Make no mistake about it: politics is a complicated thing to do, but very often it presents us with very few and simple decisions to take. At various times and under various circumstances “right” and “wrong” have presented themselves as obvious moral choices. Such was the case when peoples fought Nazism, when nations overthrew the tyranny of Communism or when courageous individuals and their groups fought Apartheid in Africa. I desire neither to seek applause for what I write, nor a title of an eloquent or diplomatic writer – both in their most “stereotyped” form. I do intend however, to demonstrate that there is no quick fix for the Georgian-Russian diplomatic stand-off. Furthermore, current differences stem from a larger context: that of different moral, cultural and political choices the two states have made. In the current crisis between Georgia and Russia, moral superiority favors former relatively enhancing its political leverage on the international arena, while military and economic advantage is largely enjoyed by the latter. However, I believe, current Russo-Georgian crisis is impossible to diffuse until one or another party has superiority in both of these attributes. In the current crisis, neither sheer power, nor “truth” or moral justifications of the actions are sufficient to achieve a lasting, stable outcome. What is needed is that there is either the common goal, or a common threat for the two nations to speak the common language. Neither is present today.
The recent political, diplomatic, and economic showdown between Georgia and Russia had captured the attention of the local and global media, public on both sides and beyond, and had inspired outcries and overreactions against either imperialism of the Russian political elite or rising “militant nationalism throughout Georgia.” If principles and values are of any importance in foreign policy, and both sides engaged in this crisis argue that they are indeed protecting a set of values and principles, then it is wise that we examine their nature and their impact on national policy-making both in Russia and Georgia and in between of them.
It is safe to assume that both parties declare to embrace the ideals of liberal democracy, free market economy and all the other fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms of the individuals or groups. Both states have made their national sovereignty and unity a central subject of their military campaigns in Chechnya or Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both have underlined an understanding of the need for the minorities to prosper in the states they live. As for policies, none had yet succeeded in offering a prosperous political context for their national or ethnic minorities. In that sense both Russian and Georgian states have so far failed to deliver upon their one of the most important functions.Nevertheless, several trivial truths present themselves and one shall not ignore them simply due to their simplicity or because they are not comfortable. Georgia had at least on a “manifesto level” offered cultural, economic and political autonomy to its breakaway enclaves, made this approach its official action plan, pledged to respect the freedom of speech and expression, and had recently administered fair and successful local elections. On the contrary, Russia had further tightened its centralized control of the regions, and cramped down on foreign and international NGOs, independent media and political opposition. While Georgia had pledged its support to the free movement of goods, labor and finances and unilaterally reduced tariffs and visa procedures with Russia and elsewhere, Russia on numerous occasions cut the supply of natural gas, increased its price, banned the imports of Georgian agricultural products, imposed a visa regime on Georgia proper, and lifted it from South Ossetia and Abkhazia as if they were sovereign, independent states. While without a factor of injustice done to Abkhazians and South Ossetians during the armed confrontation, Georgia has been a safe place for the Russian and other communities while Kremlin cynically deported hundreds of Georgians, very much like, and with a great deal of irony coming with it, Georgian-born Stalin deported Meskhetians, Abkhazs, Chechens and many other ethnic groups during and after the Second World War – as if entire nations and ethnic groups can be the “enemies of the state.” Ironically enough, the Russian cinemas decided not to screen the recently released comedy of a fictional Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiev as if guarding the “certain feelings of certain categories of citizens” as one Russian official recently put it, while at the same time executing mass-deportations of the Georgians with which this country has a shared religious, historical and until recently, close cultural ties. Where Georgia extends its legitimate authority (Upper Abkhazia) it becomes “the state sponsored terrorism;” when Kremlin smashes its political opposition, forces them into exile, or bloodily suppresses the military rebellion (very much similar in demands of Abkhazia or South Ossetia) with enormous cost of innocent human life this is a legitimate use of force to uphold the rule of law and protect the sovereignty of the Nation; when Georgian authorities allow for an alternative election to take place in South Ossetia this becomes an attempt to “destabilize the region,” while at the same time government backed and supervised media in Russia provides an open forum for the sought after criminals with terrorism charges.
