Russia, the Iran Deal and Georgia's Tired Political Narratives

The recent agreement aimed at stopping Iran's development of nuclear weapons has the potential to have a very significant impact on US foreign policy and on the politics of the greater Middle East. There are, as always, many things that could prevent the agreement from being meaningfully realized. The US Senate could refuse to ratify the agreement or otherwise stop it. Iran could break the agreement soon after it goes into effect. A newly elected Republican President of the US could void the agreement in 2017. Nonetheless, if the agreement is ratified and implemented, it will have a big impact on Georgia as well.

The Iran deal is not without its critics. Many believe that Obama has conceded too much to Iran, failed to take the security concerns of Israel into sufficient consideration, or tilted the balance of power in the Middle East too much towards Iran. The validity of these criticisms, and of the agreement itself, will be tested in the coming months and years if the deal is kept in place

For Georgia, the US-Iran agreement may be a reminder that international relations are always susceptible to change and new developments. This deal could lead to a significant warming in Iran's relationship with the west that would remake political relationships within the Middle East, and between countries of the Middle East and the rest of the world. This persistently evolving nature of international politics may seem difficult to believe in Georgia, where renewed Russian aggression in the form of Moscow continuing to move the line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, is evidence of an unchanging Russian view towards Georgia. Georgia’s failure to stop Russia and the inability of the west to provide anything much more than strong words of condemnation also suggest that Georgia’s security challenges are stagnant in nature, but getting worse overall.

The impact of Russia’s latest move is not yet clear, but what is clear is that Moscow believes it can do something like this without any significant consequences from the west, that NATO will continue to equivocate regarding Georgia’s future in that alliance, and that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are drifting even further from Tbilisi’s political orbit with every passing month. That sentence could have been written at almost any time since the conclusion of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Georgia’s security challenges, and the environment in which they face those challenges, have been largely unchanged in the almost seven years since the conclusion of that brief war.

The direction of causality between the frozen nature of the security questions facing Georgia and the at times equally static nature of how Georgia’s political leadership frames these issues is not clear, but it is sometimes very striking. Last weekend was one of those times. The anti-Russia rally, organized by the United National Movement (UNM) sought to draw attention to both Russia’s ongoing encroachment onto Georgian land, as well as what the UNM views as the Georgian government's either inaction or compliance in the face of this. Naturally, this took the form of calling the current pro-Russia and of referring to Bidzina Ivanishivili, the powerful former Prime Minister as a “Russian oligarch.”

In addition to raising tired themes and accusations about the current Georgian government, that get little traction outside of the UNM’s base, this was a moment of impressive audacity by the UNM, a party that when in power was noted for powerful anti-Russian rhetoric, but a distinct inability to stop Moscow from grabbing parts of Georgia. The UNM’s criticism of the current Georgian government was emphatically not substantiated by European Council President Donald Tusk, a man who cannot plausibly be called soft on Russia. Visiting Georgia shortly after Russia’s actions, Tusk told the Georgian leadership “I really appreciate your very responsible reaction; I think it’s very important not only for Georgia, but for the whole region and whole Europe to manage this problem responsibly and with cold blood…It is very important for us to be tough, but also very responsible.” Tusk’s comments are important for several reasons. They underscore the European position on Russia and Georgia, but also are strong rebuttal of the constant UNM accusations about the true nature of Georgia’s current government.

The UNM’s audacity, however, was matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the political clumsiness of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party. This brew of UNM audacity and woefully wanting GD political instincts have been a defining characteristic of Georgian politics since around the time the GD got into power. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s comments that “There are many idlers and they, UNM and their supporters, have nothing else to do. 500 people gathered, that (is) their constitutional right and we are the state, which allows even the (United) National (Movement supporters) to rally and we protect them,” was an unambiguous expression of the contempt with which the Prime Minister holds the UNM. Unfortunately, it also was a missed opportunity by the Prime Minister, as he could have been positioning his party as the leading anti-Russian voice in Russia. By ceding that to the UNM, a party that lost a lot more territory to Russia than the GD ever has, Garibashvili weakened his government’s position and lent more credibility to the UNM’s accusations than was necessary. Garibashvili’s frustration with these UNM tactics and accusations is understandable, but he again took the bait, instead of getting in front of the issue.

The UNM audacity in attributing Russian aggression and land grabbing to the GD being essentially pro-Russia was facilitated by the failure, or perhaps inability, of the governing party, to lead on this issue. A better strategy for the GD government would have been to grab the mantle of anti-Russian sentiment for themselves by organizing a similar anti-Russia rally before the UNM did. This would have allowed the government to form and control the anti-Russia message. Instead the GD allowed the UNM to conflate the anti-Russia message with an anti-GD message. This may not be gaining significant traction inside Georgia, but has some impact outside of Georgia. Thus the GD missed an opportunity to strengthen their rhetorical anti-Russian credentials while reminding Georgians and foreign observers that their Russia policy has been more successful and less reckless than that of their predecessors. The GD, however, did not get in front of the message in this way, thus making it it easy for the UNM to fall back on their own tired talking points.

There is no question that Georgia is in an extremely difficult position with regards to Russia; and the gap between what Georgia’s allies would like to do to help them and what those are able to do, is large and disappointing for Georgia. Given that, the Georgian government, with regards to Russia, is doing a reasonable job under very difficult circumstances. The opposition UNM clearly does not believe that and sees it as in their political interest to keep calling their opponents Russian stooges. This is a political calculation that may or may not be accurate, but it contributes to a political climate where changes to the broader context may be overlooked.

This ongoing, and distracting, political contretemps could, in the bigger picture, lead Georgia to focus less on signifiant geopolitical events. Over the last few years, it has become increasingly apparent that Georgia’s strategic environment, or in the sometimes overused language of Washington, strategic importance, rests not just on being on the periphery of Europe and being threatened by Russia, but by also being close to a volatile and constantly changing Middle East. Accordingly, the ability to be nimble in the face of changes is particularly important for Georgia. 

The Iran deal underscores this. It is not possible to know what the impact of the deal will be, but it a very real possibility that the deal will have a more lasting impact on the region and, therefore, on Georgia. If fears about growing Iranian influence or increased Iranian support for terrorism come to pass, the impact on Georgia could be significant as Tbilisi would become more central to western security calculations. If, however, the deal leads to slowly improving relations between Iran and the west, Georgia could be an important hub for trade, discussions, exchanges and building the groundwork for Iran’s reconciliation with the west.

Georgia needs to be ready for either of these outcomes, or for some combination of the two. Recent weeks are, however, cause for concern. One of the biggest developments in relations between the west and Georgia’s region occurred and the two most prominent parties in the country simply reverted to shopworn scripts that were written years ago.

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