Georgia is at the crossroads, once again, struggling between what it aspires to be and what it needs to survive. The war in Ukraine has been good for the economy, which has seen double-digit growth. But there are eyebrows raised among our allies. In these circumstances, I open a conversation with Dr. Ilya Roubanis*, an old friend, whom I know for the best part of fifteen years, since Russia’s invasion of Georgia. We met in Athens, around the table with Swedish, Polish, and Greek diplomats, discussing a transition from the EU’s Black Sea synergy, with Russia, to the East Partnership, without Russia. I found it fitting to return with a friend to the scene of the crime, not least because at the time he wrote about his impressions following a fact-finding mission in Georgia. In his 2009 article “Georgia’s pluralistic feudalism,” he pointed to a phenomenon that prevailed at the time: “There is no shortage of personal charisma or charm in Georgia; but, instead, politicians seem to find no strings attached to power, no social demands, no aggregated interest-articulation: in sum, a blank cheque for the duration of a presidential term. As in feudal times, the only problem at hand is that a king's power is checked by the feudal lords of his court who aspire themselves to become kings.” (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/georgia-pluralistic-feudalism/)
I wonder what’s relevant from that impression.
Tedo Japaridze: So, my friend, there is a lot of talk about the Middle Corridor after the war in Ukraine. What do you feel is the main effect of the Ukrainian war on the economy of the region?
Ilya Roubanis. The region – and I apologise if that sounds cynical – is having a good war. Loads of interest centres around “connectivity.” Because I don’t like big terms, I would prefer focusing on transport, which is booming.
So, I think there are two concerns when we speak about logistics and railways, including the Middle Corridor. One is economic survival and access to global markets. The second is fear of war in Ukraine and what it means for us. The old diplomatic adage is “‘when the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
In a war, we all feel smaller than we really are.
When it comes to economic realities, Central Asian countries are landlocked and this makes for a unique geopolitical perspective. Neither the highly networked countries like Switzerland and Austria nor traditional maritime powers like the UK and the US can relate to the agony of maintaining access to the world, particularly when you are squeezed between Russia and China. That fear is rightly reflected in commitment to building transport infrastructure, which is considerable in the region. But, as we speak of fear, the war in Ukraine heightens concerns that access to the global economy may be disrupted.
Now, there is a third reason people speak about logistics, behind closed doors, and that is economic opportunity.
From Turkey to Kazakhstan, the war has fuelled growth. In Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Kazakhstan there is a “Russian stimulus”: Russia exports people and capital and imports goods. For small economies in the Caucasus this is activity that has a profound economic effect, which is thus far positive. However, it is important that policy does not only focus on the bottom line and the next six months but looks forward.
Tedo Japaridze. I agree that Russia brings a kind of, as you say, “stimulus effect” on local economies in the wider Black Sea area, however, there’s a regime of western sanctions. How should a country like Georgia operate under those circumstances? And we should not forget that Russia has been occupying 20% of Georgian territories? What would be your response on that? Is it, as we say, a “new normal” setting? In general, which side should a country like Georgia be in that global clash of values and principles without conceding its strategic interests and agenda? You and me have talked about that for years.
Ilya Roubanis. I think Georgia’s allies have the wisdom to ask Georgia what the country can deliver. As Russia focuses on the war in Ukraine, there is a vacuum of power but that does not mean the Northern neighbour does not have levers. Even I know that.
The question is not grandstanding but making a stand. Georgians picked a side a long time ago; meanwhile, they are making a living. And they do so in good company, embedded in a region. You cannot transcend your geography.
However, there are issues one needs to take a long view on.
Trading or receiving remittances from Russia is not automatically related to the infringement of Georgian sovereignty and does not necessarily undermine the Ukrainian war effort. In the current context, I would be concerned if there are systemic effects that further curtail Georgia’s sovereignty in the long run.
Two notes in that respect.
First, if Georgia attracts investment in new technology, I would be concerned whether a country is sleepwalking into creating an offshore data-economy paradise that allows Russia to remain connected to the global digital economy. If that is the case, it is easy to let it grow but it can have a cumulative effect on the country’s brand. Also, you do not want to wake up in a “captive state,” a situation in which the sector is bigger than the country.
Secondly, if one of the drives of growth is parallel exports, I would hope that Georgia monitors what transits through its territory.
And that’s that. I am confident that people much more experienced than I have the mandate and a sense of duty that keeps them vigilant. Having worked with the Georgian government, I know better than to underestimate anyone’s professionalism.
Tedo Japaridze. True, much of what we do, we do in good company, as part of a region, and we cannot defy our geography. What do you feel: is the South Caucasus more or less of "a region" after the war in Ukraine?
Ilya Roubnisa. The war in Ukraine is transforming the region. The South Caucasus is not the same during the war in Ukraine and will not be the same after the war in Ukraine. So, the question is whether one is able to manage the present and plan for the future.
