Georgia in the Shadow of Putin

With Crimea lost to Vladimir Putin’s blunt annexation policy, European political leaders have, with increasing vigor, warned the Kremlin of the grave consequences their actions might carry. Worried that “the unlawful attempt to alter recognized borders in our European neighborhood … will open Pandora’s Box,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier threatened “far-reaching and incisive measures,” should Russia attempt to claim additional territory beyond Crimea.

At a time when leaders in a number of former Soviet states are watching Putin’s demonstration of power in Ukraine with increasing distress, the European Union needs to decide what price it is ultimately willing to pay to put the brakes on Russian aggression. Otherwise the gap between rhetoric and the actions the EU can feasibly take without overextending itself will continue to widen.

In the republic of Georgia in particular, where the Kremlin’s imperial aspirations were painfully felt first-hand in 2008, many are worried about unhindered Russian expansion. Observers have plenty of comparisons to draw between Georgia and Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia. The Russo-Georgian war, which lead to the de facto Russian annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in some ways appears like a precursor to the current crisis in the Crimea, although in the sequence of events and the Russian strategic interest is somewhat different in each case. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who took office in November, also resembles ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych more than his anti-Russian predecessor Mikheil Saakashvili. Tension between the rival factions showed recently when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, commenting on a government investigation of the prison system, said he would “not accept criticism from [the] so-called opposition, the United National Movement,” the party of Saakashvili, which received 40 percent in the last elections, in 2012, but whom he did “not consider as an opponent.” Indeed, with a government leaning toward Moscow and an ethnically and politically fragmented population, the political situation in Georgia resembles pre-Euromaidan Ukraine more than it did back in August 2008.

On the whole, though, there is generally a positive attitude among Georgian leadership toward moving closer to the European Union. The Georgian government has welcomed with relief remarks from Stefan Fule, EU commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy, who met with Georgian leadership, opposition, and civil society representatives at the beginning of March and expressed serious concern about “Russia’s behavior [also] here in Georgia.” Fule has also reassured Georgian leadership that Brussels would support the country’s plans to sign an EU accession agreement, and Fule and Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze appear to share a similar view on events in Ukraine, as the Georgian chief diplomat spoke about the “occupation” of Crimea.

The Georgian government’s affability and a positive public opinion toward EU accession is, however, not unconditional, and will require continued commitment and decisive actions on part of the Europeans. Former President Saakashvili, now leader of the opposition, has identified such determination as the key to counteracting Russia’s imperial ambitions and safeguarding former Soviet states’ independent political futures, writing that “Russia always overestimates its power and western democracies usually underestimate theirs.”

The language used by Fule, who expressed the EU’s willingness to stand firmly by the Georgians, should they face “any kind of pressure” because of their willingness to sign the association agreement, certainly goes in the right direction.

Others outside Georgia, such as Moldova, are watching anxiously as well for developments in Crimea and the Western reactions they provoke. Certainly some are wondering if the large Russian force that has assembled on Ukraine’s border is destined to traverse the country and make its way to Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region. Even the authoritarian governments in the five Central Asian states, all home to large populations of ethnic Russians, look on warily. From Kazakhstan to Tajikistan, leaders find it increasingly harder to trust the Kremlin in matters of economic cooperation and with regard to supposed political noninterference. Besides, large-scale, strategically important Russian military installations exist not only in Crimea, but also in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Add to that the ethnic Russian populations whom Putin could deem “in need of protection” and there is certainly enough of a pretext for Russian action in the region, should political conditions in one of those five nations deteriorate—either organically from within Georgian society, or following orchestrated action from outside the country.

The European Union now faces the delicate balancing act of sending some clear signals to the former Soviet republics to demonstrate that it can, in fact, stand by its partners in the face of Russian aggression. This does, and should not, extend to military action, but the EU must signal readiness and ability to take on further economic hardship by cutting ties to Russia. At the same time, the EU must pay careful attention not to play the game according to Putin’s rules, and make its diplomatic moves appear like desperate attempts to pull these countries out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, and into the European one. Putin’s handling of Ukraine by itself should already be sufficient to make regional leaders—from Georgia all the way to Tajikistan—feel increasingly uneasy.

Harald Edinger is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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