Georgia: A country between a Soviet past and a European future?

By Rafael Serrano Hernández, M1 AlterEurope 2017-2018

During our study trip to Georgia, we discovered a land of multiple contrasts, certainly not an easy place to describe in a few lines. Its capital, Tbilisi, is a very peculiar city. Meandering through its streets, one can find some very old, almost ruined houses next to some very stylish buildings. Its contemporary history is somewhat split in half: its recent past is very strongly linked to the Soviet Union and Russian domination throughout centuries; its present is one full of hope, based on a genuine admiration of Western lifestyle and focused on the perspective of a further integration to the European Union (EU).

According to a public survey made by the National Democratic Institute in March 2018, Russia represents for 65% of people the biggest threat to Georgia’s security. As for which measures would ensure national security, membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gets 26% and membership in EU 10%. The attempts of Georgian government joining the EU have an approval of 75% on a national scale, but they have just 50% of approval amongst ethnic minorities. The dissolution of the Soviet Union is seen as a good thing by 43% of people against 42% who see it as a bad thing. The study says that “if a person claims that dissolution of the Soviet Union was a good thing, there is extremely high probability – 75% – that she/he will support Georgia joining EU.”

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EU Delegation in Georgia.

Looking for the European Union Delegation in Tbilisi, one has to circulate through several battered streets, although the building is not really that far from the main avenues of the city. As we arrived, we were received by the Deputy Head of Political Section, Ms. Monika Csaki. She explained to us that the main mission of the European Union in Georgia is the implementation of political and economic reforms through six different monitoring missions to increase commercial exchanges through the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, but with no perspectives of integration. As a part of Eastern Partner of the European Neighborhood Policy:  “European Union and EU governments have significantly intensified their involvement and political dialogue with Tbilisi. In 2007-2015 EU grants and loans to support the country’s budget were steadily rising and reached 487.66 mln EURO.”  It is then clear that the European Union and its member States are pretty much involved providing financial support in order to give an impulse to political and economic reforms the country needs.

However, since there are no perspectives of further integration, and that there are a few people that remain skeptical about the potential benefits of Georgia approaching the EU because they think it may not be the best security provider nor the best potential economic partner, we may ask: what is the key difference that makes the European Union a better model than the Soviet Union for Georgian people?

The answer to this question from Ms. Csaki’s perspective as an EU official and as a Hungarian diplomat, being Hungary a country that has undergone through its own process of transformation passing  from the Soviet sphere to a full EU integration, is rather simple and clear: despite the fact that people had economic security and free education under the Soviet rule, it is important to remind everyone that there are fundamental values that were not respected at the time and that are promoted by the EU such as democracy, the respect of human rights, and the existence of a free market that provides better possibilities of consumption and a higher life quality in the long term.

During our visit to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we found a totally different point of view for them European integration represents a steady goal in a clear stance against Russian foreign policy. The common background of Soviet oppression as well as the current conflicts with Moscow is gathering some former Soviet countries against the Kremlin’s position and policy goals. The Georgian government is currently backing the Ukrainian agenda in order to convince the international community that the interventions of Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are as illegal and condemnable as the annexation of Crimea. The representative of the United Nations Secretary General, Ms. Irina Yegorova, confirmed us that for both Ukraine and Georgia would like to escalate the discussion about their conflicts with Russia back to the Security Council, but that of course, Russia refuses such possibility. Therefore, the peace talks that take place in Geneva three times a year under the monitoring of the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) remain the only official framework to find a solution to the conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia.

However, the pro-EU position adopted by the Georgian government has become an instrument of security in opposition to the Russian geopolitical strategies: “Russia eventually acquired the image of the enemy in the political discourse, and the rhetoric employed by the ruling party, which evolved into a blend of populism and nationalist ideology, together with internal and foreign policies go trapped in trapped in Western/Russia binary opposition”  These opposition represents in a sense a harsh rupture with a past in which the Soviet Union played a major role in Georgia’s nation building process.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how a country can consciously shape its own future as it keeps on selectively neglecting certain passages of its relatively recent past, as if this part of history lacked of relevance in the way it deals with the present. This is why it was so interesting talking to Professor Olivier Reisner from the Ilia State University. He is an expert in Soviet history who gave us a very detailed analysis of a figure that remains very present in Georgian imaginary: Josef Stalin.

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Lenin and Stalin, Georgian National Museum. Soviet Occupation Exhibition hall.

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Stalin and the Soviet people. Georgian National Museum. Soviet Occupation Exhibition hall.

