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The New Georgian Government and 100 Days of Its Foreign Policy

By Sergi Kapanadze, Ex-Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia
"Tabula" magazine, 04 February '13

One hundred days have passed since the new government of Georgia has taken the reins of the country into its hands. Let’s briefly review the developments and trends that have taken place in the foreign policy of Georgia during this period and see what conclusions can be drawn or recommendations be suggested to the government and its foreign political team. To summarize what has occurred in one sentence: the new government has maintained the main priorities in foreign policy however it has delayed certain significant processes and decisions. Time and the identities of Georgia’s new ambassadors will show how the recent decision to replace the ambassadors will affect the country’s foreign policy. However, it is a fact that the mass replacement of diplomats has never benefited Georgia before and will probably not prove beneficial in the future either.

Let’s analyze this matter topic by topic.

US-Georgia Relations

Within the framework of the US-Georgia Strategic Partnership Charter, meetings of working groups for economic and energy relations, defense and security as well as people-to-people cultural exchanges were held right up until the end of 2012. It is commendable that the Georgian side managed to conduct the meetings after only such a short period of time has passed since the October parliamentary elections. No concrete issues were agreed at these meetings, but the mere fact that consultations have continued is a positive sign. Moreover, Georgia’s Foreign Minister visited the United States while US high officials (State Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Eric Rubin, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas Melia) came to Tbilisi. All in all, it seems that our relations with the United States continue as normal.

In parallel with those visits, the United States maintained quite a tough tone when assessing events unfolding in Georgia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Philip Gordon and Eric Rubin each openly declared that they were keeping an eye on what was going in the country and did not mince their words when talking about the unacceptability of politically motivated arrests. The success of cohabitation in Georgia is a top priority for the United States. Thus far, the Georgian government has failed to fully listen to the US and take into account the recommendations from Washington. As the Georgian Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, noted in a television interview aired on 10 January, Washington has starkly different opinions on many issues, but the new Georgian government has managed to stand up to the pressure from the US. What the result of this difference in opinions will be, and whether the criticisms from the US will intensify, depends primarily on the activities of the Georgian government.

When reviewing US-Georgia relations, one cannot ignore statements the Prime Minister made first concerning paying a visit to the US before the end of 2012 and then about delaying it because of his busy schedule. I think these statements can be attributed to the Prime Minister’s lack of political experience and I am sure that our American partners treated them with understanding. But, if the Prime Minister’s visit was indeed scheduled with high level meetings having been agreed (presumably, with the US President, Vice-President, the leadership of Congress and the Secretary of State) and if was the Georgian Prime Minister himself that postponed the visit, then this is strange behavior to say the least. If such meetings had not been agreed (and presumably that was the case), then everything is clear. However, admitting that frankly would have been more acceptable for society.

A point which must be emphasized here is that Georgia will shortly replace its Ambassador to the United States. This change will be rather important for the future relationship between Georgia and the US. The current ambassador, Temur Iakobashvili, is one of the best diplomats Georgia has had in recent years. Replacing his contacts, influence, organizational and diplomatic talents will not be easy. It should also be taken into account that the US administration will, either wittingly or unwittingly, compare any successive ambassador from Georgia with Temur Iakobashvili and his activities. It is consequently important that his replacement is a diplomat who is no lesser than Iakobashvili in terms of rank, experience or diplomatic talent. This is no simple task. In any case, the embassy of Georgia in the United States is one of the most important institutions for Georgian diplomacy and maintaining its strength is extremely significant for our foreign policy.

Georgia’s Relations with the European Union and NATO

In this area Georgia has also continued its course. Almost all the planned meetings and visits took place: an annual meeting of the Georgia-EU Cooperation Council was held, high-level visits took place in both Brussels (by the Georgian Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs) and in Tbilisi (by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton). Messages coming from the EU have been nearly the same as they were before the elections concerning signing the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and starting the visa liberalization process before the end of 2013.