Playing a role in supporting Russia’s war economy, Iran is joining the Eurasian Economic Union space in September 2023; there are similar talks of the UAE and India. Paradoxically, the Russian plan for regional market integration is expanding. In this sense, Georgia finds itself in a precarious situation as the country may be called upon to make mutually exclusive choices with an economic and political cost.
Traditionally, it seems that Georgia stands closer with the states of the Organisation of Turkic States. Georgia is also seen by the Polish-led Three Seas Initiative (3SI) as the first port of call in planning the future of whatever comes after the war in Ukraine. There are no safe choices, but Georgia’s foreign policy is traditionally framed by regional considerations and Western policy orientation.
Put otherwise, values are not a luxury but a statement of what one holds to be true when things get tough. Having values has a strategic effect. A county can’t be run with the old Groucho Marx aphorism “These are my values and, if you don’t like them, I have others.”
Tedo Japaridze. It is said that geography greatly determines a country’s foreign policy. Does politics in the region adhere to this principle?
Ilya Roubanis. This is certainly true of Georgia.
Georgia is a window to the sea and the world for Armenia and Azerbaijan. For decades, given Armenia’s closed borders with Turkey, Georgia provided the glue that allowed the countries of the region the possibility to be “a region,” economically, socially, and politically. Put otherwise, Georgians are the hosts of the diplomatic table in the South Caucasus, seating the guests, wining and dining with them, making sure people keep meeting even when they don’t like each other. I am just worried occasionally that people might get too experimental in the kitchen and spoil a good thing.
Tedo Japaridze. More than a decade ago, you referred to Georgian politics as a system of "feudalistic pluralism." Do you feel something has changed since then?
Ilya Roubanis. A decade ago, there was pluralistic feudalism in Georgia. Now, there seems to be a victor in this Game of Thrones. The contest has produced a winner and the feudal lords congregate in the same court.
There are two dangers here that were also present in 2009:
If Georgians do not care about politics, then the political agenda will be set by motivated minorities with the right concentration of power. When politics does not make a difference, people tend to vote for what is different. Usually, this makes politics look ridiculous and alienates thinking people and sober voices. That happens everywhere. Just read the news. In some places, it happens more.
The second danger is that parties will stop trying to build a partnership with the people they represent. If 50% or more of the voters stay at home, you go out and built yourself a different motivated minority in every electoral encounter. There is no ideology or social contract. You pick your voters rather than the other way around. I can think of many examples of where this has happened. None of them looks pretty.
In sum, even feudal pluralism looks better than royal monopoly. Democracy is a game in which the party in power can lose and, critically, the winner does not take everything. That is a challenge everywhere, not in Georgia alone. But in Georgia, there is an addiction to “revolutions”. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, your first president, fell; Eduard Shevarnadze fell; Michael Saakashvili fell and pretended to gracefully leave the stage, whereas he did anything but. There is a lot of controversy about his current incarceration that I do not feel I have the moral foundation to join. However, I do wonder if being in prison is indicative of what happens when you engage in “winner takes all politics.” And he did engage in that.
I do not mean to preach but since you ask the problem is this: there must be a point where people go, sometimes come back, but do not fall. Some of the best years of my life have been spent with people working in opposition. It is creative and can be constructive and meaningful. Leaders need to stand their ground after an electoral defeat in a system where the opposition is a potential government in waiting and meets every policy with substantiated objections. Unless the government in office accepts defeat as a distinct possibility, governance degenerates. Leaders should fear the ballot box, not crush their foes to drop off the contest. Generally, fear is not a good foundation for politics. Sorry for indulging myself in this “Sunday service.”
I do not claim originality when noting that the political system in Georgia feels democratic but misses a significant democratic trick: power transfer has yet to be achieved under normal circumstances. Now, that is a problem. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you need to win because if you lose, you lose everything.
Tedo Japaridze. And the last question I usually pose to my interviewee: How to live in general with a neighbour such as Russia, and to hypothesize my question, making it more specific: how to live with “Putin’s Russia”? What would be your, naturally, personal – and spiced by Greek genes - answer?
Ilya Roubanis. You do like smaller animals when meeting a bear.
You try to make yourself look bigger; you try to befriend other predators. And you try to convince the big neighbour that even if you were caught, your meat is so hard that it’s not worth the trouble.
What you don’t do is bathe in salt and garlic and ask to be served as a special treat at the end of the feast. Sorry for my gastronomic analogies, but you evoked my Greekness.
* Ilya Roubanis (PhD, European University Institute) is currently a columnist and a member of the editorial team of Caucasus Watch. He frequently contributes with analyses at the Foreign Policy Centre in London. He has experience in business intelligence and has worked as a policy researcher for a number of international think tanks.