To understand Georgia’s European identity, look to its past - OPINION

  26 June 2024    Read: 738
 To understand Georgia’s European identity, look to its past -  OPINION

by Luke Coffey

It’s important to understand why the Georgian people take to the streets any time their Euro-Atlantic path is put into doubt.

It was recently announced that the EU will formally start membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova on June 25 — a historic moment for two countries for which, just a couple years ago, the prospect of membership seemed so far away.

But another country will be missing from next week’s accession talks — Georgia.

Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of Georgians took to the streets to protest a controversial law passed by the ruling Georgian Dream government. Its opponents refer to it as the “Russian Law,” as it mirrors a Kremlin legislation designed to shut down political opposition. And understandably, pro-Europe Georgians — who make up about 80 percent of the population — are alarmed.

Back in May, Georgia’s Western friends had already warned such a law would derail Tbilisi’s EU and NATO ambitions — and they weren’t joking. Last week, the EU’s Ambassador to Tbilisi explicitly stated that Georgia’s bid to join the EU was “practically frozen” because of the law. Meanwhile, senior Russian officials have praised the law and blamed the West for meddling in Georgia’s affairs.

But large demonstrations are nothing new in Georgia. The country’s active, engaged and informed civil society forms the fabric of its democracy.

For outside observers, it’s important to understand why the Georgian people take to the streets any time their Euro-Atlantic path is put into doubt. And in order to do so, an understanding of the country’s history is key, with two clear themes woven throughout: The first is that Georgia’s future lies in Europe, as its past is rooted in Western civilization. The second is that Georgia can never trust Russia.

Some of the most foundational legends and creation myths in Western civilization took place in the lands that make up Georgia today. According to Greek legend, after Prometheus stole fire from the gods, he was chained to Mount Kazbek in what is now eastern Georgia. Legend also tells us Hercules, as part of his Twelve Labors, traveled there to rescue Prometheus. And the Greek hero Jason and his band of Argonauts sailed into the Pontos Axeinos (today’s Black Sea) and landed at Colchis — a kingdom that once existed here — to find the Golden Fleece.

Contemporary Georgians are proud of these links to Western mythology and history, but it doesn’t stop there.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and Sir Oliver Wardrop — the godfather of Kartvelian studies and the U.K.’s first top diplomat in the Caucasus — described the country in his book “The Kingdom of Georgia: Travel in a Land of Women, Wine and Song” with the following words: “It is interesting to notice that the political ideals of the country are borrowed from Western Europe…The grandsons of absolute monarchs, the men who little more than a quarter of a century ago were large slaveholders, are now ardent champions of the democratic idea, and loudly proclaim the freedom, the equality, the brotherhood, of prince and peasant, master and man.”

Georgia’s European identity has long been indisputable — its role in Europe’s history undeniable.

And given their identification with European values, Georgians are highly suspicious of Russian interference. Today, the obvious reason for this is Russia’s 2008 invasion, and its ongoing military occupation of 20 percent of the country’s internationally recognized territory. However, these suspicions actually date back over 240 years.

In the 18th century, the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti — the precursor to modern day Georgia — was under constant threat from the Ottomans, Persians and Russians. In an attempt to balance this precarious geopolitical situation, in 1783, King Erekle II of Kartli-Kakheti signed the Treaty of Georgievsk with Catherine the Great, giving the Georgian kingdom much-needed security guarantees from the Russian Empire. The Tsarina would “regard [Georgian’s] enemies as Her enemies” and “in the case of war, to offer all possible military aid,” the treaty said.

With that, King Erekle thought he had solved his security problems — but he was wrong. In 1795, when a vast Persian army led by Agha Mohammad Khan marched through Armenia and into Georgia, Russia did nothing. Within weeks, Tbilisi was sacked, the Persian army destroying the city and murdering thousands. The devastation was so great, it was said the stench of rotting corpses made Tbilisi uninhabitable.

Though the Persians didn’t linger, the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti couldn’t recover. And by 1801, Russia had further disregarded the terms of the treaty, gobbling Georgia up for itself.

This ended any notion of Georgian independence and sovereignty until 1918, when another act of Russian betrayal reared its head. In the chaotic aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the country declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Most European countries recognized the republic, as did some countries farther away — like Argentina and Japan. And even though Soviet Russia was now led by the Bolsheviks and Georgia’s government by the rival Mensheviks, Moscow recognized the country’s independence as well.

Then, in 1920, the two sides signed the Treaty of Moscow. Russia promised to stay out of Georgia’s internal affairs and even to demilitarize its border with Georgia. Meanwhile, Georgia promised to ensure the withdrawal of the British troops located there at the time. But a secret annex of the treaty also required Georgia to legalize a local Communist party — something that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the Menshevik government and the loss of Georgian independence once more.

In hindsight, it’s clear Russia had no desire to honor its terms of the treaty. If anything, it was a time-buying exercise allowing Moscow to settle the Russian Civil War before turning on Georgia. And in 1921 — less than a year after the treaty was signed — Russia invaded, established a Communist government in Tbilisi and absorbed it into the Soviet Union. Georgia remained under Soviet rule until 1991.

If you believe all this is in the past and another Russian invasion is unrealistic, you haven’t been paying attention. You can bet the Kremlin is watching events in Georgia closely. And the moment Georgian Dream appears to be losing its grip on power, it’s highly likely Moscow will intervene — especially if the government’s downfall comes as a result of mass demonstrations.

But with the “Russian Law,” Georgian Dream is now swimming against the tide of history and contradicting the people’s distrust of Russia. Georgia’s destiny is in the Euro-Atlantic community because its past has been rooted in Europe for centuries. The middle-aged Georgians now protesting in the streets are old enough to remember what life was like under Soviet rule, and they don’t want to go back. The younger demonstrators know nothing other than Georgia’s Western perspective, and they want to stay on this path.

It remains to be seen how Washington, London and Brussels will respond now that the law has passed. But one thing is certain, it can no longer be business as usual between Georgia and its Euro-Atlantic partners. But even with this setback, Georgian civil society remains strong and resilient.

As the Georgian literary giant — and staunch critic of Russian imperialism — Ilia Chavchavadze wrote in his famous work “The Phantom”: “Tell me, what other land has had so thorny a path to tread? Where is the land that has maintained such a fight twenty centuries long without disappearing from the earth? Thou alone, Georgia, could do it. No other people can compare with thee for endurance.”  

So, with national elections now scheduled for October and still no political resolution or compromise in sight, it’s going to be a long and difficult summer. The last thing the South Caucasus or the Black Sea region needs is more instability. And if policymakers aren’t watching Georgia now, they should be.


The content presented here is originally published by Politico and does not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positionality of AzVision.

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