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In Georgia’s moment of vulnerability, the US should step up engagement

<h5>Davis International Center</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Davis International Center
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on through its seventh month since the escalation of the conflict by Russia on Feb. 24, great strain has been placed on the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia that have deep economic, political, and cultural ties to Russia. While Princeton’s campus community has shown admirable solidarity with Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, there has been less attention devoted towards other countries that also face economic and political headwinds as a result of the war and Russia’s broader aggressive posture. Among the most vulnerable is Georgia, a small nation of more than three and a half million people on the eastern edge of the Black Sea. Its quest to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against a backdrop of separatist conflict, Russian military intervention, and destabilizing domestic political polarization warrants greater concern and solidarity. 

In August 2008, a brief war between Georgia and Russia resulted in the presence of Russian soldiers in Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and later led to Russia’s recognition of these regions as sovereign states. Georgia’s foreign policy, consistently pro-Western since the 2003 Rose Revolution, only intensified in its desire to gain NATO and EU membership in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, just as in the case of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the Donbas in Ukraine, aims to build leverage to force Georgia’s hand. In effect, however, it has driven Georgia to further embrace Western partners as an alternative to acquiescing to Moscow’s dictums.

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Last year, Georgia faced increasing pressure from Russia and its other neighbors to abandon its Atlanticist foreign policy and embrace the proposed 3+3 regional format, including the three South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as the regional powers of Iran, Russia, and Turkey. The vision of regional cooperation offered by 3+3 is violent and incompatible with Georgia’s professed Western orientation, which is why the country has thus far rejected it. However, Georgia cannot ignore its neighbors, and some regional states are not taking no for an answer. Farid Shafiyev of the Center of Analysis of International Relations, a state-aligned Azerbaijani think tank, has stated that the door will always be open to Georgia. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has requested that Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey “explain the benefits of 3+3” to Georgia. Since Russia’s escalation of its war in Ukraine in February, Georgia has stood by Kyiv in international fora while refusing to join in on sanctions or open a so-called “second front” against Russia, which would expose it to further military and economic threats, eliciting Kyiv’s ire.

Georgia’s leading Euro-Atlantic partner, Turkey, has deeply strained ties with its fellow NATO member states, France and the United States, and has shown a tendency in the past decade to cut realpolitik deals with illiberal regional actors rather than confining itself to Euro-Atlantic structures. Turkey remains Georgia’s largest bilateral trading partner and a staunch advocate for its NATO membership, but also a force pushing towards a regional agenda that cuts Europe and North America out of the equation.

Naturally, Russia’s war in Ukraine has focused our attention on Kyiv and Moscow. However, in considering Russia’s abrupt transition from deterrence to compellence with Ukraine, Georgia — the other state promised eventual NATO membership at its Bucharest summit in April 2008 — cannot be ignored in considering the broad strategic picture. In June, the EU offered candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine, but not to Georgia, offering it only “perspective candidacy.” While EU and NATO accession for Georgia remains stalled in the wake of backsliding on reform commitments by the Georgian government, the elite consensus has not reached the point Turkey reached in its negotiations with the EU, where even a notional hope of European integration has died.

As Emil Avdaliani, a Georgian analyst, writes, “the establishment of a new order in the South Caucasus will significantly reduce the influence the collective West held in the region.” Last year’s post-election political settlement negotiated by European Council President Charles Michel to resolve Georgia’s political crisis ended in failure. Far-right violence targeting Georgian LGBTQ+ rights activists further alienated Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic partners. In August 2021, Georgia’s security services began cooperating with Belarus in the “exchange of information on terrorism, extremist and separatist organizations” — all while Georgia expanded flights between Belarus and Turkey in the weeks following Belarus’ forced landing of Ryanair 4978 to seize dissident Roman Prostasevich. Georgia has deported exiled Russian politicians seeking asylum and failed to protect Chechen activists within Georgia from Russian retaliation.

Georgia’s partners in the European Union and United States should continue to support Georgia’s democratic political system and defense against its bellicose neighbor to the north. They should also support continued good ties between Georgia and Turkey as the most realistic mechanism for Euro-Atlantic support for Georgia. Russia has sought to disrupt Georgian-Turkish ties with disinformation, recognizing how significant their relationship is as the most concrete bridge between Georgia and a NATO member state. However, the political crisis in Georgia and its drift away from the Euro-Atlantic world in practice, if not in rhetoric, should disabuse us of illusions of rapid and/or inevitable accession.

All that said, in this moment of vulnerability, Georgians are right to question whether Europe and the United States will really commit to the country’s security and Euro-Atlantic ambitions. As Georgia struggles to handle the economic pressures released by Russia’s war in Ukraine, to absorb thousands of Russians fleeing conscription and sanctions, and to face its own conflicts with Russian occupation forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both Georgia and its Euro-Atlantic partners must act. Relatively small acts of support from the country’s Euro-Atlantic partners, coupled with a withdrawal from gross provocations by both parties in Georgia’s highly polarized domestic politics, would offer a path forward to resolve the systemic economic and political issues that cloud Georgia’s European future. 

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Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs has long been an intellectual center of liberal internationalist support for Euro-Atlantic integration, training the generation of policymakers who led the charge on NATO and EU expansion throughout the past decades. Current Princeton students will likely be in positions of power to shape and build on this legacy. With this in mind, it remains imperative that smaller nations like Georgia get the due attention they deserve in the midst of the destabilizing effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine. While not neglecting Georgia’s outstanding structural challenges, it is high time for Euro-Atlantic countries to live up to commitments made to Georgia in 2008. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the dreams of the Georgian people and an immense setback for this vision of liberal internationalism.

Sam Harshbarger is a junior from Cranbury, N.J. majoring in history with a focus on modern Russia, Turkey, and Eurasia. He is a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a research intern at the New Lines Institute, and an Atid Policy Fellow at the Israel Policy Forum. The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of any institution. He can be reached at sh28@princeton.edu.

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