Author: Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On May 26, Georgia celebrates its Independence Day. On this day we should take a look at the progress we have made since regaining our independence and ask ourselves whether or not we have utilized the historic opportunities which were given to us as a result of the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire.
If we revisit our history, we will easily recognize that the fate of the Georgian state was always determined by the interaction between internal and external factors. For almost three millennia, Georgians have been living on the edge of major empires. Both the success and failure of our state depended on the strength of the conqueror of the day and the effectiveness of our own government in relation to the new challenges. For example, there were periods when, despite the emergence of a powerful new conqueror, the Georgian state successfully defended itself and grew into a major regional power. The opposite occasionally happened as well – when we failed to utilize the favorable conditions because of internal discord and other reasons. In the course of our long history we lost our independence completely or partially on numerous occasions but it is also true that every time our nation was reborn like a phoenix. This is not to say that the Georgian people are special or better than others but I believe that history charges our generation, which was blessed with the chance to experience independence and freedom, with a special responsibility.
At least twice in the course of the 20th century we were given a unique historic chance when the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 and its successor, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in 1991 to share its fate. On both occasions the Georgian people chose freedom and, like many nations of Central and Eastern Europe, proceeded to build an independent state.
The leaders of the young nation, born on May 26, 1918, set out an ambitious goal of establishing one of the most progressive political systems of their time. In the words of Prof. Stephen Jones: “[The Democratic Republic of Georgia] was, at the time, a genuine beacon of hope (a beacon of liberty, too) among social democrats such as Emil Vandervelde (the future Foreign Minister of Belgium, G.B.), Karl Kautsky and Ramsey MacDonald (the future British Prime Minister, G.B.), all of whom visited the republic and wrote about it as a viable democratic alternative….”
On the diplomatic front too, the Democratic Republic of Georgia achieved some success when it managed to gain the recognition from many countries but this proved insufficient to safeguard the newly reborn Georgian state from the Bolshevik aggression. This had several reasons. The most bloody war in the history of humankind, which brought never before seen destruction and casualties for Europe, had had just finished and despite the sharply negative attitude towards the Bolsheviks, no one had an appetite for a new lengthy conflict. After a brief period of intervention on the side of the White Movement, Britain and France retreated to deal with their internal problems while the United States returned to isolationism. Besides, the fall of Baku to the Bolsheviks in 1920 destroyed the final argument which could compel the British to leave even a limited contingent to secure the supply of Azerbaijani oil to Batumi. Unfortunately, there were undeniable domestic factors as well – the inexperience of the government and the weakness of civil society also contributed to the defeat of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.
Despite its fall, the First Republic left behind the most important legacy. It reminded the entire world about the existence of a completely forgotten ancient nation and created a new reality which even Bolshevik Russia could not afford: although with certain territorial losses, Georgia’s place in the Soviet Union was largely determined in accordance with the borders of the First Republic without which the Georgian nation’s restoration of a unified state in the future would have been almost impossible. In 1925, even such a prominent ideologue of Russian imperialism as professor Nikolay Trubetskoy, unwillingly conceded in his work that the reconstructed Russian (Soviet) state could not deny Georgians even a limited degree of autonomy (during the Russian empire Georgia had none at all) because of the experience of the independence of 1918-21.
In 1991, the words of the prominent French historian and politician, Alexis de Tocqueville, proved prophetic: “The most dangerous moment for an evil government is when it tries to reform itself.” The Soviet Union collapsed precisely when it tried to deal with the deep systemic crises which had particularly affected its economy through the process of reform which became widely known as “Perestroika.” The Soviet state, branded as the “evil empire,” shared the fate of its predecessor – the Russian empire – when after a long period of expansion it suddenly crashed.
After 70 years of captivity, Georgia was given yet another chance to restore its independence and build a free state. In contrast with the period right after the end of World War I, when the European countries still were not comfortable with the idea of self-determination, when the League of Nations failed to fulfill its mission and after the end of the Cold War, the nations newly liberated from communism and the ones which just gained independence faced more internal challenges than external ones. Even today, almost 30 years later, there is no real consensus in Georgian society as to why our independence started with bloodshed and with an armed coup that ousted the very government that proclaimed independence. It is a tragic reality but at that very moment when the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was delivering his resignation speech live on TV, implying the end of the state and opening the road to the international recognition of its constituent republics, a war was raging on Rustaveli Avenue. In the first days of January, when Georgian independence had been recognized by many nations, Georgia’s democratically elected government was already deposed and the country was plunged into complete chaos. Of course, there had been a strong external factor – like 70 years ago, Russia was not going to allow real independence for Georgia and had been provoking internal political discord as well as inciting ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, it is the fact that Russia would have had a much harder time accomplishing its goals had Georgia had a society that was better prepared for independence.
