This is Georgia’s time of choosing. Georgians must pick between two paths forward. One will bring them under the Russian sphere of influence. The other leads west, to a free and open space in which they make their own independent choices.
America has an interest in the choice Georgians make. We should be honest about why we think the Western choice is in Georgia’s best interest, and we must be consistent and clear about what we can and cannot do to support Georgians securing their own future.
The recent controversy and nationwide protests arising from Georgia’s draft law on “agents of foreign influence” highlight what is at stake. Many Georgians saw the proposal as an attempt by the current government—led by ruling party Georgian Dream, the ruling political party—to seize excessive power in order to shape civil and political discourse in Georgia.
To understand the concerns about this proposal, one must recognize the nature of Georgian political parties, which differ substantially from those in most of the West. Rather than reflecting institutions and political ideologies, Georgian parties often represent the interests of particular constituencies or individuals.
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Today, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who served as Georgia’s prime minister from October 2012 to November 2013, exercises significant influence over the ruling party. Thus, Georgian Dream is more a personal party than a conventionally ideological one.
Since 2020, Georgian Dream has moved away from most of its pro-Western coalition partners. Ivanishvili’s priorities are to protect his power, his family, and his fortune. However, the logic of his party’s position could also be a response to the fact that unlike Moldova and Ukraine, Georgia was offered neither EU candidate status nor a NATO Membership Action Plan.
Meanwhile, even in wartime, Georgia benefits from economic relations with Russia. Moreover, two sections of the country—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—remain under Russian occupation.
Given these realities, a political tilt toward Russia might be seen as plausibly decreasing the likelihood of Georgia being embroiled in future conflicts.
Finally, the expansion of a Russian model of governance would be one way for the ruling party to consolidate its control over fractious Georgian politics.
The alternative political vision is reflected in the recent mass protests against the “agents of foreign influence” proposal and aspires to closer political, diplomatic, and economic alignment with Europe and the U.S. Unfortunately, its proponents are fragmented among many political parties that have little in common beyond their opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream.
Meanwhile, both Europe and the U.S. have been hesitant to get involved, given some undeniable Georgian realities. For instance, while Georgia outperforms several Western nations on ratings of corruption and economic freedom, it has regressed in these areas over the last three years. Recently, Georgia’s economy has been buoyed by an influx of Russian immigrants fleeing conscription. The growing Russian influence has made the West more hesitant to strengthen relations.
In general, a closer affiliation with the West offers Georgians a less predictable future than the pathway to Russia, because neither the U.S. nor Europe is interested in establishing hard spheres of influence and control. The latter are definitely on offer from Moscow, given Putin’s revanchist strategy to reassert Russian dominance in the former Soviet sphere.
Western nations, however, would prefer to expand free and open spaces across the region. Their desire is to expand commerce, respect freedom and territorial integrity, uphold transparent, mutually beneficial business partnerships and investments, and leave countries free to chart their own courses. The U.S. and Europe want stable partners, less dependency on foreign aid, and net contributors to security and growth.
Why Should the U.S. Care?
America has global interests and responsibilities. In regions vital to those interests (Europe, the Greater Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific), Washington must support peace and prosperity. It must also preserve freedom of movement along the common air, sea, and land routes that link these regions together. Here, Eurasia plays an important role.
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI), a free and open Black Sea, and a stable Eastern Mediterranean — all link to the Middle Corridor connecting the Caucasus and Central Asia to the West. Georgia would be a key link in a chain of free and open Eurasian nations connecting Central Asia to the West. It is also situated to play a vital role ensuring the security of the Black Sea, a crossroads of Eurasia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. These are critical nodes tying the region to North and West Africa and the Indo-Pacific.
What To Do?
There is no doubt that the U.S. and Europe would benefit from a free, stable, and secure Georgia. To that end, America should take several steps to strengthen bilateral relationships, promote American values, and advance interests.
Support Extending 3SI. The Three Seas Initiative is a commercial venture supported by Central European countries. It is designed to replace the east-west connectors that used to bind satellite countries to the USSR with north-south infrastructure running from the Baltic to the Adriatic and the Black Seas. The aim is to facilitate trade and commerce among countries that appreciate their freedom from Russian hegemony. Ukraine is already a partner nation, and Georgia should become one, too. The U.S. should strongly and publicly encourage investments in 3SI.
Support Development of the Middle Corridor. The corridor is a gateway for energy supplies and other resources for Europe. It will add resilience to global supply chains and provide new opportunities for business and manufacturing partnerships.
Support a NATO Membership Action Plan for Georgia. Georgia should have the option of benefiting from membership in a collective defensive alliance. There is a practical path forward for Georgia to ward off future Russian aggression. The U.S. should support this as a vital component of regional security.
Invite the Georgian President for a Working Visit to Washington. Salome Zourabichvili has been a clear and independent voice on the future of Georgia. That said, she has very limited powers and, because of changes in the Constitution, she will be the last president directly elected by the people. Nonetheless, as the elected representative of all Georgians, she should be invited to the White House to discuss the future of the bilateral relationship and highlight what can and should be done.
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Get Serious About Sanctions. Sanctions are in U.S. law for a purpose. Even the most powerful individuals are subject to sanctions. There is no mystery about which individuals are most responsible for Georgia’s declining corruption ratings or ongoing human rights violations. Imposing and enforcing sanctions is an appropriate response to bad governance and criminal activities, and one that speaks volumes about American values.
The outcome of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine remains unclear. But there is no doubt that 13 months of war has seriously weakened the Russian military. They are now losing.
The war has also degraded Russia’s economic capacity. Some estimate it may take Moscow two to seven years to recover its pre-war conventional capability. And China is not likely to ride to the rescue.
Unfortunately, this situation may tempt Moscow hardliners to try to expand the Kremlin’s sphere of influence elsewhere. If it can't win in Ukraine, Georgia may look like a face-saving and easier target.
Meanwhile, as Putin falters, we can expect China to attempt to expand its own influence in Georgia, supplanting Moscow at bargain-basement prices. Georgia could then become just another key node of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.
It would be a tragic error for Georgia to choose Russia or China as an overlord. There is a better choice—not an alternative dependency, but partnership among free and independent nations, where all sides invest, share burdens, and bear responsibilities, and where all members of the Western partnership can reap the rewards of freedom.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear World