Georgia’s Focus on Regional Cooperation: Modernization by Example and Engagement

By David Iberi

Despite the Russian invasion in August 2008 and the ongoing occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory, Tbilisi focuses more on the future than anything else. With Russian occupying forces stationed some 20 miles from the Georgian capital, concentrating on reform and development is not an easy task. But President Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro- Western liberal government thinks that modernization is the only way to counter its present challenges and walk the safest road into the future without sacrificing Georgia’s sovereignty and freedom of choice.

The task is complicated by Russia’s own version of modernization, but Saakashvili argued on Thursday that true modernization is always coupled with political freedom and laissez-faire economy, and is not as much about making more sophisticated weapons as making peace, transforming society and opening up to the world. This was the major topic of his speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 23, 2010.

“Peace is not only the goal; it is also the means to any goal,” the Georgian president told world leaders in an elaborate manner and, to the surprise of many analysts in Tbilisi, put unusually strong emphasis on the need for cooperation in the Caucasus region. Unlike most of his previous speeches, Saakashvili has now increased the scope of his discussion from talking about modernizing Georgia to transforming the entire Caucasus region. What the Georgian president apparently wanted to show was that Georgia’s “spectacular reforms” in law enforcement, public services, economy and education could serve as an example and point of attraction for all other countries in, and around, the Caucasus, including the Russian Federation. “For too long, [the Caucasus] has suffered from division, injustice, conflict, colonization and violence,” Saakashvili argued. “Today, however, change is possible. In fact, change is already taking place.” He then talked about his vision of a “free, stable and united Caucasus.”

The possibility of Georgia surviving as a nation after the full-scale Russian invasion two years ago was placed under a big question mark by many academics, political scientists and government officials in the region, Russia and the West alike. The fact that it has not only endured but has continued its modernization agenda and development projects has inspired even some in Russia. Georgia’s police reform that changed the Soviet-type corrupt and ineffective organ into a Western institution to service the public has been widely talked about in Russia, where the authorities are contemplating some makeover of the law enforcement.

Prime Minister Nika Gilauri said on September 22 that Georgia’s GDP was 8.4 percent higher in the second quarter than in the same period of time last year. The tourism industry and services have been the primary beneficiary of the economic recovery, as Georgia saw more foreign tourists this year than in the past 19 years of independence. Donald Trump, an American business magnate, told the Georgian president two days ago that he plans to build a Trump Tower in Tbilisi and develop a few other construction projects in Batumi, Georgia’s impressive Black Sea Riviera.

In the concluding part of his UN speech, the Georgian president made three appeals – to the people still living in the depopulated areas of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, the Russian leadership and the Russian people, and to the international community. Saakashvili told the Russian government to care more about developing the Northern Caucasus, “a region that is exploding,” than about annexing the Georgian territories and he urged his fellow world leaders to help “secure peace in Georgia, but also in the broader region.”

Not only geographically but also historically, Georgia has been central to the Caucasus, and Tbilisi’s emphasis on multilateral energy projects and development could indeed help modernize the region and secure lasting peace there. For this process to succeed in the long run, however, the United States and the West have to play a more active role by engaging with Georgia and the Caucasus more closely and proactively.