Such a difficult start is partly because we failed to make the best use of this historic chance and that we never completely escaped the Russian orbit, including at times when Russia was at its weakest point. In 1998, when Russia was facing yet another collapse and was forced to declare default, Georgia had not completely recovered from the shock of the early 1990s. Very soon, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 produced a new geopolitical earthquake which largely determined the accelerated incorporation of the Eastern European countries under the NATO security umbrella. Alas, we missed that chance, too – despite some progress, Georgia was late for the train of Western integration which took our fellow Baltic countries to safety and forever ensured their security, democracy and prosperity.
Despite one’s political preferences, the reader must acknowledge that the next government had to operate in a much more difficult political environment. I mean by the arrival of the Rose Revolution, Russia had overcome its deep crisis and was in the process of regaining its military might and assertiveness. It is also true that Georgia received unprecedented support from its international partners. On May 10, 2005, in his speech delivered on Freedom Square in Tbilisi, the President of the United States hailed Georgia as a “beacon of democracy.” The Georgian reforms enjoyed active support from European nations as well and their combined aid reached billions of dollars. But this support could not protect Georgia from Putin’s Russia which was turning ever stronger and more aggressive and unlike Yeltsin’s government, chose open confrontation with the West (even if Western governments refused to see Putin’s actions for what they were). Russia stopped covering its aggression toward its neighbors, particularly Georgia. By August 2008, the self-confidence and the assertiveness of the Kremlin reached its peak which coincided with the historically high price of oil.
Another factor which complicated the task for Georgian diplomacy was the West’s concern that it did not want to burn bridges with Russia by a harsh reaction to its increasingly destructive behavior. This was the case back in the 1990s when the international community preferred not to notice Russia’s role in the conflicts in Georgia’s Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. It would not be totally fair to blame them as the Georgian government at the time had itself recognized Russia (even if unwillingly) as a mediator and had given its troops the mandate of peacekeepers (in the conflict to which Russia was a party). As a good will gesture, Russia was even invited to join the G7 club in 1998 even though it did not qualify by any standard as Russia was neither a real democracy nor did it have a leading economy. In 2009, just a year after its invasion of Georgia, the United States offered Putin a reset in their relationship. European countries, too, were eager to preserve a normal partnership and chose to forget the Kremlin’s little mischief.
This all changed markedly in 2014. After the attack on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the West’s patience was exhausted and for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union sanctions were imposed against Russia. Hence, for the first time in a long time, Georgia was given an opportunity to use the support of the international community to protect itself from Russia much more effectively. But the Georgian Dream’s government, instead of forming a united front with Ukraine, chose to distance itself from its strategic ally and went on convincing our Western partners that Russia’s goals in Ukraine and Georgia were different and that the new Georgian government had managed to considerably improve its relations with Russia. Unfortunately, Russia responded to the so called “non-irritation policy” with “borderization” and the acceleration of the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region.
One more historic opportunity, which is being wasted before our eyes, is the consolidation of the democratic reputation of Georgia. Despite the shortcomings in the area of the rule of law and human rights, for which the Saakashvili government was harshly criticized, in October 2012 our partners looked at us with the high hopes. For the first time since regaining independence, an elected government democratically transferred power to another one as a result of a highly competitive election. Therefore, there was an expectation that the new government would deal with the problems which it highlighted while being in the opposition and even presented before representatives of Western countries. It is a fact today, however, that in 2020, in the South Caucasus, Georgia is no longer in a leading position in the democracy ratings. Moreover, while the quality of our election and our overall democracy have been the subject of Western criticism, the pro-Western attitudes of our government have never been in doubt. Sadly, the recently growing open attacks on Western values and policies, especially by groups associated with the government, will only increase such doubts.
As I have mentioned above, unfortunately, in the 1990s and the early 2000s Georgia failed to safeguard its security by joining NATO together with other East European countries. Therefore, a large part of our country remains under occupation and the possibility of renewed Russian aggression hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles. To make sure that the next generations do not have to dream of restoring independence again, we must not fail to make the best of the opportunities which, together with challenges, are periodically given to us by history. It is still not late for Georgia to demonstrate to its partner countries during the forthcoming autumn elections that its declared ambition of building a democratic state and that of integrating into the Western community of nations is not just a lure for financial aid. Without it, Georgia risks not only losing the West’s generous support but also forever missing out on the chance of building a successful state and, as a result, to be left alone in the face of Russian aggression and other external threats.