Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili presented his government’s newly appointed minister of foreign affairs, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, at the annual gathering of Georgian diplomats, in Tbilisi. Until September 1, Kvirikashvili headed the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development (Civil Georgia, September 1).
The appointment evoked a great deal of interest among the expert community and the public because Kvirikashvili’s background is not related to diplomacy. Kvirikashvili received a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois and worked as the top manager in several large Georgian banks, including the bank of Cartu, which belongs to the billionaire and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili (Datab.us, accessed September 8).
The former top manager of Cartu bank is Ivanishvili’s confidant, and many observers have speculated that if Kvirikashvili was “transferred” from the economy ministry to the foreign ministry, that probably means that the economy is now being linked to the foreign policy of Georgia.
The head of the government himself confirmed this conclusion: “The government is focused on economic development and job creation, and this goal determines [both] our foreign policy and domestic economic agenda.” Garibashvili added, “I think that Mr. Kvirikashvili will be a very successful Foreign Minister; his experience and knowledge will help us in implementing such a foreign policy that will be better tied to our economic priorities and bring more success to our country in terms of foreign policy, as well as in terms of strengthening [its] economic policy” (Civil Georgia, September 1).
Up until now, Georgia’s foreign policy was considered to be “value oriented,” not economically pragmatic. Notably, both of Kvirikashvili’s immediate predecessors heading the foreign ministry—Maia Panjikidze and Tamara Beruashvili—were professional diplomats with substantial experience. They were considered staunch supporters of Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. The new foreign minister, along with the head of the government, has confirmed that the country would stay on the same course toward integration with the West; but they still put an emphasis on the economy, motivating a spirited debate in policy circles and sharp criticism from the opposition.
Generating the most controversy was undoubtedly Kvirikashvili’s statement on “processes in Eurasia.” In particular, he declared, “Many interesting things are happening in the world. Apart from the pro-Western direction, there are relations with the East, the new developments on the Eurasian content.” At the same time, the minister spoke in favor of the direct dialogue with the Russian Federation within the “Prague format of talks”—between the special representative of the Georgian government, Zurab Abashidze, and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Grigory Karasin (Kommersant, September 3). Kvirikashvili also welcomed the expected lifting of sanctions against Iran, emphasizing, “This process is very interesting for Georgia from an economic point of view” (Civil Georgia, September 2).
The opposition reacted to the foreign minister’s speech with accusations that the government was readying to cede Georgia’s foreign policy to Russia. David Darchiashvili, one of the leaders of the United National Movement, argued that Georgia was playing right into Russia’s hand, as the latter “is trying to play a key role in the region and establish the Eurasian Union to reclaim its former influence” (Author’s interview, September 5).
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Garibashvili spoke in support of and further expanded on the initiative laid out by the new head of the foreign ministry. “Mr. Kvirikashvili mentioned that we will consider all of the potential available on the Eurasian continent and I want to note that this is the right direction, the right message; along with our main goal—Euro-Atlantic integration—of course, we should continue and further deepen relations with China and other countries in Asia,” the prime minister said (Civil Georgia, September 2).
This mention of China was naturally not accidental. The Georgian government regards Beijing as the most valuable potential investor in the country. Chinese investors have already implemented several large projects in Georgia. And while he was minister of the economy, Giorgi Kvirikashvili held intensive talks with Chinese companies about the construction of a new Black Sea harbor in Anaklia, with cargo turnover of 100 million tons per year (see EDM, March 25). Talks are expected to conclude in the near future. It appears that Georgian authorities are hoping that Kvirikashvili’s new post, while simultaneously retaining his rank as deputy prime minister, will convince Chinese partners to prioritize projects in Georgia and reassure them about the safety of their investments.
In particular, the new port in Anaklia promises to create tens of thousands of local jobs and should turn Georgia into an important international transportation hub. “…in October we will be hosting a high-level dialogue within the framework of the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum,” Kvirikashvili stated at the above-mentioned ambassadorial meeting. He continued, “Making full use of [Georgia’s] transit potential and increasing our participation in regional energy and transport projects [not least the Anaklia port] will be the priority direction of our policy” (Civil Georgia, September 1).
Kvirikashvili’s appointment to head the foreign ministry, combined with Prime Minister Garibashvili’s statement about the need for a “pragmatic policy toward Russia” (Civil Georgia, September 2), is seen in foreign policy circles as indicative of a serious shift for Georgia. “The authorities decided to look not only to the West, but also to the East and North and pay more attention to the economic outcomes of foreign policy,” the former director of the Tbilisi Diplomatic Academy, Iosif Tsintsadze, told this author. According to Tsintsadze, such pragmatism means that Georgia will not reject a pro-Western course out of hand (interview for the author, September 2).
Yet, many doubt the government’s true intentions. After all, influential figures in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition made repeated remarks in recent months about needing to change the country’s foreign policy orientation away from the West. For example, the “Georgia’s beer king,” businessman and parliamentary member of the Georgian Dream coalition Gogi Topadze, stated in March that Georgia’s attempts to move closer to NATO were harmful (Interpressnews.ge, March 11). And Topadze’s colleague Giorgi Kavtaradze complained about the Western community’s reluctance to accept Georgia into its alliance (1tv.ge, July 8).
An expert with the independent news agency GHN, David Avalishvili, has argued, however, that given the level of Russian “soft power” in Georgia (see EDM, April 2, 2014), Tbilisi’s new foreign policy course away from the West could quickly tip not toward the East, but toward the North—Russia. “The pro-Russian forces claim that Georgia did not receive any tangible results from its pro-Western policies… Unfortunately, the majority of society perceives these issues quite primitively, regarding only a NATO Membership Accession Plan [MAP] or a visa-free regime with the European Union as ‘real achievements,’ ” the analyst said (Author’s interview, September 5). Thus, a popular backlash against limited Western support could mean Georgia may spiral back into Russia’s embrace.