Georgia Flexes Its Soft Power Muscles in Its Immediate Neighborhood

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 88

Nugzar Tsiklauri, chairman of the parliamentary committee for diaspora and Caucasus issues

On May 2, the Georgian parliament held its first public discussion of Georgia’s State Strategy on Relations with the Peoples of the North Caucasus. The strategy prioritizes Georgia-North Caucasus ties, proposing to expand Georgian assistance to North Caucasian human rights activists, cultural and science associations and businessmen. According to the draft document, Georgia will promote the establishment of “historical truth,” providing assistance in the investigation of crimes against humanity that were committed against the North Caucasians. Nugzar Tsiklauri, chairman of the parliamentary committee for diaspora and Caucasus issues, stated:

“I think that the adoption of this document will put an end to insinuations [that] Georgian policy in [the] North Caucasus [is] directed toward [the] destabilization of the situation there,” Tsiklauri said, adding: “We need a peaceful, stable, safe environment in the Caucasus region” (http://civil.ge, May 1, 2).

On May 20, 2011 Georgia became the first state to recognize the Circassian “genocide.” Recounting numerous Russian and foreign historical sources, the Georgian parliament resolved to recognize officially the Circassian “genocide” and build a memorial in commemoration of those events in the Georgian resort city of Anaklia (http://www.parliament.ge/files/1544_32742_536746_genocidi-en.pdf, May 20, 2011).

The draft strategy of Georgia in the North Caucasus indicates that the country is open to further exploration of the historical legacy of the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and modern policies of contemporary Russia in the region. “The Caucasian peoples became victims of ethnic cleansing, deportations and genocide in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union on a number of occasions. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, such events as ethnic cleansing of the Ingush in 1992 and mass killings of civilians took place during the two Chechen wars.” The strategy intends to create an open door policy for North Caucasian human rights activists to spread information about human rights abuses in the region. Georgian universities have already started enrolling students from the North Caucasus and provide a venue for the improved study of North Caucasian languages (http://kavkasia.net/Georgia/article/1336264059.php, May 5).

Georgian strategy addresses several key areas of public interest in the North Caucasus that are either taboo or have been heavily suppressed by the Russian government in the region itself. For example, Moscow proclaimed the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1992 as being “solved,” although many people in Ingushetia still regard the problem unresolved and increasingly blame Moscow itself for the conflict (http://ingushetiyaru.org/news/22925.html, May 7). The two Chechen wars generated such a massive wave of human tragedy that it is hardly surprising its reverberations are still being felt across the region, while Russian policy officially portrays those wars in Russian patriotic overtones as “counterterrorism operations.” With the adoption of this strategy, the Georgian government is trying to break the information isolation of the North Caucasus. Foreign journalists and scholars still have very limited access to the region because of the restrictions, specifically imposed on visitors travelling to the North Caucasus. Also, the region in general is regarded as unsafe. At the same time, local journalists are habitually harassed and sometimes even killed. The renowned Dagestani publisher and editor, Khajimurad Kamalov, for instance, was killed near his office in December 2011. With its educational programs, Georgia also offers unique alternatives to North Caucasian students, especially in the social sciences, since history, sociology and other related sciences are heavily colored by Russo-Soviet ideological constructions.

Georgia’s strategy is bound to be welcomed enthusiastically among the various peoples across the North Caucasus. Because of the region’s isolation, permanent instability and widespread distrust of the government, any external attention to the region’s problems will produce an immediate positive reaction in the North Caucasus. The Circassians, the Chechens and the Ingush will be especially thankful for recognition of their grievances by a neighboring country that aspires to be a part of Europe.

Apart from humanitarian activities, the strategy proposes to facilitate greater economic ties between Georgia and the North Caucasus. Moreover, Georgia would like to help the North Caucasus to establish ties to world markets (http://kavkasia.net/Georgia/article/1336264059.php, May 5). It is understandable that Georgia expects to benefit economically from expanding ties with the North Caucasus to a certain extent. Already, the Georgian Interior Ministry reported that in April 2012, 300,000 foreign visitors came to Georgia, which is 61 percent more than in the previous year. Liberalizing visa rules in the country played a large part in the rise in tourism from the North Caucasus. On March 1, 2012, officials in Tbilisi unilaterally lifted visa requirement for all Russian citizens, resulting in an 80 percent increase of visitors from Russia (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/georgia/1526880.html, May 2). Many also implicitly understand that Georgia energized its policies in the North Caucasus in response to the results of Russian-Georgian war in 2008, when Russia recognized Georgian breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as “independent states.”

Whatever motivations were behind the moves of the Georgian government, its intentions are not hostile to Russia. Rather, they provide a viable alternative for those forces in the North Caucasus that are frustrated with Moscow’s heavy-handed policies in the region but, at the same time, do not want to join the armed rebellion. By reducing the potential for conflict among the North Caucasians, Georgia actually helps Russia to stabilize the region. Yet, Moscow is unlikely to appreciate Tbilisi’s moves in the North Caucasus, not only because bilateral relations are strained between the two countries, but also because, in general, Moscow wants to keep this region isolated from the rest of the world. For example, despite relatively warm relations between Moscow and Ankara or Moscow and Tehran, both Turkey and Iran have been largely kept away from the North Caucasus with ground transportation routes effectively shut off to foreigners on the Russian side. There are also few options available to travel by air to the region as well. In sum, Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus have created a perfect environment for the successful leveraging of the use of soft power by such a relatively small country as Georgia.