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Geopolitical Turn in Georgia: Risks and Consequences - Stefan Meister

In a series of interviews on the current processes and ongoing political crisis in Georgia, we spoke with foreign scholars and experts with in-depth knowledge of the Georgian context and the broader region.

The Social Justice Center presents the first interview in this series with Stefan Meister, the Head of the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. From 2019 until 2021, he served as the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s South Caucasus Office. He is the author of numerous analytical articles focusing on Russia and the European Union, the Eastern Partnership, regional politics, and security issues in the South Caucasus.

The interview questions addressed, on one hand, the anxieties surrounding Georgia's path to European integration and the risks and threats posed by the Georgian government’s open confrontation with the West. On the other hand, they focused on the youth at the center of ongoing social protests in Georgia, exploring the reasons for and significance of their involvement in the current resistance movement. This series of interviews also aims to seek possible solutions to the crisis by collecting perspectives from experts and scholars.

1. In your opinion, what are the geopolitical factors underlying the current crisis in Georgia and what can be the potential geopolitical consequences of it?

There are two major developments which have a strong impact on the South Caucasus and Georgia. The 2nd Nagorno Karabakh war in 2020 which has changed the security situation in the South Caucasus and made Azerbaijan and Turkey key actors to shape the regional security order. Russia has lost its role as the regional hegemon and is bargaining with both countries and Iran about the future regional security order. Secondly, the Russian large-scale invasion in Ukraine since February 2022 has ended the post-cold war European security order and has led to a major conflict between Russia and the West which impacts all areas of the relationship. Russia has been weekend as the regional hegemon in all post-Soviet regions, but it is still strong enough to be a major player, disrupter and aggressor in its neighborhoods. At the same time, Russia’s interests in the South Caucasus have changed, even increased since 2022. With Western sanctions policy, it needs new transit routes and the North South Corridor via the South Caucasus has become more important for Moscow. Iran is a key partner in this war against Ukraine and route towards the Indian ocean are more crucial for Russian trade now.

At the same time, the conflict between Russia and the West impacts on all relations of both sides with third countries. NATO has become more active in Europe, the EU has decided to offer Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia a membership perspective without considering Russia’s interests like it was always the case in the past. Georgia is a key country not only for the South Caucasus but also beyond because of its geographic location, legacy of substantial reforms and huge societal support for Euro-Atlantic integration. The EUs offer of a candidate status for Georgia is a major step not only for the country itself but also for the EU in the geopolitical competition with Russia. But the EU is not able to provide security for Georgia. The US is playing a crucial role in the military support of Ukraine but there is a lack of major strategic initiatives and political engagement of Washington and NATO in the South Caucasus and Wider Black Sea region. Turkey like Russia and Iran have an interest to keep the US and the EU out of the South Caucasus. Despite being NATO member and as a key player in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region Turkey has shifted away from the West in the last years. It has made compromises with Russia in the past, increased trade and energy relations and is helping Moscow to circumvent sanctions.

The EU is too weak in terms of security policy and too slow with its reactions to external changes to be a major security actor in the region. But Russia’s large-scale war has securitized every policy area including connectivity, energy and the information sphere. Without security guarantees a country like Georgia which does not control 20 percent of its territory will stay very vulnerable. The current Georgian government has decided to hedge between Russia and the West and tries to benefit economically from both sides. But that will not work. This policy has undermined its strategic path toward the EU and NATO and makes the country more vulnerable for Russian influence, which is becoming increasingly a totalitarian state. Losing this path towards EU and NATO integration would me for Georgia to become again a grey zone. This will further undermine the reform process of the country and will make it more accessible for Russian corruption, informal influence and blackmailing. A next major shift in the current governments policy could be the support of the 3+3 format with the three South Caucasus country as well as Iran, Russia and Turkey. The main aim of the format is, to find regional solutions without Western actors and strengthen authoritarian governance. That would be a major blow for Georgia and would lead to a next major step in decoupling from the EU.

