Advantage: Georgia

Richard Weitz Contributor
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As American voters ponder which candidates can best manage their foreign-policy challenges, they should rejoice that they have some strong foreign partners equally committed to liberal democratic values. On October 8, the approximately three million voters of the former Soviet republic of Georgia will hold their own national elections, choosing a new parliament.

Georgia has consolidated its democratic transition. It now has one of the most competitive electoral systems in the former Soviet Union, where one-party authoritarian political systems are the norm. Overcoming two decades of violent presidential transitions and other maladies, Georgia in 2012 had a peaceful and constitutional political transition, a rarity in the former Soviet bloc. Voters gave the new Georgia Dream Party a mandate that it has since used to make needed political, economic, and security reforms.

This year’s ballot again meets a critical democratic litmus test—the outcome has not been pre-cooked. Many parties are competing and the new government will likely include several of them. The right of assembly and freedom of expression have also been largely respected. Georgian politicians and media express a diverse range of views on a wide range of subjects.

To its credit, the incumbent government has agreed that international election monitors will have comprehensive access during the campaign and voting. The government also oversaw important reforms that transformed Georgia’s top-heavy presidential system into a more balanced polity, with a strong prime minister who rules through a legislative majority.

As in the United States, campaign rhetoric among Georgians can become heated. But after the ballot, we will hopefully see a trans-partisan consensus on further media and judicial reforms to enhance the autonomy of both institutions. It might take longer for divisions within the parties to heal, since personalities still weigh more heavily than platforms in Georgia as well as the United States.

In terms of foreign policy, the government has succeeded in depersonalizing its dispute with the Kremlin and toned down Georgia’s rhetorical conflict with Russia, a wise move given the explosive and unpredictable dangers of triggering the Kremlin’s wrath.

Russia occupies the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which amounts to one-fifth of Georgia’s territory. Georgians will never accept their loss, but they cannot end Russia’s occupation of these regions until Moscow moderates its Georgian policies or the Western democracies fully embrace Georgia as one of their own. The West needs to make a greater effort here since Moscow manipulates these frozen conflicts for leverage with the conflict parties.

Since 2009, Georgia and the United States have been in a Strategic Partnership that commits both countries to further Georgia’s democratization, economic development, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Even before then, the United States has been providing Georgia with considerable economic and other assistance.

Tbilisi and Washington have insisted on the impermissibility of changing national borders by force and the right of every country to choose what alliances and international organizations to join. Despite Washington’s best efforts and Georgia’s achievements, however, several European governments have resisted granting Georgia membership in the European Union or the NATO military alliance.

Even without membership, Georgia is a net security provider to NATO. For instance, the country has been the largest per capita contributor to coalition military efforts in Afghanistan. The Georgian armed forces have shed their Soviet roots and adopted Western tactics, techniques, and procedures that have enhanced their interoperability with NATO and the U.S. military.

Besides its critical position on Russia’s southern flank, Georgia offers Western countries a front-line partner in addressing security issues related to Iran, Turkey, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. Tbilisi has managed to successfully navigate the crisscrossing security tensions of its neighborhood and sustain decent ties with all its adjoining states, except for Russia.

This July’s NATO summit issued a joint statement praising Georgia’s military contributions to the Afghan mission and reaffirming non-recognition of Moscow’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also augmented NATO’s training, exercises, and other capability-building, such as for cyber and air defense. But the allies again deferred the membership issue, declining to give Georgia a Membership Action Plan or a way to join without one.

Georgians’ economic achievements are equally admirable. Georgians have made much progress in reducing commercial regulations and bureaucratic barriers, decreasing corruption and organized crime, and attracting foreign direct investment. Although Georgia lacks natural riches like oil and gas, thanks to an extensive infrastructure modernization program, the country is becoming a regional energy and transportation hub. Pipelines, railways, and roads traverse Central Asia to connect Europe to Caspian energy resources and Asian markets. In 2014, Georgia and the EU signed an Association Agreement that established a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, which entered into force this summer.

Unfortunately, some Georgian politicians have chosen to capitalize on popular frustration with weak Western support for Georgia’s NATO and the EU by advocating policies more favorable to Russia. Losing Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation would represent a setback for Americans as well as Georgians. Excluding the Baltic states, there are very few genuine democracies, and friends of the United States, left in Eurasia.

For Washington’s part, the next U.S. presidential administration will need to move decisively to strengthen this critical partnership.

Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.