Commentary: Georgia’s Caucasus Strategy Revisited, Emerging Power in the South (Part Two)

By David Iberi

As Tbilisi started to develop its neighborhood policy (See Part One), publications spawned in the West assessing the reasons of and the implications for Georgia’s Caucasus engagement. Some of those writings clearly lack credibility due to their authors’ premeditated distortion of facts or manipulative analyses. Nonetheless, Georgia needs to perform additional explanatory work in the West in order to secure broad support for the furthering of its Caucasus agenda.

Walter Russell Mead, a renowned American scholar who works with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a leading US think-tank, wrote in October 2010 on Georgia’s Caucasus visa policy: “The move angered Russia (which wants to keep the lid on tightly in the North Caucasus and already blames Georgia for allowing arms and people smuggling in and out of the troubled region); it also seriously annoyed the United States, which does not want Georgia poking at the Russian bear; the US also objects, strenuously, to the idea of Islamic militants crossing the Georgia border and then roaming freely around a country with many US Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats and other personnel.”

The only truth in this analysis is that Russia indeed wants to keep the North Caucasus – and the whole Caucasus for that matter – eternally isolated and closed, and Georgia seems to be the only country in the region that objects to Russia’s policy of isolating the region. Other than that, Mr. Mead does not seem to desire to differentiate between visa-free travel and free travel per se when there are no borders or checkpoints; likewise, he does not explain why Russian authorities on the Russo-Georgian border would allow free passes to “Islamic militants” into Georgian territory. Besides, Mead fails to keep in mind the US government’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism, in which Georgia is persistently praised for its significant troop contributions to the ISAF operations in Afghanistan and for the diligent security and police reforms that have transformed the Caucasus nation.

“Russian claims of Georgian support for Chechen terrorists and harboring of such individuals in the Pankisi Gorge were unsubstantiated,” the latest US report reads, “and the Georgian government has made transparent efforts to prove this to the international community.” What the report regrets, though, is the absence of order, law or transparency in the Russian-occupied portion of Georgian territory, which allows for the “unrestricted and unidentified flow of people, goods, and other potentially dangerous items from Russia into Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

In the words of Alexander Melikishvili, a Washington-based analyst who works with the Voice of America’s Georgian Service, “In presuming that all North Caucasians willing to take advantage of the visa-free regime are rebels or are somehow connected to them, Mead commits another ignorant mistake, which actually borders on ethnic prejudice, the kind that is popular in certain Russian circles.”

Oliver Bullough, a Caucasus editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a former Reuters Moscow correspondent, weighed in on Georgia’s Caucasus strategy in an article published in the CFR’s Foreign Affairs magazine on December 23, 2010. Like Mead, Bullough made statements – such as “Georgia now buys gas from Iran” – which are not only false but are offensive by nature as they seek to sow seeds of distrust toward Georgia in the US public, which is known to be highly sensitive to anything related to Iran. Bullough laments that Washington is “dangerously silent on the provocative, and potentially destabilizing, moves of its ally [Georgia]. During the buildup to the 2008 war, Georgia’s friends in the West neglected their duty to calm Saakashvili’s government — and they may be doing the same thing today.” What Bullough utterly misses here is how long and persistently Russia was preparing for an aggressive and irredentist war against its southern neighbor, the only sin of which was to refuse to recognize Moscow’s suzerainty. The IWPR’s analyst also makes no mention of the United States and the West adamantly rejecting Moscow’s claim to a sphere of influence at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty.

Davit Beritashvili, a Tbilisi-based leading Georgian analyst – who was interviewed by the author of this article – commented on the allegations Bullough made against Georgia. “Much like the Kremlin and its propaganda machine, he acts as an advocate of a ‘new reality’ that Russia is trying to concoct in the post-Soviet space. While Bullough is keen on criticizing Georgia’s visa facilitation policy for isolated and disempowered citizens of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus and calls Georgia’s move a ‘giant gamble,’ he forgets to mention Russia’s illegal mass ‘passportization’ of Georgian citizens in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia years before August 2008” when Moscow still had the official status of a “peacekeeper” but, nonetheless, distributed Russian passports to Georgian citizens in the territory it held under de facto control. “Likewise,” Beritashvili regretted, “Bullough neglects the gross ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Georgians that Russia perpetrated in the occupied territories.”

In Bullough’s words, “any decline of Russian influence on its side of the mountains could spur interethnic conflict — a possibility perhaps even more worrying for outside powers.” Beritashvili asserts that “Bullough’s true mission seems to be the portrayal of Russia as the legitimate master of the Caucasus and the sole power capable of pacifying the region, notwithstanding the deportations and ethnic cleansings in the Caucasus throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and the two bloody wars in Chechnya in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, or other brutal acts of violence committed by the Russian state.”

For Christmas, the Georgian president traveled to Ushguli, a little hamlet in Georgia’s northwestern Svaneti region. Located at 2,200 meters above sea level, Ushguli is referred to as the highest populated village in Europe. Bordering Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia republics, Svaneti, with Mestia as its central town (see the photo above), is rapidly transforming into a burgeoning tourism destination and winter ski resort – in sharp contrast with Russian republics on northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains where insurgency, religious violence, crime and corruption have a debilitating impact on the region.

As true believers in Realpolitik, Mead and Bullough may indeed show contempt for Georgia’s internal modernization or for its potential to serve, in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own characterization, as a “role model” for the entire region. There are, however, a great many other scholars in the West who would sincerely like to understand the socioeconomic and geopolitical processes in the Caucasus. To remain competitive and succeed, Georgia has to have not only a government and political elite with a vision of modernity, it also needs greater popularization of its reform agenda across the Caucasus and internationally, as well as more support in the West’s political and academic circles.