Social protests:

For the first time in the history of independent Georgia, we are witnessing a large-scale pro-EU rally led by young people that has lasted over a month. The mass mobilization of youth in 2023 and 2024 represents a completely new phenomenon in Georgia's politics of resistance. Previous Georgian protest movements were not as dominated by youth as they are now. Demonstrations led by Generation-Z stood out not only for their scale but also for their symbolism and aesthetics. It is clear that the young people participating in these demonstrations are primarily driven by values and ideals of freedom and equality. Another notable aspect of the youth protests is a pronounced sense of patriotism. Georgian flags are everywhere at the demonstrations, and it is common to see participants singing the national anthem and performing traditional dances. It can be concluded that Generation Z is the most patriotic generation in Georgia since the country gained its independence.

2. In your opinion, what is the main motivator for youth’s involvement in politics in current resistance movement in Georgia? What has caused this significant shift in political thinking of the young people protesting today?

Georgia’s generation Z is the result of major shifts which happened in Georgian politics and society after the rose revolution in 2003. The consequent decoupling from Russia and Euro-Atlantic course of the former government and to some extend at least in the first years of the current government has opened the country towards deeper cooperation with the EU and the US. This has created opportunities for more exchange with European countries and the US, visa liberalization and Association Agreement between Georgia and the EU have helped to grow a young generation which has different values and is more European than their parents or any older generation. As a result of this change of values of the young generation this generation is now demonstrating for its European future. All these developments have shifted Georgia away from Russia and its Soviet legacy. It has made parts of the society more tolerant, open and democratic. At the same time, there was not an institutionalization of the changes, informal politics and personalization are still dominant in Georgia. The interest of the elites to stay in power, to weaken political competition and undermine checks and balances are still present. Polarization of politics and society is still a key feature for Georgian politics as well as for the ruling party as for the opposition. Here the values of the ruling elites and the young generation differ fundamentally. In the opposite, Georgia has become increasingly an authoritarian country in the last year, with growing manipulation and control of the society by the ruling party and undermining the principles of European integration. For the young generation who now demonstrate, this is about their own future, their political orientation and fundamental values. The foreign agent law, LGBT and media laws of the current government will undermine all the principle they share. This young generation understands, that if the Georgian Dream government is further moving on its path towards an authoritarian state, European integration will be stopped, and they can become a lost generation which will further leave the country. All the progress the Georgian state and society has made in the past 20 years will be lost and Georgia will become again a grey zone.

Possible solutions to a Crisis:

There is a significant distrust toward the country's political parties, both ruling and opposition. Many Georgians feel that no political party truly represents them. The opposition is quote weak and unable to effectively challenge the ruling party, which has consolidated considerable economic and political power. This profound distrust, coupled with political and social divisions, has worked in favor of Georgian Dream, enabling it to retain its grip on power.

3. Considering the persistent societal polarization and deep mistrust towards political opposition, what can be the solution to navigating out of this crisis and alleviating the present situation?

The parliamentary election in October will be the crucial moment for change. This election will decide about the future path of the country. When an anti-EU government is reelected, the EU will withdraw the candidate status and rethink its relations with Georgia fundamentally. Therefore, it is crucial that this election is free and fair and that the Georgian people can decide where they want to go. If there are major manipulations or massive violence against civil society by the Georgian Dream government the reaction will be major sanctions against the responsible persons by the EU. What Georgia needs is a major change of the current political game. Under the leadership of the current president Salome Zurabishvili there could be a united platform which stand for European integration which can after winning the election start major changes in reforming the political system. It needs space in the political system for a new generation of actors who enter politics and can create alternatives to current political actors. They should come from civil society. The bankruptcy of the current and former elites to lead the country in the interest of the society needs to be responded by the creation of political alternatives. But that needs a political environment where changes of the system are possible without polarization and vested interests. Furthermore, the institutionalized civil society needs more contacts with the society outside the capital. That many Georgians understand Tbilisi civil society organizations as part of the elite makes it easier for the ruling parts to manipulate the public opinion. How to institutionalize democratic practices, to make the society less socially vulnerable and support value changes away from the Soviet legacy also in the rural areas of the country will decide about the further development of Georgia.

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