However, it should be noted that the visit of the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, to Georgia has been delayed. This visit is extremely important because during it Georgia will receive an action plan for visa liberalization. The visit was initially scheduled for early December 2012, but was first rescheduled for late December and then for late January 2013. It now looks like it will be rescheduled again for February. I will not start speculating about the reasons for these delays, though I will underline that the later we start implementing the action plan, the later we will complete both stages of this plan (the first stage involving legislative changes and the second concerning the implementation of these changes). It is also worth noting here that the Georgian Foreign Minister, Maia Panjikidze, has already made a statement that we must not expect the abolition of EU visas for Georgian citizens by the end of 2013, as representatives of the previous government maintained. This statement was very revealing as the public statements of the former government always emphasized that the implementation of both stages of the action plan would be completed by the end of 2013. Those earlier statements smacked more of setting a politically ambitious goal than of a real promise. In general, setting ambitious plans and then taking ambitious steps to fulfill those plans was a characteristic feature of the former government. In many cases, it bore fruit. Therefore, if the new Georgian government considers it unfeasible to complete the action plan on visa facilitation by the end of 2013, it does not at all mean that the previous government was lying when it set such a goal. If anything, because the previous government had the constitutional majority in parliament, the legislative and executive branches could take decisions in a coordinated manner and fulfill them in the shortest possible time-span (according to the information available to me, it was precisely this very capacity that was behind the previous government’s ambitious goal of completing the visa facilitation action plan by the end of 2013). However, this is not true in the case of the current parliament and government.

The situation is analogous with regard to NATO. Almost all scheduled meetings or visits (of the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, to Tbilisi, and of the Georgian Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and the Defense Minister, to Brussels) took place as planned. Unfortunately, the visit of the NATO Military Committee to Tbilisi was postponed for a well-known reason (the arrest of the then Chief of Joint Staff the Georgian Armed Forces) and I will therefore not dwell on that. It seems that the new government still needs time to accelerate the tempo of its activities. Unfortunately, Georgia does not have much time.

All in all, despite its attempts, Georgia has failed to send out the key message for European and Euro-Atlantic integration: that it is a democratic state and it has the right to become a member of NATO and the European Union. We had a real chance to send that message following the October elections – if only had both the new ruling party and the political opposition declared that the pre-election, election and post-election processes fitted into the boundaries of democracy. Unfortunately, the new Georgian government opted for negative rhetoric denigrating the achievements of the previous government (in a series of allegations like “Saakashvili was a dictator” and “all Georgia’s high ratings acknowledged by the international community were incorrect and resulted from Saakashvili’s lies”). As a consequence, we failed to move into a new stage of our relationship with NATO. Instead of again having to prove our democratic credentials, we should be focused on convincing our partners that our unsettled relations and conflicts with Russia, as well as with Tskhinvali and Sokhumi, will be of no impediment for the Alliance in receiving Georgia as a member. The earlier such “open” discussions start with NATO, the sooner it will become clear what we should expect from the next NATO summit slated for 2014. If we fail to reach the level where such discussion is possible – and as it looks like we have not reached it yet – we will have to continue proving that we really are a democratic state. However, if the arrests, the attempts to undermine the political opposition, and the damage to state institutions (such as those of the President and local self-government) continue in the country, meeting this condition of proof will take a long time.

Georgia’s Relations with the Russian Federation and the Geneva talks

I have deliberately combined these two topics because I believe that the bilateral negotiations with Russia and the multilateral Geneva talks are two interlinked issues. Georgia has appointed its Special Representative for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, and, in so doing, has displayed its readiness for dialogue. That is a welcome step, indeed. One can, of course, argue here that it would have been better to have first agreed on the modalities of this arrangement in order to have avoided the result we have got today – Russia’s assignment of one and the same person, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, for both the Geneva talks and the Georgia-Russia dialogue. This asymmetry puts Russia’s negotiator in an advantageous position because he, in contrast to his Georgian counterpart, is well aware of all developments in both formats; moreover, the dual role of the Russian negotiator will endanger the viability of the Geneva talks. Arguing over such matters now, however, is only conjecture. The important thing at this stage is for bilateral dialogue to become a reality and start bearing fruit.

