is likely that Tbilisi will continue to pursue a pragmatist foreign policy in the next several years. As the war in Ukraine and unrest in the North Caucasus continue, Georgia will find herself having to balance both Western and Russian interests. This provides opportunities for cooperation with multiple partners. The stalled timeframe for membership in NATO contributes to Georgia’s centrist foreign policy and strong advocates of Euro-Atlantacist integration are unlikely to secure full sway in Georgian politics for the foreseeable future. Maintaining good relations with both the West and the Eurasian community will likely remain a priority for Georgia, helping it to security economic benefits from multiple partnerships and ensure a minimum of territorial integrity.