Georgia’s gradual integration into Europe has been a major aspiration and indeed driving force of the country’s foreign policy for the last two decades. Zurab Zhvania, the late Prime Minister and one of the leading statesman of Georgia since independence, famously captured this sentiment in a 1999 speech to the Council of Europe where he said “I am Georgian and therefore I am European.” More recently, Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014. Georgia’s European course and identity is genuine and integral both to the country’s future and its position in the world.
Implicit in Georgia’s European direction is the belief that Europe, and the west more broadly, provide Georgia with an alternative to, and guarantee against, Russian domination. Integrating into European institutions, and of course ultimately gaining admission into NATO, according to this view, is a buffer against Russia’s economic and military strength. This view is accurate, but it also all but ignores another geographical reality, that Georgia is too close to the Middle East to avoid becoming part of that region as well.
Georgia is closer to the Middle East than to Europe and much closer to the Middle East than to the major capitals of western Europe. Georgia’s historic ties to the Middle East are also strong and central to Georgia’s historical development. Ironically, Georgia’s standing as one of the world’s oldest Christian countries is at the core of Georgia’s European identity, but that claim has its origins in Georgia’s proximity to the Middle East. Christianity originated in the Middle East and took root in nearby Georgia long before getting a foothold in more far flung places like Europe.
Although Georgia’s primary security threat continues to come from Russia and overall geopolitical orientation continues to be towards Europe, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Georgia to avoid a nuanced and thorough approach to the Middle East and to its role in that region. The politics and conflicts of the Middle East are spilling into Georgia with increasing frequency. Of course, that is true of many other countries much further from the Middle East than Georgia is. Nonetheless, Georgia is experiencing this more acutely than most countries.
In recent weeks, Georgia has wrestled with several issues that demonstrate how inextricably Georgia is tied to the Middle East. The question of Georgian Muslims, largely from the Pankisi region, leaving Georgia to fight alongside ISIS has raised security concerns for Georgia. Similarly, the negotiations between the US and Iran have again highlighted the complexity of the bilateral Iran-Georgia relationship. This relationship was already in the spotlight because of visa related issues. Conflicts in the Middle East have also made Georgia a desired destination for refugees fleeing the violence from countries like Iraq and Syria. While none of these issues are comparable national security issues to the threat raised by Russia, taken together they clearly demonstrate the impact events in the Middle East will continue to have on Georgia, and the need for Georgia to craft a proactive foreign policy so that it can stay ahead of these events.
For Georgia, a Middle East policy, or more accurately policies, require more than just a shorthand statement of orientation like being pro-US or looking towards Europe. Because of the multitude of conflicts, most of which are unlikely to go away anytime soon, Georgia needs policies that are thoughtful and recognize the competing interests and interrelated foreign policy problems presented by the Middle East. Georgia’s Middle East policy also needs to be consistent with the rest of its foreign policy.
For this reason, Georgia’s close relationship with the US will inevitably have a significant influence on its approach to the Middle East. While this does not mean Georgia should simply take its lead from the US with regards to the Middle East, it remains true that with regards to major issues in that region, it behooves Georgia to cooperate with the US. Therefore on subjects like support for Israel, opposition to terrorist organizations like ISIS, it is to be expected Georgia’s positions are consistent with those of the US. Georgia is not a power capable of playing a decisive role in any of the growing number of conflicts in the Middle East, but the country can be part of multi-lateral efforts in the region to do things like, for example, combat ISIS. Georgia has already played this role in the Middle East its support for the US led presence in Iraq.
It is not, however, simply a question of taking positions for Georgia, but also of determining how integrated, politically, economically and otherwise, Georgia wants to be into the greater Middle East. For example, in 2014, of Georgia’s eight largest trading partners only one, Turkey, could be described part the Middle East, and even that would require a generous definition of the Middle East. Furthermore, according to Geostat, 69% of Georgia’s exports, and 54% of imports, were the product of trade with either the EU or former Soviet countries. That leaves 31% and 46% respectively for the rest of the world including major trading partners like China, Japan and the US. Clearly Georgia’s trade with the Middle East is a small fraction of its overall trade. There are many reasons, including policy decisions in Tbilisi and political events in the Middle East, that explain this, but it is nonetheless an indication that Georgia is not well integrated into the region to the south; and that Georgia probably is not interested in seeing that occur.
It is easy to understand why Georgia prefers to look west rather than south for its economic integration and political orientation. It is axiomatic that Georgia is better off trading with, and eventually become part of, a block of countries that are wealthy and stable, rather than a region defined by instability and extraordinary gaps both between and within countries between wealth and poverty.
The problem with this approach is that Georgia cannot escape its proximity to this turmoil wracked region. It is therefore better for Georgia to be brought into closer relations with the Middle East, something that is inevitable as the turmoil spreads and continues, on its own terms. This has already begun as Georgians going to fight for ISIS and refugees from the Middle East fleeing to Georgia have become significant issues in recent months. Previously, Israel-Iran tensions have spilled into Georgia as well.
This is particularly significant given Georgia’s status both as the easternmost outpost of Europe and as a strong American ally surrounded by countries and political forces, including Russia to the north, but also in the Middle East, that are have antagonistic relationships with the US. If, however, that is the only lens through which many in the Middle East see Georgia, it will both make it more difficult for Georgia to build ties in many parts of the region, and also potentially raise security challenges for Georgia.
A sound Middle East policy for Georgia therefore requires striking a balance between Georgia’s obligations and position on the doorstep of Europe and NATO with the concrete concerns that are distinct to the region. For example, while continuing to work closely with the US and other western allies on shared goals regarding terrorism, Georgia also needs to remind its western allies that growing refugee crises in the region are much less abstract to Tbilisi than to, for example, Washington. Similarly, while Georgia will strengthen its relationship with the US and increase trade and tourism, by continuing its support and relationship with Israel, this cannot preclude or even threaten greater trade with other countries in the region.
If Georgia is able to accomplish this, they will make themselves more useful to the west and to Europe. If western policy makers see Georgia as a potential go between, negotiator or middle ground where discussions can be conducted, Georgia will be offering something of substantial concrete value to the west. That is much more useful than simply being another place on the edge of the Middle East where into which problems of that region are overflowing.
Georgia is to some degree caught between the pull of further integration into European and western institutions, and the growing conflicts in the Middle East. While the former are appealing and symbolize the bright future to which Georgia aspires, the latter are a reminder of the turmoil and conflict into which Georgia could, through no fault of its own, fall. This is a reflection of the historical and geographical contexts that have always framed the geopolitical challenges faced by Georgia and, of course, strongly influenced Georgia’s political identity. European integration is thus a political goal but also a confirmation of how Georgia sees, or perhaps would like to see, itself. However, this confirmation cannot come at the expense of ignoring the other identities and proximities that have always had enormous impact on Georgia.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.