On The Ground: The View From Georgia

Leksika Editor Steve Luber reports from Tbilisi, Georgia, on recent events and the population's attitudes toward geopolitical circumstances. What are the defining issues, and is Georgia as pro-West as many believe?

Georgia: The Land in the Middle

Throughout its history, Georgia has found itself at the convergence of great empires. Byzantium, Persia, the Ottomans, and Russia have each come and gone, leaving identifiable influences on the nation’s culture. The present era is no different. Different powers continue to compete for influence in Georgia and the South Caucasus, as recent events reveal. Sitting in Tbilisi, the geographic center of this region, it is easy to observe how such struggles are on peoples’ minds. History is never over, and the future is never set in stone.


Frozen Conflicts: The More Things Change…

The conflict between Georgia and the breakaway republic of South Ossetia flared up again recently, as the latter made moves to change its borders. This de-facto expansion into Georgian territory left many outraged, especially coming in the wake of Russia’s Crimean annexation. Though Moscow has given no indicators that it seeks to directly incorporate South Ossetia into its territory, it is a breakaway republic very much in its sphere of influence. Together with Transnistria, Abkhazia, and more recently the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics, South Ossetia exists in a state of limbo, a direct result of unresolved issues dating from the Soviet era. Each of these de-facto states receives support from the Kremlin, allowing Moscow to project influence into the former-Soviet space. In this particular instance, the border move just happened to capture a part of the BTC Pipeline, no doubt a curious coincidence. 

Shortly after arriving in Georgia, I had the opportunity to visit a settlement for refugees of the conflict. Just a short drive from the disputed border, some 7,000 people live in modest conditions, in housing provided by the Georgian government. This displaced-persons community has made great strides toward self-sufficiency, building schools, opening cafes, and even hosting community events and workshops open to the public. This community had managed to adapt to their difficult circumstances, as so often must be done in a region in eternal flux.


New Partners, Old Struggles

This ability to adapt is a requirement for states seeking to maintain their independence in a region overshadowed by Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Along with the United States and EU, these three powers each compete for influence here, albeit some more quietly than others. Simply walking along the streets in Tbilisi, the influence of each is readily apparent. It is very common to hear not only Georgian and Russian (still very much the regional lingua franca) being spoken, but Turkish, Farsi, Azeri, and English as well.  A little Turkish and the ability to read the Persian script can be very helpful in many restaurants, particularly for the culinary-curious. Turkish, Iranian, and Russophone tourists are fairly easy to spot in central Tbilisi, a popular vacation destination rich in historical sights. Flights to and from Istanbul, Tehran, Moscow, and even the Persian Gulf are fairly cheap by Western standards, no doubt contributing to the growing tourism sector in the Georgian economy.

When it comes to serious national security matters however, the United States remains Tbilisi’s preferred partner. As I write this article from a Tbilisi café, Georgian troops are engaged in joint exercises with American and other NATO forces. About 200 U.S. troops are participating, joined by “platoon-level contingents from Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria.” Even in the short time I have been here, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of military personnel walking the streets, likely participating in these maneuvers in some capacity. It can hardly be a coincidence that these NATO participants are each from the former Soviet bloc, a region which may face unrest should Ukraine (or other frozen conflicts) continue to unravel.


“A Mystery, Wrapped Inside a Riddle, Inside an Enigma…”

In spite of all this, many Tbilisi residents have proven to be quite receptive to Russians (or Russian-speakers) in their city. Пушкин не Путин, seems to be a common expression, indicating that the locals make a strong distinction between the Russian people and the Kremlin governing them. Given his fair complexion, this author is often mistaken for Russian but has have never once felt hostility as a result of it. The vast majority of Georgians, even young ones, have a very strong command of the language and have been happy to communicate through it. When I first arrived in this city I was told it was possible to live my entire life through Russian, and have found this to be the case.

Recent polling data also suggests that Georgia is not as one-dimensional in its anti-Russian, pro-Western stance as is widely portrayed. Some 31% of Georgian respondents spoke in favor of Georgia’s accession into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in a poll conducted by the Tbilisi branch of National Democratic Institute. Such results are corroborated by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, which report that, again, 31% of the population supports Russian as a mandatory school subject. Additionally, polling data suggests that a larger portion of the Georgian population would support a Russo-Georgian marriage than an American-Georgian one. Many attribute this to the strong influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the stronger religious connections between the two countries. This question of Russian influence on the Georgian Church has been raised with increasing frequency, and is often seen as an obstacle to eventual EU integration. However, most Georgians I’ve met have no intentions of reducing the Christian influence on their culture, regardless of EU norms. In fact, younger Georgians often seem to be more religious than previous generations, supporting the Church’s role in education and politics.


The Pragmatic Option?

As is the case for many former Soviet republics, the question of pursuing Eastward or Westward integration is seldom an “either, or” proposition. After the fall of the staunchly pro-Western Saakashvili government, Euromaidan, and the subsequent war in Ukraine, Georgia now appears to be taking a pragmatic approach to its international relations. The current government is trying to simultaneously continue cooperation with the West and normalize relations with Russia, a Herculean task no doubt, but one which is of vital importance. Failure to do this has led to tension throughout the former Soviet space, particularly in Ukraine, a country with whom Georgia has historically been very close.

Even prior to ex-Georgian President Saakashvili’s (a wanted man in Georgia) appointment as Governor of Odessa, relations between Georgia and Ukraine were being strained. The definitive pro-EU stance taken by the new administration challenges the delicate Georgian situation. Saakashvili’s appointment and award of Ukrainian citizenship even cost him his Georgian citizenship, a unique feat for post-Soviet politicians. The diplomatic fallout of this move is far from over, as is clear to an observer sitting in Tbilisi.

As is the case with Russia however, most Georgians make a distinction between the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian state. While opinions of the Poroshenko government vary wildly (an understatement if ever there was one), every Georgian I have met has had nothing but positive things to say about the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian language seems surprisingly popular with many Georgian students, and a statue of Taras Shevchenko prominently stands on one of Tbilisi’s main streets. The presence of Georgian fighters in Ukrainian volunteer battalions reaffirms the complexity of the situation, a reality that is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.  


Looking Ahead

It is impossible to say for certain what the future holds for Georgia, or for the South Caucasus in general. Change seems to be the only constant. What I can say with confidence however is that this region will remain of great importance long into the future. Turkey’s re-emergence as a great power, Iran’s diplomatic thaw with the West, and an ever-present Russian question ensure that the region’s politics will never be boring. The Caucasus are a place to watch and will be for quite some time.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons