As the world focuses its attention on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine over the past week, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the Caucasus region, where two countries – Georgia and Turkey – offer distinct and important lessons for western policymakers.
Let’s start with Georgia. In 2008, Russia took advantage of a series of mutual provocations between Georgia and Russia to wrest control of two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, from Georgia. In the process, Russia moved troops into Georgia, bombed Tbilisi, and unilaterally recognized both provinces as independent states once the conflict had ended (over the objections of the United States, the EU, NATO, and the UN).
Beyond objecting, however, the United States and Europe did not do anything meaningful. As the conflict was raging, President Bush – at that point in the final months of his presidency – decried that Russia’s actions were “unacceptable in the 21st century” (a line echoed recently by Secretary Kerry in relation to Ukraine) but ultimately did nothing more than use U.S. military aircraft to send humanitarian aid to Georgia. The EU and its major powers, the U.K., France, and Germany, all took typically soft positions, blaming both sides for the violence and calling for an end to hostilities.
But far from losing faith in the United States and Europe due to their weak responses, Georgia has instead spent the past five years since the war with Russia doubling down on integration with the west. The country has appointed one of its most capable politicians, Alex Petriashvili, as Minister for EU and NATO Integration and has a parliamentary committee by the same name headed by Viktor Dolidze, one of the country’s most senior parliamentarians. It devotes a significant amount of diplomatic energy to its ongoing negotiations for an EU Association Agreement as well as NATO accession talks.
Georgia believes that close ties with the west not only offer the best guarantee of Georgian security against Russia; they also believe that such ties offer the strongest chance of bringing Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Georgian control. If Georgia signs an EU Association Agreement, for example, it will become significantly easier for Georgians to travel to EU countries. This and other perks that will enhance the value of Georgian citizenship will entice these two former Georgian provinces to take the politically risky step of eschewing Russia and rejoining Georgia, so the theory goes.
Georgia’s unshakeable commitment to western integration is deeply laudable, which is where Turkey comes in. If Georgia serves as an example of the substantial patience a country can display as it pursues deeper ties with the west, then Turkey helpfully illustrates that such patience is not indefinite.
For 20 years, Turkey worked diligently to become a member of the EU. After initially receiving positive signals and making substantial progress on various accession targets, the talks bogged down in the 2000s, when various EU members – including Germany and France – began to balk at the idea of full-fledged EU membership for Turkey. Turkey, feeling misled and spurned, began to look eastward. Turkish support for EU membership has moved from 70 percent in favor to almost 70 percent against.