Georgia’s Foreign Policy Trilemma: Balance, Bandwagon, or Hedge? Part 2

The first part of this blog post discussed evidence of an association between perceiving Russia as the main threat to Georgia and a preference for a foreign policy that balances against that threat through alliances with the West. The relationship between threat perception and hedging, defined as attempting to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West, is less clear.

A large number of Georgians prefer some form of hedging foreign policy – either a pro-Western policy that maintains good relations with Russia, or a pro-Russian policy that maintains good relations with the West. In absolute terms, the pro-Western hedge group is much larger than the pro-Russian hedge group, and the former is fairly evenly split – 54% to 46% – between those who perceive Russia as the main threat and those who do not. In the pro-Russian hedge group, only 16% identify Russia as the main threat. If we combine all those who expressed a preference for either of the two hedging options – about three quarters of respondents who expressed a foreign policy preference – slightly less than half (44%) identify Russia as the main threat to Georgia (which is about the same as the population as a whole).

Hedging, by design, incorporates the logic of both balancing and bandwagoning. On the one hand, support for the two hedging options mirrors the more uncompromising positions of straight pro-Western or pro-Russian preferences. Identifying Russia as the main threat is positively associated with both a purely pro-Western and pro-Western hedge position as well as negatively associated with both a purely pro-Russian and pro-Russian hedge position.

On the other hand, a hedging strategy seems to be more important for those who do not see Russia as the main threat: this group is more likely to support a pro-Russian policy that also maintains good relations with the West (bottom left quadrant). But those who do see Russia as the main threat seem to prioritise balancing over bandwagoning. At the same time, they are less likely to opt for a policy that maintains good relations with Russia (top right quadrant) than a strictly pro-Western orientation.

Commenting on Serbia’s foreign policy and Belgrade’s attempt to navigate between the West and Russia, a US diplomat once said “You cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far away.” This precarious position for small states is well-known to Georgia and Armenia, and comparing the two cases can be instructive. Georgia and Armenia face similar conditions for reasons of geography and history, and the trilemma of balancing, bandwagoning, and hedging shapes foreign policy choices. Each country risks incurring costs if they lean too far towards the West or towards Russia, and as a matter of self-preservation they have to successfully manage relations with both sides, which also comes with risks. That said, threat perception among their respective publics is very different – Armenians do not see Russia as a threat to the same extent as Georgians – and support for Euro-Atlantic integration is far higher in Georgia.

The intuitive logic of hedging is clearly appealing and it resonates with many Georgians. There is a large domestic constituency in favour of a foreign policy that seeks good relations with both the West and with Russia, especially among the more than 50% who do not identify Russia as the main threat to the country.

The danger, however, of pursuing the best of both worlds is that you end up with the worst of both. Nor should it be forgotten that foreign policy preferences may be explained better by shared identity and values than by threat perception, and that it is a primarily pro-Western policy that also maintains good relations with Russia, and not vice versa, that commands the greatest support among Georgians.

Confronted with multiple competing demands and challenges – from strong public and elite support for greater Euro-Atlantic integration to the persistent tensions between the West and Russia and, not least, the ongoing presence of the Russian military on Georgian territory – Georgia’s politicians and diplomats have their work cut out as they navigate a tough geopolitical neighbourhood.

Note: The analysis uses a multinomial logistic regression. The dependent variable is the foreign policy preference. The base category is ‘Pro-Western’. The table shows the predicted probabilities for the following independent variables (with base category in parentheses): threat perception (all responses other than Russia as main threat), education (higher than secondary level), party support (Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia), and country direction (Georgia is not changing at all). The other independent variables are sex, age group, settlement type, and ethnic minority domain. Party support was recoded into four categories: GD-DG, United National Movement, No party/Don’t know, and Other. Country direction was recoded as wrong direction, right direction, or no change.

Replication code of the full analysis is available here, including alternative model specifications. The data used are available here