Over the first 100 days after coming to power, Ivanishvili’s government has clearly showed that it is serious in its intentions to sort out relations with Russia. Even though the issues discussed in the first Abashidze-Karasin meeting in December belong to the easily achievable category (the resumption of regular flights and humanitarian issues), tougher issues are surely yet to come. These more problematic issues will require more creative approaches to be taken; they will require effective diplomacy, risk taking and an ability to seek unconventional solutions. How capable the current diplomatic team is of doing this is difficult to judge. The reality is that, as we get involved in deeper discussions with Russia, we will have to start taking tougher decisions.

It must be noted here that even though the Swiss company SGS was to start monitoring the movement of goods along the Georgia-Russia border a few months ago, as part of the deal in return for Georgia’s consent on Russia’s WTO membership, the technical details of the contract with this company have not yet been finalized. Procrastination on an issue so important for the country’s interests is not a good sign. The government will have to step up its activity if it wants to defend the country’s interests more effectively.

In the coming months the Georgian government will have to pursue three main objectives in terms of its relations with Russia. First, it will have to continue juggling two balls – the Geneva talks and the bilateral dialogue. The second objective will be to maintain its occupation/non-recognition policy in parallel with the dialogue with Russia. The third objective will be not to transgress, either unintentionally or intentionally, those principled lines we have drawn (for example, acknowledging Tskhinvali and Sokhumi as parties to the conflict, amending the Law on Occupied Territories, assenting to heavier energy dependence on Russia, allowing Russia to meddle in internal affairs of the country, etcetera). If these lines are crossed in negotiations with Russia, the consequences will be irreversible.

Multi-Vector Diplomacy

On this front I would like to single out three main issues. The first is that in November 2012 Georgia, quite reasonably, voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution to grant Palestine non-member observer state status in the United Nations. Although this proved that Georgia can make tough decisions under pressure, it is now important to ensure that the support of this resolution does not sour Georgia’s relations with Israel. Hopefully the government will settle this problem. The second noteworthy issue is the deepening of multilateral relations within the framework of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development (an international organization of four post-Soviet states: Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). In mid-December 2012, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on cooperation with GUAM and at the beginning of this year Georgia also became the chair of the organization. In this regard, Georgia definitely did well. The third issue worth noting is the OSCE ministerial meeting held in Dublin in December 2012,

which the Foreign Minister of Georgia attended. The ministerial meeting itself was not marked by anything extraordinary, according to overall assessments. However, it did take a decision on launching the “Helsinki +40 process," which Georgia supported. Judging by the number of meetings the Foreign Minister conducted in Dublin, Georgia worked quite intensively to actively represent itself within the framework of the OSCE.

What topics get discussed at such high-level meetings is a separate issue. I want to disclose a conversation I had with one of my foreign colleagues (whose name and nationality I will deliberately conceal) in late December. After wishing me a merry Christmas, my colleague told me that Georgian diplomats and government representatives are no longer speaking about Georgia’s high ratings in terms of the fight against corruption, the number of tourists, the inflow of investments and economic freedom. Instead, Georgian representatives often allege that those ratings were the result of Saakashvili’s “machinery of lies." I refused to believe this as I do not want to imagine how a minister or diplomat of my country might be trying to persuade others that Georgia is more corrupt, less attractive for tourists and less democratic than internationally acknowledged rankings prove. But, if what my colleague told me is true, the top priority of the new government must be to change this damaging rhetoric.

The Replacement of Ambassadors

By the end of 2012, it became known that the Georgian government plans to replace its ambassadors. The replacement of ambassadors after the change in government is, in my view, a very unhealthy decision. It was equally incorrect for the previous government to replace ambassadors on political grounds when they first came to power, but it is all the more damming that the new government is now repeating these same mistakes. Despite the missteps the previous government initially made, which included a number of inappropriate appointments of ambassadors with no experience of diplomacy, over the past few years the previous government managed to rectify its mistakes and dramatically increase the share of career diplomats among its ambassadors. This dynamic must be maintained.

