Sunday | 28 December, 2014

Georgia in a turbulent world: 2014 in review

Calling 2014 turbulent for the world seems almost euphemistic. The world witnessed renewed Russian revanchism with the war in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the emergence of a highly successful militant Islamic organization, Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the persistently tense situation in Israel erupted into another war between Israelis and Palestinians. Not only did the world see conflict, but it also witnessed the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and electoral gains for the far right and left in Europe. Notably, Turkey continued on its path which has swung against secularism and democracy in recent years.

In contrast, Georgia, a country known for its prolonged territorial conflicts and volatile politics, was relatively calm in 2014. This, though, is not to say that the events which shook the world in 2014 did not reverberate through Georgia. Quite to the contrary, the Ukraine crisis resonated in Georgia and the conflict in Syria holds consequences for the country. Georgia’s domestic politics, while tame in comparison to the recent past, also had unexpected and difficult moments.

The crisis in Ukraine reminded the Georgian public of the threat posed by Russia, and for many it was also a reminder of what could have happened in 2008. As a CRRC blog post pointed out in September, Georgians’ perception of Russia as a threat increased during the crisis. Moreover, the crisis in Ukraine hastened the signing of Georgia’s long sought after Association Agreement with the European Union. While the Agreement was originally scheduled to be signed no later than August 2014, after the Ukraine Crisis, the European Union moved up its signing to no later than June 2014, ultimately culminating in the signing on June 27th.

One of the most unexpected outcomes of the Ukraine crisis is the proposed appointments of a number of former Georgian United National Movement officials to the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers. Former Minister of Health and Social Affairs of Georgia, Aleksandre Kvitashvili, and former deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Eka Zguladze, have taken up the same posts in the Ukrainian government. Notably, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili turned down the Vice Premiership of Ukraine to keep his Georgian citizenship. While the proposed appointments have not been received with absolute unanimity from the governing Georgian Dream Coalition, Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili has noted the importance of maintaining good relations with Ukraine.

The Ukraine crisis was not the only global event to reverberate in Georgia in 2014. The war in Syria and Iraq, which has resulted in massive loss of human life and mass displacement, also touched Georgia. After the start of the conflict, Georgia’s previously ultra-liberal visa regime made it relatively easy for Syrians to settle in the country. Notably, some ethnic Abkhaz Syrians fled to Abkhazia from the conflict. This year though, a number of young people from the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia have joined the war in Syria and Iraq, becoming not only members, but also high level commanders of the militant Islamic organization, Islamic State.

On a different note, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration took another step forward this year with agreement on a “Substantive Package” with NATO. This package was given to Georgia to increase interoperability with NATO countries, while also serving as a substitution for a Membership Action Plan which in the context of the Ukraine crisis and the unsettled conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, may have provoked Russia’s ire.

In what some commentators have viewed as a response to NATO’s substantive package, Abkhazia and Russia signed a treaty, including a mutual defense clause similar to Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty. Both Abkhazians and Georgians have heavily criticized the treaty. The Georgian government has described this treaty as a further step in Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia, and Abkhazians have criticized the treaty for giving up too much autonomy. While the first draft of the treaty was titled “Agreement on Alliance and Integration” it was later changed to “Agreement on Alliance and Strategic Partnership” (emphasis added) as a result of Abkhaz protests. Significantly, the Kremlin-favored candidate Raul Khajimba was elected to the de-facto presidency of Abkhazia, following a June revolution in the breakaway republic.

Speaking of entirely domestic events, in 2014, intolerance again manifested itself in Georgia with a number of islamophobic and homophobic events. The most extreme example of islamophobia this year was when residents of Kobuleti decapitated a pig and nailed its head to the front door of a Muslim boarding school in protest of the schools opening. On May 17th, the physical violence of 2013 protests against the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia was avoided since the anti-homophobia rally was cancelled due to the fear of repeated violence. Instead, the Georgian Orthodox Church along with its supporters celebrated a “day of family values” on May 17th, a clear act of symbolic violence.

The political scene was also somewhat turbulent. The Georgian Dream Coalition experienced its first serious crack with the dismissal of Irakli Alasania from the Defense Minister post in November and the subsequent withdrawal of the Free Democrats from the coalition. Notably, the public’s appraisal of the Georgian Dream Coalition’s performance has decreased in 2014. While in November 2013 50% of the population rated their performance as good or very good, only 23% of the population reported the same in August 2014. The municipal elections in 2014, which demonstrated a high level of competition compared to many elections in the past, also held a number of surprises. Importantly, the newly emerged Patriotic Alliance garnered nearly 5% of the vote nationally and forced a second round in gamgebeli elections in Lanchkhuti.

Elections and coalition politics aside, an event in Georgia which remains unsettled to this day is the charging of Mikheil Saakashvili with a number of crimes he allegedly committed while in office. Saakashvili has denied any wrong doing and accused the current government of a political witch hunt. The government has claimed that they are attempting to demonstrate that everyone is equal before the law and that justice, which was precarious during UNM rule, has returned to Georgia.

While the world shook in 2014, Georgia mainly felt the weaker aftershocks of world events in 2014, and although Georgia experienced crises in miniature, it has navigated domestic issues with a relative grace. Still, the crises in Ukraine and Syria left their mark on Georgia, and will continue to impact Georgia in 2015.