Has Georgia Become an... "Elsewhere"? - Edward Lucas's Hard Truth on Georgia
21 July, 2017
Has Georgia Become an... "Elsewhere"? - Edward Lucas's Hard Truth on Georgia
It finally happened this month: the presidents of the United States and Russian Federation meet face to face for the first time. Just a day before that, however, Trump traveled to Warsaw where he quite nonchalantly berated Russia in his strongest terms yet, calling on the Kremlin to “stop destructive activities in Ukraine and elsewhere”. Elsewhere being a rather broad term, surely encompassing Georgia as well, right? Yet, the South Caucasus definitely wasn’t mentioned and it’s not for a lack of destructive actions on Russia’s part: the aptly named “creeping occupation” continues here, as does the “borderization” process, and despite Georgia’s successes on its European path, Abkhazia and South Ossetia seem to be in no rush to ever consider foregoing their “independent status”. That is, if you don’t count Tskhinvali’s recent modus operandi to hold a referendum on joining Russia – a move that the Kremlin is apparently hesitant to sanction. So, from being a trade chip in negotiations between the mighty of this world (in itself not exactly a thrilling prospect), has Georgia been demoted to being just “elsewhere”? This was our prime talking point with Edward Lucas, Senior Editor of The Economist Magazine, who sat down for an interview with GEORGIA TODAY and Panorama TV at the Warsaw Euro-Atlantic Summer Academy program, where he was one of the lead speakers.

-There are concerns that Georgia has been chalked off the agenda of important issues that the West has to negotiate with Russia. What’s your take?

-I’d say that there is a danger of Georgia falling off the agenda. But then again, quite soon it will be visited by Vice-President Pence, and that’s quite a strong message. But still, I think there is a danger, as Georgia’s recent problems seem to be more internal than external. The outside world isn’t that much interested in conflicts revolving around local presidency, government, constitution and so on. They have bigger things to worry about.

-Is there a red line to determine whether it’s on or off the agenda?

-I’d not call it a red line- it’s more of a slope and Georgia is moving down that slope. It has been ever since the elections in 2012. In my view, Russia’s actions continue to be totally unacceptable and we, the West, should be taking a very strong stance on these issues in favor
of Georgia’s sovereignty, particularly on this issue of borderization and the behavior of Russia’s so-called “peacekeepers”. We’re already late on this. But the problem is that we also have a lot going on here as it is, and it’s hard enough to keep Ukraine on the agenda, a country that is nearly ten times bigger than Georgia. So, I’m not optimistic at the moment.

-Does that imply that Georgia has ceased to be a leverage in relations between the States and Russia? With Trump declaring that sanctions will stay unless the situation in Ukraine is solved, where does Georgia come into play?


-I think Georgia, because of its geographic position, always will have some leverage. As long as it has pipelines going across it, there will be big, serious Western energy companies interested in its security. But that geographical position is both an advantage and a disadvantage: it’s in a difficult neighborhood going through difficult times. I think Georgia should be very clear and realistic about this, about what it can achieve. I’m hopeful in the long run as some good things are happening: take the visa-free, for example. It’s very, very important – it came late, but it got done. These are things that make the difference in the long-run. I’d be very interested to see whether the new Franco-German leadership in the European Union will have a more active Eastern policy than it had in the past. I’m reasonably optimistic about that: I think neither Merkel or Macron like the way Russia is behaving and I hope the South Caucasus will be one of the places where they can show that the EU can have a reactive policy towards Russia.

-Regarding showing Russia and Putin what’s what, you recently published an article in which you argue that the West has to find political, not military, means to counter Russia

-I think the real problem here is that the West isn’t properly scared of Russia yet; too many people still think that Russia is a manageable problem. I talk to senior British military officers and they love to talk about what a mess the Russian military is in, how money is running out and that we shouldn’t overestimate Russia’s military might. Partially, I think, they are right; Russia really has a lot of problems. I don’t want to demonize Russia and make it bigger than it is, but then again, we should also be aware that Russia is inflicting most of its damage to us not through military means, but through hybrid warfare. As for what means we should employ against Russia, I’m very much against the idea that we should talk with Russia on the terms it dictates. We should be deterring Russia with other means: we have tremendous assets on our side, particularly our financial system, which the Russians seem to be very fond of. Sanctions are definitely a step in this direction. We should be looking at the assets of the top thousand people in Russia, maybe at visas of the top ten thousand people, because these people, almost without exception, invest their money in the West; they go on holiday to the West, they educate their children in the West, they get medical treatment in the West and so on. We should be saying to them: look, if you preach this anti-Western doctrine in Russia, don’t expect a warm welcome here. And your children can’t finish their education at Cambridge, Sorbonne and so on either. And you can’t expect to come here for medical treatment and you certainly can’t expect to use our financial system to invest the money that you stole from the people of Russia. I like Russian people, I speak Russian, I like Russian literature and think that Russia is basically a European country – I’m all for as much contact with Russian people as possible, I don’t have a problem with 99 % of them, I have a problem with the decision makers. And then there should be a second layer of that: we should have a second layer of sanctions and we should say to Russians, well, if you attack the Baltic States, attack Georgia, or go on attacking Ukraine, in 24 hours we will seize your assets here, which will really hurt you. I’m talking about the big State-end companies: Rosneft, Gazprom, VTB bank and so on, which are basically part of the Russian state. And they will really suffer for it. The western shareholders might suffer, too, but that’s maybe why they should start thinking about selling their shares. In short, we should make Russians think that there is a very powerful deterrent which we will not hesitate to use against them if they do any of the abovementioned.

-Can that kind of response expected if Tskhinvali goes on to hold a quasi-referendum for joining Russia and the Kremlin sanctions it?

Referendums are serious business, so let’s not dignify this piece of political theater with the word ‘referendum’. It’s naught but a political stunt and as you quite rightly said, the Kremlin will decide what the result and outcome would be. If it happens, it will be a kind of mini-Crimea. And I would like to think that there would be a strong response from the West. My suspicion is that Russia will choose to use this as a threat, rather than actually go and implement it. It’s a way of turning up the heat a bit and maybe extracting some concessions from the government in Tbilisi. The hard truth is that Tskhinvali is already a de-facto part of Russia and has been since the early 90s. They can change the label on the jar, but that’s just about it. I’m afraid that with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia will have to wait a long time, some 15-20 years, and it will certainly need a change of regime in Moscow. And when that happens, Georgia should already be a prosperous, strong, attractive country, so that the sensible people in these self-declared republics say that the folly is over and this is our chance to get back. The concentrated use of soft power and a swing of the pendulum in Russia might just bring about the moment that Georgia will be able to get back together again, and I think on a 20 something year timescale, the odds are actually quite good for it.

Author: Vazha Tavberidze

Source: Georgia Today

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