Certain rhetorical questions thus emerge: If those representatives of the winning Georgian Dream coalition who served as ambassadors during the previous government’s reign, believe that Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed them on political grounds, why when coming to power did they then deem it fair to replace 18 ambassadors on the grounds that they are Saakashvili’s supporters and pursue his politics? Does the ruling coalition fully understand how, in the event of appointing slightly inadequate successors, our EU and NATO integration policies, the non-recognition policy, the multi-vector foreign policy (which has reached all continents in the past four years) and the diplomatic service in general (which has been built up with great toil), will be jeopardized? Has the replacement of ambassadors become an end in itself and, to that end, everything can be sacrificed in order to “spite Misha”? Perhaps it is that the list of Georgian Dream supporters needing to be satisfied is so long and their appetites so insatiable that they will not agree to any other position but that of ambassador?

In any case, it is of the utmost importance for the government to exercise extreme caution in its treatment of the diplomatic corps. Wasting that resource would deal the hardest blow to the security of the country. Ambassadors, as a rule, follow instructions and if they receive speaking points from Tbilisi they will follow that material. If the new government is not fond of the guidance ambassadors received before 1 October 2012, it does not mean that the ambassadors themselves must be punished. There is an English phrase – “Don't shoot the messenger." Unfortunately, it looks as if we are trying to kill our own messengers.

Despite all I have said above, I still hope that the former diplomats, who are now in abundance in the new government, know perfectly well what a shortage in the diplomatic cadre means and what problems the wrong personnel policy can have on the country’s foreign policy.

Strategic Relations with Neighbors

One must single out the rhetoric made in relation to Azerbaijan over the past months (first there was a statement made about the intention to reopen the Abkhazia railway section, and then came a statement about the lack of economic benefits of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway). The new government must understand that Azerbaijan is one of the strategic partners of Georgia and that maintaining close relations with this country is extremely important for the sovereignty and security of Georgia. The same holds true for Georgia’s relationship with Armenia. Even though during the past three months other issues with our neighbors (such as border demarcation and natural gas tariffs) have not been discussed much, these issues will likely become topical over the coming months. Hopefully, such heedless rhetoric will not impede constructive discussion of issues to be decided with our neighbors.

Future Challenges

In order to see where Georgian foreign policy is heading, experts should keep track of the following indicators over the next months:

- Will the Geneva talks be continued and, if so, will they be weakened?

- Will the EU Monitoring Mission be weakened, for example, by the replacement of its head or a modification of its mandate?

- Will international support for Georgia’s resolution on refugees increase (the UN General Assembly will consider this in spring)?

- Will the Georgian Prime Minister visit the United States?

- At what intensity will meetings of the working groups under the US-Georgia Strategic Partnership Charter continue and when will an omnibus meeting be held?

- Will the postponed NATO Military Committee meeting be held in the nearest future?

- Will the North Atlantic Council’s field meeting be held in Georgia?

- When will the EU hand us the action plan on visa liberalization and how quickly we will start its implementation?

- Will the number of international “recognitions” of the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia increase?

- Will high-level dignitaries arrive in Georgia as intensively as they did in 2011 and 2012?

- Will new Georgian embassies open, including in the countries of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Arab League?

- At what intensity will the bilateral dialogue with Russia continue and how it will affect our economic and political independence?

These are only a few of the questions which can be asked. I will ask the remaining questions after 200 days of the new government coming to power has passed.

Until then, I will finish this article with one comment. During these hundred days we have often heard statements that NATO interferes in Georgia’s affairs, that the West criticizes the new government because it has been deceived, that the government is not yielding to US and EU pressure, and so on and so forth. My sincere wish for the new government is that it soon sees these international actors as partners rather than as entities exerting pressure or interfering with our internal affairs.

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