The View from Tbilisi

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His Excellency Mr Grigol VashadzeA lecture by His Excellency Mr Grigol Vashadze, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Georgia.

In his lecture, Minister Vashadze offered his perspective on the outcome of the recent parliamentary elections in Russia and assess how these results may influence Russian foreign policy towards Georgia and the Caucasus. Amidst the floundering peace talks in Geneva, he outlined Georgia's objectives to engage with the people residing in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali /South Ossetia, currently occupied by Russian troops. Putting Georgia's progress since the Rose Revolution in context of the renewed focus by the international community on democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia, he will explain Georgia's standpoint and contribution in the region.

 

The speech

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you in the Royal United Service Institute, which has been one of the oldest and most honorable institutions for fundamental researches in the areas of war, industry and society since 19th century.

Even a quarter of a century ago it would be unthinkable to me, and I guess, to any of you, that the Foreign Minister of free and independent Georgia  would have had privilege to talk to such a distinguished audience.

Many thanks for that.

I would like to share with you my views as seen from Tbilisi on developments in Georgia and its neighbourhood, which I believe bears significance for our region, the rest of Europe and beyond.

As you are well aware, over the last few years Georgia managed to transform itself from a nearly failed state into a functioning democracy with stable institutions, corruption free public sector and a growing economy.  

Streamlining of legislation, dramatically changing the law enforcement system including introduction of a new patrol police, reforming education sector, simplifying licensing and permissions procedures in business, as well as in public and civil registries etc, made Georgia a true Success Story, which over years has been commended by the refutable international agencies.

Dramatic institutional changes have helped Georgia to gain tangible results in the foreign policy field as well, including in its quest for the European and Euro-Atlantic integration. 

It's worth to note that the absolute majority of the Georgian society is Euro optimist. Georgia belongs to Europe due to our history, geography, culture and the value system. We make it no secret to anyone that the ultimate strategic foreign policy goal of Georgia is a full-fledged membership of the EU.

At the same time, we have no illusions that we may pass the road leading to the Union quickly. Our tactics are clear. We are for gradual integration, for a very conservative step by step policy which in the short to middle-term perspective is directed towards achieving the Four Freedoms with the EU - free movement of goods, capital, services and people. 

And we already have some important achievements in this direction:   

Last year we have signed the Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements with the EU. Georgia's outstanding record in fulfilling readmission requests has created a solid ground for the EU and Georgia to move to the next stage where we will start dialogue on visa liberalization.

Negotiations on the Association Agreement with the EU, which is primarily political tool, proceed progressively and, at present, considerable chunk of the text of the Agreement is provisionally agreed.

Few days ago, and we are particularly proud of that, the EU announced its decision to open negotiations with Georgia on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.  

Moreover, we are actively involved in the Eastern Partnership initiative, which is a special mechanism and valuable institute, both to approximate our region with the EU and to create a forum in which the 6 partner countries can exchange ideas among them and with the Union.

As we work to build a stronger democracy internally and gradually move closer to the EU, we all understand that one cannot have development without security.

Thereby, we have been relentlessly pursuing the NATO accession agenda making a progress in that direction as well.

In this respect, the commitment taken by the Alliance at 2008 Bucharest Summit, that Georgia would become a member, was indeed of historic relevance to us, which was further substantiated by establishing NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC), in the immediate aftermath of Russia's aggression against Georgia in August 2008.

Due to the reform process, Georgia acquired the institutional capacity necessary to meet the NATO standards and contribute to the common Euro-Atlantic security.

Moreover, notwithstanding the volatile domestic and regional security environment, my country actively participates in the NATO led operations. We have deployed about 1000 troops in Afghanistan without national caveats, most of them serving in Helmand province - one of the most dangerous places in the world. And despite the casualties we have suffered, we have decided to almost double our presence becoming the largest non-NATO troop contributor.

And we definitely are not doing this in order to get a ticket to the Alliance. That would be useless. We simply share the same threat perception with the Allies and, being a future member, we are very much concerned about the success or failure of the Alliance.   

Over these years, Georgia has become a model of democratic transformation for the region. In fact, we have many visitors from different countries who come to learn our reforms in the field of law enforcement, judiciary, public administration etc. 

