Times may change but some things never do. Whenever a government of a small country has been in power too long, people start discussing its foreign policy orientation. Usually this is a debate about that government, not the actual subject: if you don’t like them, you say the country is better off with other friends. Then a new government is elected, its foreign orientation is generally accepted for a while, then the cycle starts again.
Former Georgian president Misha Saakashvili was always banging on about how his country could be the Dubai, Singapore or Switzerland of the Caucasus – anything other than Georgia. This told everyone a lot about how much he actually cared about the country and its people. Consequently much debate emerged: should the Government of Georgia continue aggressively courting the West, whilst behaving a way no Western government would accept of one of their club? Or should it develop a stronger working relationship with modern Russia, its looming neighbour, or take a neutral position?
When Misha was displaced, the new government, though derided as pro-Russian by Misha’s supporters, continued the country’s pro-Western course and has achieved more in that direction than Misha ever did. As yet, however, the Georgian people are still not seeing any material benefits from this decision. In response, the idea is now growing that in one respect the hated Misha might have been wiser than he knew. Maybe Georgia would be better off as a neutral Switzerland than the 51st US state, however utopian that may seem in the geopolitical reality.
Though clearly part of the West in political-orientation, Switzerland isn’t in the EU. It remains a neutral country, unwilling to enter into any alliance which might alter that situation, and does business with everybody on its own terms. Given the protests in Georgia over some aspects of EU harmonisation such as the anti-discrimination laws – held by the protestors to be an open encouragement of homosexuality and child abuse – this option is a clearer reflection of where the Georgian public actually stands right now.
The success of anti-EU parties across the continent in the last two European elections provides further confirmation that hostility to the EU, rather than the West itself, is only likely to grow in Georgia over time. This does not in itself imply neutrality, but it does imply that Georgia could do better by inventing its own, more attractive, rules and providing an alternative structure for those who need one – which is how Switzerland transformed itself from a desperately poor country, with government-sponsored emigration, into a byword for wealth and success.
Igor Giorgadze, head of one of the opposition blocs in Georgia, made the following comparison as early as 2006:
“Georgia, as a poor country needs to be balanced, neither pro-Russian nor pro-US … its model should not be Palestine and permanent battle, but Switzerland and permanent prosperity.”
We have seen in Ukraine what happens to countries which seek to maintain balance when powerful forces want them on one side or the other. But Georgia is not Ukraine. It is not split down the middle into opposing camps of people with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who would automatically incline towards one or other of the great powers.
Georgians are not Russians, and are very conscious of that, but also conscious of their difference from members of Western nations, who they see as distant cousins rather than brothers. The EU offers ostensible material benefit but no enduring role for Georgian representatives. Georgians want it for what they can get out of it, not what they can contribute to it.
Georgians see their contribution to mankind as what you see in every street in Tbilisi – Georgian wine, food, cultural artifacts, traditions, clothing, mentality. Like the Swiss, they do things their way, and are not going to put some greater European identity, which they had no hand in creating, ahead of what they are.
Nor is Georgia moving in a noticeably more European direction in its internal politics. The terror of the former totalitarian regime has gone. But it is still effectively a one party state, in which many of the same faces and habits are back in power under a different banner. Although fair elections are being held, effective power lies with one man, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose nominees for the big posts win elections simply because they are his nominees, despite having little or no support in their own right amongst the electors, most of whom had never heard of them before he nominated them.
If only Georgians could look past their genuine need to make a fast buck, and their tendency to fawn over everything “Western” because they think this is how they can do it, they would see that the country could act as a buffer between Russia and the West by exploiting its inbuilt advantages as a niche market. For example, it has the facilities to develop into a centre of excellence for the rehabilitation and care of the most vulnerable, who are in that condition because they have been failed in their home countries. This in turn would develop Georgia’s tourism and agriculture, as people will always want such a place to exist in the hope it will help them one day.
