This article over at EuropeanVoice.com discussing Georgia-Europe relations has recently come to my attention. The author of the article purports to be a Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for the The Economist magazine but declines to give his full name. Still, the article does indeed read a lot like the typical article on Georgia at The Economist lately, which seems to have foregone even a thin mantle of objectivity and factual reporting, and resorted to printing fawning eulogies of the Saakashvili regime which sound like they were made to order. A typical example of this particular genre can be found here.
The central message of the above mentioned article is that Europe should ignore Georgia’s many human rights violations, democratic shortcomings and unpredictable foreign policy, and instead close ranks with its errant Caucasian “ally” yet again. If Europe refrains from backing Georgia we are told, this will amount to “appeasement” of Russia, which according to the article, will set a “dangerous precedent.”Apart from peddling this simplistic, zero-sum geopolitical narrative coated in Cold War-esque language, the article itself is also so full of omissions, distortions, half truths and downright falsehoods about the current political situation in Georgia, that I don’t really know where to start.
For example, the author starts out by describing the reaction of the Georgian government to recent opposition protests which culminated in a violent crackdown and several dead protesters on the 26th of May as “exemplary”, and goes on to tow the government line that casualties were wholly to blame on the activities of the opposition, despite available evidence to the contrary. While the author is right to dismiss the outlandish claims by the Georgian opposition that the country is a dictatorship, the author nonetheless ignores Georgia’s falling ranking with regard to democratic openness, freedom of speech and corruption, as recorded over the last couple of years by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and Transparency International.
Moreover, the author praises Georgia’s “diplomacy” towards its breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while declining to mention that it was cut short by the 2008 August War which Georgia fought with Russia and the separatists over these territories, a war which even an independent EU inquiry of the events has concluded was initiated by the Saakashvili regime. Apart from nearly leading to a full blown crisis in relations between Russia and the West, this war also extinguished what little trust there had been between Georgia and the populations of the two breakaway territories, making the prospect for Georgia to “win back” the “loyalty” of these territories a near impossibility for the foreseeable future. Georgia’s latest efforts to meddle in the volatile North Caucasus has also caused considerable concern among Georgia’s Western partners, in addition to apprehension in the North Caucasus about Georgia’s true motives.
Furthermore, the author’s insistence that Georgia is a “free-market, law-governed, multi-party success story, the next stop after […] South Korea” is very hard to take seriously. This is especially since the Georgian government is known for its heavy handed state-led approach to economic development, including pressuring private investors with extraordinary tax claims and entrapment in politically motivated anti-corruption stings. The courts in Georgia are also bedeviled by a lack of independence and have a near 99% conviction rate, unheard of in any developed democracy. Instead of having a vibrant multi-party political system, Saakashvili’s United National Movement dominates the parliament of Georgia, making the country a de facto one-party state. Smear campaigns against the political opposition are also increasingly commonplace, and a string of bombings in the capital Tbilisi and other towns ostensibly blamed on Russian security services operating out of breakaway Abkhazia might actually turn out to be a false flag operation involving the Georgian government. If that indeed turns out to be true, it would not be the first time.
Last but not least, the author overestimates the fiscal soundness of Georgia’s economy, declining to mention that Georgia’s relative robustness in the face of the Financial Crisis has largely been based on massive external borrowing and plentiful economic aid from Western countries, amounting to a one off payment of 4.6 billion USD in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 war, in addition to several hundred million USD on a yearly basis. The impact of this aid has been highly distortive on domestic politics in Georgia, helping to increase the longevity of the Saakashvili regime long past the point where it should have fallen due to its own political mistakes. Reckoning might be fast approaching however, as financial aid by the West is starting to run out, and the mushrooming Georgian sovereign debt, which now exceeds 9 billion USD or about 25-30% of GDP, might become difficult servicing in the near future in the light of lackluster FDI and an increasing import/export imbalance.
All in all, the unconditional support that the author advocates that Europe should once again show Georgia, or in practice more correctly the Saakashvili regime, would be highly misplaced, and ultimately reinforce a host of negative trends in the country today. These range from the deteriorating democracy and human rights situation in the country, to its prolonged dependence on foreign aid, and the continuation of a foreign policy based on unpredictable political gambits and dangerous brinkmanship. This is an atmosphere of tension which neither Europe, nor the population of Georgia, is likely to be well served by in the long term.