Simultaneously, we are steadily advancing our Western integration agenda, while pursuing active diplomacy on the regional and global levels. Our relationship with Azerbaijan and Turkey has developed into the strategic partnership, while our cooperation with Armenia has never been so fruitful and dynamic before. The same is true with other regional countries - the Black Sea unites rather than divides us. With the European states, I believe, we have achieved full understanding on key strategic issues regarding Georgia's place in the European and Euro-Atlantic family. There are differences about timing and the technical criteria, which we are working on. With the United States, we have institutionalized our relations by signing the Charter on Strategic Partnership. We managed to reach out to the distant countries in Asia, Central and Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, in this positive equation, relations with Russia remain to be the very dark spot and the major threat to our national security as Moscow does its best to undermine Georgia's statehood, its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

According to the Kremlin logic, Georgia sets a "dangerous precedent" for other regional states, who may also decide in favour of the Western political course threatening the Russian dominance in the post-Soviet area. Moreover, Georgian democracy can be "infectious" for Russian society itself, undermining Putin's corrupt and autocratic regime, the signs of which has been displayed by the recent protests in Russia.

Another reason, why Moscow would like to destroy Georgian democracy is geo-politics, and the Russian officials do not hide it.

Georgia's geostrategic location and the Kremlin's desire to restore its empire and dominance over the former Soviet space are main reasons for that. Recent move of the Russian leadership to create the "Eurasian Economic Union" is nothing else but an attempt to build a quasi Soviet Union by accentuating the necessity of economic integration for the very beginning.  

Reinventing the USSR has long been Mr. Putin's geostrategic goal which for many reasons cannot be achieved without bringing Georgia back to the Russian orbit of political and economic influence. Representing a natural bottleneck of South Caucasus, Caspian and Central Asian regions in the western direction, Georgia provides the shortest alternative route for transporting Central Asian and Caspian hydrocarbons to Europe.

The geopolitical importance of Georgia is well understood in Moscow, especially in the light of its explicitly declared neo-Soviet ambitions. In fact, Moscow never hesitated to use force in order to assert its influence in Georgia.  

Moscow usually tried to justify the military invasion of Georgia in August 2008 as an attempt to "protect Abkhazian and Ossetian peoples against Georgian aggression". However President Medvedev's recent cynical confession makes obvious even for the most skeptically minded people the true motives of Kremlin, I quote:

"Had we stumbled in 2008, there would have been different geopolitical picture, and certain number of countries which had been compelled to be drawn into the North Atlantic Alliance, most likely would have already been there."

Although President Medvedev's revelations are self-explanatory, I nevertheless believe that some clarifications are necessary since we are often asked to start a dialogue with Russia and try to settle our disagreements.

In fact Georgia is prepared to discuss with Russia any problematic issue at any level without preconditions. The successfully conducted negotiations, related to Russia's accession to the WTO, demonstrate our constructive approach. However, we should understand the nature of the country we are talking about and learn historic lessons.

Georgia has long experience of being deceived and betrayed by Russia; just to name few:

  • In violation of the Moscow Treaty of May 7, 1920 signed between Soviet Russia (RSFSR) and the Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG), the Russian Bolshevik state reoccupied Georgia in February 1921 and imposed 70 years of communist tyranny on it.
  • The vast number of international agreements signed between Georgia and Russia since the collapse of the USSR, has been breached by Moscow including the Six Point Cease-Fire Agreement of August 2008.

In my view, we need to first distinguish which Russia we want to talk to: 

Imaginary Russia which is ruled by 'competent', 'responsible', 'progressive' leaders, who participate and win democratic elections, or Russia, who cannot come to terms with the demise of the Soviet Empire and pursue a revisionist foreign policy agenda, while being corrupt and autocratic domestically, denies its people their fundamental rights.   

In fact, this country is torn apart with deep contradictions, which shape both the habitual behavour of the Russian state and the way it is perceived on the international arena.

The first contradiction I would like to discuss is huge disproportion between the vast size of its territory and increasing tempo of its depopulation.

After the Soviet break-up, Russian territory shrank from 22 million to 17 million sq. kilometers, still possessing approximately 1/8 of the world's landmass. But the size of population almost halved with less than 140 million as compared to 270 million of the Soviet population in 1990. It is noteworthy that strategic and resource-rich Siberia faces the worst demographic decrease with just 25mln of population.

According to UN data in 1950, what is now the Russian Federation had the fourth largest population in the world, but by 2007, it ranked 9th globally, legging behind Bangladesh and Nigeria. By 2050, it is estimated, that Russian population will have fallen behind that of Vietnam. 

It is impossible to understand why the resources of this country are directed to seize   parts of the Georgian soil when they cannot take care of their massive land in Eurasia.

There is no need to explain, that without adequate demographic balance and sufficient number of young and competent work force, the economy of any country will be seriously challenged. 

This leads me to the second contradiction about Russia, which is its Economy.

In every normal country politics and economy serve the people with the aim to ensure prosperity and the stable development of a nation. In Russia, it is vice versa - the economy serves to autocratic politicians and their revisionist political agenda, which in fact has nothing to do with the real needs of the Russian people. To make the picture more colorful, add to these the excessive bureaucracy and endemic corruption, which amounts up to 70% of the budget.  