He describes Stalinism as an ideology by which the Soviet authorities defended the existence of a “demos” where all ethnic groups supposedly belonged and were equally as relevant under the protecting image and policies of Josef Stalin. In a sense, we could argue that the different current ethnic conflicts in Georgia and the Caucasus would at least partially share a common origin: the relative autonomy ethnic groups had under the Stalinist and Soviet scheme and the radical change of their status in a post-Soviet context and the emergence of new different nation-States. According to him, in the year 2013 around 45% of Georgians had a positive perception of Stalin especially in the rural areas. It is actually possible to find souvenirs of Stalin in all main touristic places. Despite the destalinization led by Khrushchev under the Soviet rule and its more recent version led by former president Mikhail Saakashvilli, the symbolic place of Stalin in Georgian nation building process is still difficult to erase. For that, both Soviet history and Stalin’s image should be deconstructed as what they really are: myths. But this intellectual exercise faces two major challenges in contemporary Georgia. First, younger generations of Georgians are not interested in studying history. Second, many sectors of the population and particularly people in rural areas are marginalized, and they end up seeing the Soviet Union as a better provider of security and economic resources than the EU and its member States. Our trip to the region neighboring the Russian Dagestan was a clear example of this.

In the small village of Chantliskure we meet Mukhtar, a local teacher and leader of the Avar community, a Muslim minority that since the fall of the Soviet Union has been forced to move back to the Dagestan, the region where their ancestors originally came from. According to him, the Georgian government openly discriminated the Avar community during the distribution of lands for agriculture and catering after the disappearance of the kolkhoz system. He also claims that people had more chances of personal progress under the Soviet rule, as he himself had the opportunity to learn Russian and go to college, something that has become nearly impossible for the new generations of his community.

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Mukhtar, leader of the Avar community

Interestingly, it is not hard to notice that the further one moves from Tbilisi’s cosmopolite areas and from the city itself, the more important it is to have some knowledge of Russian language in order to communicate with the locals, which is undoubtedly a heritage from Georgia’s Soviet past. Ms. Nino Gogaladze, an official of the OSCE national minority office told us that one of the major challenges for Georgian government is to spread the use of Georgian language all over the country in order to have a major involvement of minorities at the parliament. She acknowledges that minorities had a major advantage during the Soviet: they were integrated into one big education system where Russian language allowed them to communicate amongst them. Unfortunately for them, they cannot address to the Georgian parliament in Russian, and the advantage has become a handicap to integrate into civil society and the democratic system.

The voices defending the Soviet heritage as a positive feature are pretty much an extinguishing minority. The Executive Director of the Caucasian House, Mr. Giorgi Kanashvilli, considers that there is no point in embracing the existing Soviet heritage and keeping a positive view on Russia. For him, there were some positive aspects about the Soviet Union’s policies in Georgia such as industrialization and the promotion of Georgian culture and identity, but they do not compensate the negative aspects such as the lack of political freedom and the multiple massacres. During our visit to the Georgian National Museum, we could observe that this narrative persists, since the Soviet period in Georgia is presented as a period of occupation. This may seem contradictory for a foreign visitor considering that there were many Georgian politicians who participated in the higher spheres of the Soviet State. Regarding this particular issue, Mr. Kanashvilli claims that there were certainly some Georgian politicians highly involved in those spheres, but they did not necessarily speak for the rest of the Georgian population at the time.

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Little girl learning Georgian language. Georgian National Museum. Soviet Occupation Exhibition hall.

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Explanatory plaque about a Soviet “Dead chamber”. Georgian National Museum. Soviet Occupation Exhibition hall.

A good conclusion about the way Georgia and to some extent the Caucasus countries will have to keep on dealing with the remaining traces of their Soviet past and the geopolitical perspectives of a complex future was at some extent described during a lecture at the University of Tbilissi by Professor Tsira Baramidze and the conflict management practitioner collaborating with the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia, Mr. Grazvydas Jasutis. From their point of view, there are well defined geopolitical alliances in the region: the Georgian government as an EU/Western allied, and the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan with a more pro-Russia stance. This positioning would certainly respond to the events of their recent history and the interpretation they have made of their Soviet past. However, it should be performed carefully, since both the EU and Russia, just like the Soviet Union at its time, share many of the characteristics of empires and as such they follow more or less selfish objectives. Therefore, independently of the interests of their allies, reinforcing dialogue and cooperation within and amongst the Caucasus countries is extremely necessary to find a solution to their common problems and particularly to the multiple ethnic conflicts across the whole region, because this could be the only way for Georgia and the Caucasus countries to come to terms with the complexity of their Soviet past and open a brand new chapter in the history of the region.