Russian-Georgian Relations | Alex Rondeli on July 29

On July 29, just before the tensions in around South Ossetia began to escalate, Alexander Rondeli gave a talk at the Tbilisi Summer Seminars, a weekly lecture series which we were organizing with GFSIS and American Councils. Alexander Rondeli runs the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (which he also set up), has the rank of an ambassador, works closely with the Georgian government, and teaches International Relations.

Rondeli talked about the Georgian Russian relationship, and suggested that ultimately this relationship puts Georgia in the near-impossible situation. For a small state like Georgia, Rondeli suggested, it is the greatest tragedy to have an old-fashioned great power next to it. In this position, a small state has no luxury to make any mistake. Americans are far, and Europe ultimately doesn’t care (“they look at us the way we look at Mongolia”).

Escaping Russia under those circumstances may appear like going against nature, against geography. But becoming part of Russia’s orbit offers a bleak future: according to Rondeli, Georgia could never become democratic and a viable modern nation if it accepted Russia’s domination. Russia had several key interests in keeping Georgia under control. First, it was a linchpin for security in the broader region, and thus part of the global competition with the United States. Georgia is the gate to Central Asia, but also for Russians the gate to the Middle East, and the path to their main ally, Armenia. Second, there was a distinct interest in keeping Turkey away from the South and North Caucasus. And then, thirdly, controlling Georgia meant asserting one’s credibility with all other states. Losing Georgia, conversely, would greatly damage Russia’s bullying power. Given these interests, Russia had little incentive to let Georgia thrive, and to let Georgians determine their own political orientation.

Moreover, Russia had regularly shown spite, with Putin belittling Saakashvili, asking him whether he really thought anyone would come and fight for the Georgians in the South Caucasus. Having dealt with the Russians themselves, the young government had gained a new appreciation of what Shevardnadze had had to go through in dealing with Moscow.

In this way, Rondeli argued that Georgia had little choice: while running up against Russia may appear suicidal, submitting to it entails a certain demise. Without taking some risks, there is no opportunity. Internally, the country’s elite had intense and frank debates, weighing the options and ultimately coming to the conclusion that it faced either complete defeat or complete victory.

Yet Rondeli pointed out that there are several challenges to the pursuit of a successful policy: Much of the country’s elite had emigrated, and Tbilisi had undergone a ‘red-neckization’ as a result. The current foreign policy elite ultimately remained inexperienced, unable to articulate a multivectoral policy that balances Russia with the West — although Rondeli was doubtful whether such a policy would be feasible in the first place. Moreover, Socialism had left deep scars: “Stalin and Lenin still are deep inside of us”, which in turn radicalized the government, giving it the sense that it needs to revolutionize the people, doing it fast, and not just build institutions. But even existing institutions remain weak, pushing people to turn towards a church that carries somewhat problematic political notions. All in all, this meant that there was little cohesion: in battling Russia, “we don’t have the same qualities as the Finns”.

In the lecture, there was no sense of an immediately impending conflagration. But Rondeli made it clear that there were sizable risks: “Misha has learned to provoke the Russians, so that they show themselves for what they are. That’s quite an achievement, but we’re playing with fire.”

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