This was the case during the Soviet times; this is the case today as well. And Russia's hydrocarbon addicted economy, led by Gazprom is the most vivid example to that.

Financial flow of Gazprom has been negative over the resent years - volume of investment exceeded the profit. Development of new fields for obtaining hydrocarbons will become even more costly as they are located close to the polar circle.

Gazprom has already lost serious volumes of its sales on the European market. It has lost the one third of its share on it - although the demand on gas on the European market over the last three years did not decline but further increased.

These are the consequences of corruption and politically motivated decisions reflected in unreasonable investment policy and lack of flexibility on export markets, which frequently run counter to the market logic as they are used as a political instrument rather than the means of profit. 

In fact, the country's economy is being mortally damaged by the Dutch disease - the so called "curse of oil". Its major dependence on the row material export impedes its economic diversification and development.

According to the ex-finance Minister of the Russian Federation Kudrin, who was sacked last September because of his objection to the increased military spending, in order to overcome the economic crisis, the country needs to obtain a deficit free budget by year 2015 at the oil price $90 per barrel.

However, in his mind, Russia is running out of time. Mr. Kudrin outlines two major threats to the Russian economy: 1. Crisis in the Euro zone that may close down the market of loans for the developing countries and drain the investment funds;           2. Decrease in oil prices - by the year 2012 at predicted 100 Dollar per barrel the deficit of the Russian state budget will make 1,5 percent of the GDP. That means that if price falls down to 60 Dollars the deficit will equal to 5, 5%. Under those circumstances keeping the planned level of expenses will lead to depletion of the remaining reserve fund in about a year.

In such scenario Russia will have to cut down budget expenses by 2.5 % of it GDP that is by 1.35 trillion Roubles. For comparison: 1.35 trillion is all that is planned in the federal 2012 budget for education, healthcare and culture and plus half of the allocations subsidized for the regions.

Estimated capital flow from Russia is about $70 billion. And I am certain this is not the end of the story yet.

The fact is that without adapting and modernizing its economy according to the requirements of the 21st century, Russia risks becoming an economic disaster.

The need for modernization is acknowledged in Russia, and here again we encounter a deep contradiction between the Russian and Western understandings of modernization.

From Peter the Great to Stalin and to date Russia has desperately attempted to modernize itself. To be true, at certain points, it was a success.

However, never ever modernization has brought pluralism, real parliamentary system, liberal economy, rule of law or any other components of democracy to Russian citizens.

On the contrary, modernization always has contributed to the strengthening of Authoritarianism, totalitarianism and tyranny inside the country that inevitably fuelled and boosted Russia's ill famed aggressive foreign policy.

Of course, inability of one of the world's economic powers to progress is a regrettable and alarming fact, which directly affects its neighbours. I think that it is something that the Russian leadership should take much more seriously.

There have been a lot of talks about reform in Russia, but we do not see too much impact.

Currently, the EU is more enthusiastic about modernization partnership with Russia than Russia itself. The Western reading of modernization is reformation of political and economic system along the democratic standards, while Russians simply want investments, lucrative economic deals and technological know-how, especially in the military sphere, but without any hint to democratization. And if we recall the deal on Mistral warships, it seems that Europe is rather inclined to acquiesce with the Moscow style modernization partnership, without deliberating too much about the possible consequences.  

Logically, Given Russia's internal problems, government should be focused on fighting corruption and economic stalemate, improving social conditions, recovering economy etc. However, the Kremlin's main concern remains to be the maintaining of its influence in the international arena and especially in so-called "near abroad."

This creates yet another contradiction within Russia as its adventurous foreign policy is incompatible with its real capabilities as well as its international role. 

Nevertheless, as long as the Kremlin wants to implement its revisionist agenda, the question arises about how strong is Russian military and how effective is its weaponry to implement this geostrategic delusion?

The brief 2008 August war with Georgia revealed even to the Russian Military leadership, that the Russian army is quite ineffective and its armament outdated.

But, the war with Georgia also demonstrated the readiness of Moscow to use force in pursuit of its neo-imperial ambitions. Moscow's increasing reliance on the military force in order to ensure its regional dominance is extremely alarming. This also displays inflexibility of the Russian diplomacy, which is less inclined to achieve the desirable outcome through compromises and negotiations. Over the last decade, Kremlin has exploited very well the internal divisions within EU and NATO. Moreover, lessening appetite in Europe for engaging in military operations expressed, inter alia, in decreasing defence spending is well noticed in Moscow making it more confident in advancing its revisionist agenda. In the contrary, Russian military spending have been constantly increasing over the last decade and the trend will continue in the years to come.      

The fifth contradiction I would like to elaborate on is the one Between Russia's international obligation as of the permanent member of the UN Security Council and its cynical real-politic performance.  