This is not, however, to suggest that there exists no share of responsibility that is of the Georgian authorities to bear. The Georgian government would have done a better service by handling the spy crisis in a classical manner – responding to the incident but without the “extravagant” handling of the alleged spies, even in time of crisis. The Georgian government would have done better if it did not allow for a normal process of state building (including armed forces obviously) to be interpreted (with some legitimate reasons) as a sable rattling against smaller de-facto separated entities. It would have been much better that the relevant Georgian authorities paid due attention to the quality of exports, and have taken up preemptive measures to avoid allegations that have hurt the reputation of the Georgian wine industry. It would have been better to choose the language more carefully while still being outspoken and articulate about the ends and the means desired and available to the Georgian State respectively.
In this context of confrontation, a critical but simple question asked by many in Georgia is this: “What is the Russian offer?” The “offer” standing as a set of political, moral and broadly speaking – cultural options. There are many theories ranging from “No to NATO” to a decomposition of the Georgian state. But the truth is simpler than anything: There is no offer. What Georgians have witnessed is the continuous project to ignore the legitimate aspirations of the entire nation, obstruct the development of its industry and trade (read: welfare of the population) by import bans and energy blockade, support to its de-fragmentation by fomenting unrest in breakaway republics and encouraging marginal political proxies in Tbilisi to serve as the agents of chaos.A collaboration of the two states needs to be based on the common vision of the future or the common perception of the threat. Common vision of the future foments greater and stable partnerships – European Union is a good example of this. Common perception of the threat creates strong but temporary alliances such as the British, Soviet and the US alliance vs. the Axis. Today, Russia and Georgia share neither the common vision of the future nor face a common enemy. While Georgia, with all mistakes, errors and uncertainties associated with it, had embarked on a difficult path to democracy, Russian authorities have shrunk from it. While Russia set out to name the United States as one of its major adversaries, Georgia is one of the biggest recipients of the US’s financial and political support and in turn, provides its modest but honorable contribution in Iraq by sending its young soldiers into harm’s way. While for Georgia is a time to collect the stones by returning the breakaway republics plagued with smuggling, criminal and sporadic violence to where they belong, Kremlin is doing its best to cut trade and legitimize the de facto authorities who have forced the thousands of indigenous population out of their homes.
From the southern side of the Caucasus, the Georgians have watched, or perceived, the eventual erosion of the democratic values in Russia, that of tolerance, freedom of individual property and prosperity by one’s own choice of place and venue, right of self – determination and the pluralism of political thought and the free speech. Shall the Georgian and Russian societies share the very same values by enforcing them through political processes then a common solution might come to exist. Shall there be no viable offer in exchange of partnership, an offer put forward by a nation and shared by both nations, there shall be no lasting compromise. The Georgians see that a path to liberal democracy and a free-market state, closer ties with Europe and security provided by NATO are more durable, profitable and honorable than possible and temporarily low prices on natural gas or enduring a temporary economic harm done by the reduction of Georgian wine exports. The Russian nation feels that its state borders can not be encroached by would be independent republics, that children and women must not become military targets and that punishment and retribution for such horrible acts must be severe and painfully memorable to everyone concerned. And so do the Georgians.
The lasting solutions (if such are desired) are the solutions that rest on lasting principles and shared values. The Ancient Greeks remained just as powerful as their democratic system; the victorious wars they have undertaken rested on and reflected their democratic beliefs, their fighting order – their city states. The Romans fought and won the great wars when the right to a Roman citizenship, the spirit of a free movement of people, free speech and individual property were part of the battle – the very backbone of it. That very same empire fell when its citizens plunged into delusions that their wealth only could ensure safety and security and put away with their core values that led to dictatorships and eventual erosion of their politico-military system. The Fascist experiment failed regardless of its brilliant military machine which eroded within a matter of several years. Democratic states and their alliances have proved to prevail over the alliances of terror like the Soviet Union or the Axis. The Persian armada of at least 100.000 led by despotic Darius was humiliated by the army of roughly 10.000 led by Athenian and Spartan democracies and elected generals fielded on the plain of Marathon. Sheer power can do nothing but bring about destruction and alienation.
The power that is a guardian of values accepted and shared by many is a power that attracts allies and pacifies the enemies. Georgians have seen none of the values they cherish behind the power wielded by Russia for the last decades. Regrettably enough, Russia and Georgia set out on different journeys and are headed towards different futures. If Russia and Georgia still have something in common, if the values that Georgians see as a values of importance are still alive in today’s Russia, remains to be seen. Such is the dimming, but still a hope of mine too.