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Independence, Institutions and Corruption
06 August, 2015
People talk about Georgia choosing between Russia and the West as if Georgia ended up at a soccer game and, well, since we’re here we may as well pick a side and cheer. But in reality, this choice is vastly different from how people are portraying it.

“When discussing Georgia joining the West or Europe, very often people ask questions such as “What have they done for us?” or “What did they do in 2008?” or “What are they doing
now?” They are looking at Europe and the West in general as if it is an imperial power - if Georgia says nice things, it will receive gifts. It doesn’t work that way.”

Professor Alex Rondeli wrote about this in the past; particularly, his book The Small State in the International System is about how a small independent country can benefit from joining the international system instead of hoping for or seeking a colonial-style alliance. Big states have a different set of threats and opportunities than small states. Small states, though, have a great deal to gain by being a part of an international system rather than part of an alliance based on current and perhaps temporary interests.
When discussing Georgia joining the West or Europe, very often people ask questions such as “What have they done for us?” or “What did they do in 2008?” or “What are they doing now?” They are looking at Europe and the West in general as if it is an imperial power - if Georgia says nice things, it will receive gifts. It doesn’t work that way. It is a community of equals with rules for the institutions within each of its members; most of those institutions are state institutions, others are just institutions regulated by the state. By far the most developed of these is the European Union, with all its preoccupation with micro-rules. Governments and leaders come and go, but the institutions remain and the leadership of a state in that system can only operate within a circumscribed area.
The West, particularly the EU, is not an imperial power; it is not really even a single entity. It is a collection of institutions that can negotiate with other institutions. In a way, that is all it knows how to do. People, including Europeans themselves, sometimes get frustrated that it cannot do more - that it can’t act like a state. But it isn’t a state. That is its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. But Georgia has little experience with strong institutions. Almost every aspect of its history has prevented it from setting up strong independent institutions, even despite the great efforts by Ilia Chavchavadze and others who drank from the Tergi River. For every generation of political leadership since the end of the Soviet Union, we can see this tension and difficulty in building strong institutions. But to join the West and its strong institutions, this work must continue. It will be slow, but it is a requirement.
Russia is a completely different arrangement. It is a kingdom run by one man. It has the beginnings of some institutions but when tested they all instantly dissolve before the relentless brotherhood of political power and corruption. Russia and other anti-institution states create make-believe institutions to mimic real institutions in the West, but nobody believes they are real. They simply provide a veneer of their systems being not as arbitrary as they actually are. The Eurasian Economic Union is an example. It is not a union. It is simply a symbolic intermediary. Joining it is somehow less embarrassing than simply saying, “We will do what Russia says and hope for the best,” but it is in fact the same thing. It has no short-term or long-term benefits because it has no institutional ability to provide them because it is not an institution to begin with.
The real choice that Georgia lies in building or not building institutions - a choice between fair elections, administration, free market and justice system or corruption and autocracy. The Maidan protests in Ukraine were not about Ukraine’s ability to join the EU, they were about corruption of Yanukovich’s government. Putin and Yanukovich didn’t like each other, but Putin was happy to have him there because he was corrupt from top to bottom and thus fit in with Russia’s needs.
The EU is not going to grant gifts to Georgia in the way of some Pasha or the way Putin in theory could. The EU will work to strengthen Georgia’s institutions until they are strong enough to partner with the EU and other international entities. Along the way Georgia will enjoy their benefits and those benefits will belong to Georgia. Unlike gifts granted by a Pasha, they can’t be taken away. That is why independence and strong institutions are so closely intertwined. Let’s hope that Georgia plays the long game and builds its institutions.

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