Contemporary Georgia: aspects of home and foreign policy

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 09:22
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by Gregorio Baggiani
EPOS Insights


Georgia is situated between the Caucasian mountain chain, Turkey and Iran, a strategically very important position. From a historical point of view, it is part of the Christian world, though its contacts with Europe were interrupted in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, who blocked off any access to the Black Sea. The Russian conquest of Georgia, however, reactivated its cultural process of Europeanization, but brought with it the unmistakable traits of tsarist authoritarianism. Something which the Georgians have always deplored, though many admit that the Russian conquest preserved the country from forced Islamization, allowing it to reinstate cultural relations with Europe.

On the basis of these historical events, today’s Georgia, and in particular its governmental elite, aspire to an integration within the Western framework, and in particular within that of the European political structure, i.e. the EU, and military structure, i.e. NATO – with which the country currently cooperates as part of the Partnership for Peace (PfP), which represents the initial stage (not binding for NATO itself) of a country’s membership to Atlantic structures.

Obviously a rhetoric based on this alleged common civilizing base presents a few incongruities, because at present Georgia can undoubtedly be defined a European state, but not a Western one, because it lacks a political culture comparable to what has developed in Western Europe over the centuries. Currently Georgia still lacks a political culture based on abidance to the law and to procedures – in favour of a culture based on decisiveness, personalization of power and private relations – and a culture based on respect for its minorities, the lack of which was one of the main factors that triggered off the armed conflict in the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The political mechanism of these armed clashes can be traced back to the Soviet period and more precisely to Soviet Ethno-federalism, which gave the dominant nationality the largest share of power positions and a limited autonomy following a strictly hierarchic level: Republic of the Soviet Union (RS), Autonomous Republic (ASSR), Autonomous Region (OR). Its official aim was to guarantee the autonomy of the various ethnicities within the vast multi-ethnic Soviet State, but it actually served to divide populations so they could be better dominated by central power, i.e. by Moscow, according to the classic Latin concept of divide et impera, which one of the world’s most famous Georgians, dictator Joseph Stalin, used to perfection, though notoriously with a total disregard for the most elementary human rights.

The system was therefore a complex government structure upon the aforementioned levels, all three of which were closely dependant on Moscow: a Republic of the Union answered to Moscow, an Autonomous Republic answered hierarchically to Moscow and an Autonomous Region answered hierarchically to the relevant Republic of the Union. Central power in Moscow therefore was always the ultimate arbiter in any disputes between second and third level Republics of the Union. Clashes between second and third level national communities essentially derives from the collapse of Soviet central power.

In addition, when the clashes erupted in their fully-fledged drama, the ethno-federalist Soviet traditions contributed to their exacerbation, because they had contributed to strengthening national identities, symbolically and materially (through financial means), and had hence contributed to the build-up of identities with strongly nationalist tendencies.

According to the 1989 census, South Ossetia had a population of 100,000, with only a fourth of Georgian ethnicity. Accusations of cultural genocide and forced assimilation had traditionally been directed by Ossetians to the Georgian government, without managing, however, to flare up nationalism, which had remained lethargic during the Soviet era.

The hopes created by perestroika and the intolerant nationalism of Georgian President Gamsakhurdia sparked off South Ossetian nationalism once again. The discussion in the Georgian parliament in the early 90s of bills aimed at imposing the use of the Georgian language and reducing the powers of local institutions caused tensions between Ossetians and Georgians to rise, tensions that later rose even more following the refusal by Georgian authorities of accepting the request of changing the status of South Ossetia from Autonomous Region AO (oblast) to Autonomous Republic, ARSS, on the model of Abkhazia and Adjara.

From that moment onwards, also following the decision by the Georgian parliament to withdraw the status of Autonomous Republic, the first armed clashes with the Tbilisi government. These attracted the attention of OSCE, the United Nations and of course Russia, which offered the opposing parties its mediation and peacekeeping services, though from an undoubtedly far from neutral position: one aimed, instead, at considerably strengthening Russian military and strategic presence in the area, in particular in view of controlling oil and gas pipelines, thus discouraging western commercial investments in the area, because considered at risk by investors, to the full advantage of Russian pipelines, seen as by far safer than those passing through Georgian territory.

Another immediate motive of Russian interest in South Ossetia consisted of Russia’s need to halt any further NATO expansion close to its borders and to prevent an opening of the EU, present in the area since 2008 with a Monitoring Mission (EUMM) between the belligerent parties (Russia, South Ossetians and Georgia), the only mission still operational after the forced closure in 2009, under Russian pressure, of the OSCE and UN missions. Hence the importance of the EUMM mission to the European Union as part of CFSP, the Common Foreign Security Policy, and CSDP, the Common Security and Defence Policy and to the international community as a whole.

The EUMM mission in Georgia therefore represents a cornerstone of European projection ability in the sphere of External Action, which has the task to promote European foreign policy in its various political, humanitarian and economic components in function of exporting stability and security to the advantage of the international community and of the specific geopolitical interests of the European Union itself.

The mission also represents the first of its kind that confronts Russia directly, considering that previous EU interventions were far more technical in nature, hence far less political: for example the EUJUST-THEMIS mission, which set out first and foremost with the objective of improving the Georgian prison and legal systems, particularly from the viewpoint of reintegrating the secessionist regions whose independence has been recognized only by Russia and a fistful of other States.


This is an abstract of a Research Paper realized by Gregorio Baggiani you can find clicking here

Gregorio Baggiani is a contributor of "Il Mulino" - online edition- since 2009; scientific collaborator of the Professorship  of History of International  and Eastern Europe Relations at the University of "Roma Tre"; OSCE electoral observer for the Italian Foreign Office

Last modified on Friday, 21 March 2014 09:55

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