Georgia could also become a centre of excellence for education, based on location theory and its intellectual capacity. It has a plethora of universities and professors, and a very educated population: almost everybody has at least one degree, and during the Soviet period Georgians were consistently portrayed in films as highly educated and highly cultured.
Now all that education gets Georgians is the opportunity to go to Western universities and compete for jobs in the West, where Georgia is seen as backward and unstable and its people “other”. If Georgia could concentrate on niche areas of education, and use its existing resources to become a world leader in these fields, it would gain the country and its people credibility with the educated class which would ensure its development for decades to come.
Georgia is a small country, with no great natural resources. It cannot compete in global markets which require mass production. But in certain specialised areas, such as those listed above, it does have advantages it can exploit. In these respects too Switzerland provides a suitable model.
Switzerland was very poor because its natural resources, though greater than Georgia’s, gave it no advantage over neighbouring countries. When it discovered that being neutral gave it advantages in the worlds of finance and commerce, because it could make its own rules, it flowered as few countries have ever done whilst retaining its very distinct political system and traditions.
Switzerland can take money from anywhere but is under no obligation to abandon its principles when doing so. This is because it offers every country an alternative which works, not one achieved by political horse trading. Furthermore, dealing with Switzerland does not mean damaging relations with any other partner because it is neutral, it is not on the other side of any divide your country is on. Georgia has much to gain by persuading its Western friends that they can show how magnanimous they are, and thus gain further justification for their less savoury conduct, if they guaranteed the country’s neutrality, and allowed it to provide its own alternatives to the existing mechanisms which always leave some by the wayside, in every country.
Europe without the EU
The cost of living in Switzerland is famously high, more so than in most if not all EU countries. Yet this is not prompting mass emigration to more amenable countries, as its long centuries of poverty did. Switzerland is expensive because its people can afford to pay those prices, and have got to that point not by neither rejecting nor embracing the EU, but developing an alternative which Europeans find better than what their own countries are offering them.
Switzerland’s political structure, in which power effectively rests with the small cantons rather than the national government, also has undeniable advantages for Georgia. Since the overthrow of the democratically elected first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, there has been a radical disconnection between the democratic will, and therefore democratic control, of Georgians and those who govern them.
Both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili had overwhelming popular support when first elected, but these were the alternatives Georgians were allowed to have by someone else. A system based on genuine local control of resources and appointments would be alien to most Georgians, because they only had brief experience of it, but is consistent with what they continually say they want, as the promises each political candidate feels obliged to make, even though they do not intend to deliver, testify.
Switzerland has geographical advantages by being in the middle of Europe, accessible to all. Georgia is almost the geographical centre of the world’s land masses. The actual point is about a hundred miles north of Ankara, but the population centres are to the east of this, making Georgia effectively the most central country of all.
Global development is now being driven by the East, with China and India emerging alongside the traditional powerhouses of Singapore and Japan, but the wealth and influence they seek to emulate are in the West. Georgia is best equipped, geographically and by culture, to act as the honest broker between these blocs by offering something different again which addresses their needs, should it wish to do so.
Bidzina Ivanishvili used similar language to Saakashvili when he took over, saying he would establish levels of democracy in Georgia which would astonish the region. As one of his opponents, Nino Burjanadze, has pointed out, removing the state terror is not an achievement, it is simply a reversion to the norm: this is how things are supposed to be, everywhere, there is nothing astonishing about it. If this alone is what Ivanishvili will achieve in Georgia, the “Georgian Dream” his party calls itself will remain just that.
Now the debates on orientation are starting again and Saakashvili’s legacy is being seen more positively than before – a very dangerous thing, but the product of broken promises. Georgians are discovering for themselves that Europe and neutrality, not the EU and NATO, are surer means of achieving what they really want. It is in everyone’s interests for the Government of Georgia to cotton on to this, rather than pursuing the EU for the sake of it. Georgia has nothing to offer expect the things that make it Georgian, and those things will always be incompatible with the role it would have to play as a tiny client of the EU.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.