Given its size and potential, Russia could play a positive role in the international arena helping to make the world more peaceful and secure place for all us. However, in the 21st century, Moscow continuous to operate with zero sum game thinking aimed at getting the maximum benefit at the expense of others. In doing so, it does not shy away from using most destructive and ugly means ranging from political pressure and economic blockade to open military aggression, mass slaughtering and ethnic cleansing. 

Recently my Russian counterpart, in his frantic attempt to defend some odious regimes in the North Africa and Middle East articulated the following - I quote:  "If the logic based on principle - you are bad and, therefore, not negotiable and you have to leave at any cost - will define the position of the world community, this will directly provoke violence and turmoil..."

However, by refusing to talk to the democratically elected Georgian government, while criticizing international community for calling autocratic regimes to be more responsible in treating their own people, Mr. Lavrov is contradicting himself.

In our era of Liberal Institutionalism when the world's major powers and others try to stick to the principles of the UN doctrine of 'Responsibility to Protect, which states that all major international humanitarian issues shall  be solved only through orchestrated efforts of  International  Institutions, Russia's opportunistic policy is obsolete and counterproductive.

The last, and I would argue, the most important contradiction is between the way the political leadership governs the people and the way the people want to be governed.

The worst thing about this contradiction is that historically Russia's ruling elites have been treating their own population like conqueror would do. While their families and their capital reside in luxury and safety abroad, many of them, by the way, in London, the ordinary people have been compelled to accept the plight of a "conquered" nation.

To put it in simpler terms, the Russia's rulers and its people live separate lives and to certain extent it may be argued that the former is not accountable to the latter and vice versa. However, the Russian state is not an exception from the general historical rule, which implies that when a government, while clinging to power, cannot accommodate basic political, economic and social needs of the population, social revolutions may happen. And we are witnessing the first signs of that. 

The fact is that Putin's regime resides on corrupted bureaucracy and the power structures (syloviki). This always is the case with the country, which is on the brink of political, social and economic collapse. 

The recent Duma elections displayed two very interesting tendencies.

First - despite controlling finances, media and administrative resources including power structures (siloviki), and despite massive ballot frauds, ruling party couldn't gather 50% of the votes. Cynics claim it was done purposely by the Kremlin, but nevertheless, it means that in reality Mr. Putin and his party have a marginal popular support and if the elections were even slightly fair, the outcome for the United Russia would have been disastrous.

Second - in recent days we saw the largest anti-government protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities over the last twenty years. While it is premature to speak about the "Russian Spring," it clearly indicates about the awakening of the Russian society and demonstrates to the Kremlin not only the people's anti-Putin attitude but also its readiness to defend its fundamental rights through the street rallies.

At the same time, if we take into consideration the fact that out of three other political parties that passed the election threshold: the "Communist Party" (19%) leader Gennady Zyuganov, "Liberal Democratic Party" (11%) of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Just Russia"(13%) led by Nikolai Levichev, are quite reactionary chauvinists and Kremlin clients, we may assume that the Russian foreign policy at the legislative level will remain imperialistic.

Restoration of the Soviet Union, first in the economic form, will be at the core of it.

And, most likely the focus of the Kremlin's policy makers will be once again shifted towards the Caucasus both the north and the south alike.

If having a hold over the North Caucasus is essential for preserving the Russian Federation, imposing full control over the South Caucasus (in particular over Georgia) is quintessentially relevant for the implementation of Mr. Putin's geopolitical dream - restoration of the Soviet Union.

Thus, the newly formed political mosaic of the Russian legislative body and Mr. Putin's attempt to confine Russian politics within the power vertical is menacing to the security of not only of the Caucasus region but far beyond it.

How things will develop in Russia needs to be seen. The one is clear, the Russian people, both through votes and street protests, delivered the massage to the Kremlin - the country needs changes. 

I believe that it is in everybody's interest including Russia, that these internal contradictions are gone. As for Georgia, we strongly believe that there is no alternative to the democratic development and we will continue unshakably with the path of democracy and western integration.

This is an unedited transcript. The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

The Speaker

His Excellency Mr Grigol Vashadze was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia on 6 December 2008. He previously served as Minister of Culture, Monument Protection and Sports. Before assuming ministerial office, he worked as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Minister Vashadze's diplomatic career commenced upon graduating from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1981. He became a career diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the former USSR where he worked at the Department of International Organizations and the Department of Space and Nuclear Weapons until 1988. Since 1990, up until assuming public office in 2008, he was a successful businessman, founding and managing the acclaimed brands of 'Georgia Arts Management' and 'Gregory Vashadze and BR'. Minister Vashadze graduated with Honours from the faculty of International Law at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1981. Between 1988 and 1990 he continued to pursue his postgraduate studies at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.



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