Current Affairs Editor Ronan Keohane highlights the Georgian political institutions which lie in the centre of a politically liminal Georgia in the face of present day Russian expansionism and plausible EU and NATO membership.
The Public Services hall building in Tbilisi, Georgia (often nicknamed the “Mushroom building” by locals and tourists alike due to its resemblance to a mushroom forest) is one of the country’s finest tourist attractions and an exemplary feature which serves to represent the nature of the nation of Georgia. It stands overlooking the historical Kura river, whose banks have been inhabited for 7000 years representing the antiquity of the nation and culture of Georgia. It also stands directly beside the controversial ‘bridge of peace’, which is a modern infrastructural innovation designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi in 2010 interconnecting the old and new district of Tbilisi which serves to represent a modernising Georgia directly alongside Georgia’s ancient historical landmarks. Every aspect of the building, from its precise location and design, holds a distinct symbolic meaning. The building consists of 11 ‘petal’ rooftops which all serve to represent the administrative divisions (the 9 regions and 2 autonomous republics) of Georgia. The walls of the structure are also transparent to symbolise how the public can see what occurs within the building, thus designed to symbolise an objective of zero government corruption. Ever since the Russo-Ukrainian war, the future of the divided state which this building serves to represent is now at a crossroads between two fractitious territories. The course of action that Georgian political institutions have followed has drawn intense criticism both from Georgian locals and the flows of people which have resulted from the war.
Liminality is not something unfamiliar to the nation of Georgia, a nation which has often been forced to preserve its ancient culture, language, religion and traditions in the face of various expanding empires. It exists on the crossroads between Eastern Europe and Western Asia in the historically turbulent Caucasus region. Georgia has been subjected to many centuries of conflict and multiple invasions by extremely powerful and expansive empires such as the Russian empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian empire. Georgia is also a relatively new independent country having only gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia in recent years now has a more western-orientation, both culturally and politically, through its affiliation with a number of Western intergovernmental organisations (notably NATO and the EU). While not officially having membership to either the EU or NATO, Georgia has particularly close ties with both organisations. Georgia is one of NATO’s closest partners and has stated a goal of Euro-Atlantic integration and the EU is also Georgia’s largest trading partner.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has not only amplified fears of another Russian invasion but has brought back difficult memories of the 2008 war that Georgia had with Russia along with the disputed territories and self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The invasion was multifaceted and incorporated numerous different war tactics such as airstrikes, sea invasion and cyber warfare which led to hundreds of deaths and the displacement of over 200,000 people. Similar to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, the motives behind Russia’s invasion of Georgia also cited the NATO membership and its interpreted threat to peace as its primary reason behind invasion. At the 2022 Madrid Summit, NATO members signed a number of different measures which would strengthen NATO involvement in Georgia to counter Russia which, many feel, could quickly become a source of increased aggression.
In recent months, the issue of refugees in Georgia has become increasingly politicised. There has been a large number of different refugees from Ukraine and Russia which have arrived into Georgia. Ukrainians have arrived into Georgia, often with families, in order to seek refuge and shelter from the war. Russians have arrived into Georgia for various reasons: some have come to be able to voice anti-war sentiments and avoid legal repercussions, others have come to avoid the financial implications of the sanctions and others have fled to escape conscription into the Russian army in light of the partial mobilisation ordered by Vladimir Putin. All of these refugees all have a very wide variety of political orientations, while many, Russians and Ukranians alike, are vehemently anti-war and related to victims of the war, there are others who are not. Many speculate that there are a number who may secretly harbour pro-war sentiments (despite the widespread implementation of online forms which require people to declare their political views and sign it), the majority of refugees fall somewhere in between the 2 ends of the debate.
The relations between Georgians and the new arrivals have been relatively civil however a number of tensions have continued to grow. Many Georgians are regarding the large influx of Russian refugees as a potential security threat given the fact that Georgia’s population is only 3.7 million people, there has been suspicions about ulterior motives raised due to claims of cyber attacks from various Russian political groups and claims of Russians working for the Federal Security Service being there to locate and intimidate Russian political dissidents. This has resulted in crackdown and increased protectionism on the Russo-Georgian border. Many opine that entry restrictions could increase tension between locals and Russians which could ignite an increased orientation towards Putinism.
Georgia now enters a looming period of uncertainty as the future of the nation of Georgia is still difficult to predict and whether the various security concerns are fully grounded is still unclear. How Russia would respond if Georgia were to join powerful Western organisations such as NATO and the EU is important to consider and is a popular source of research and debate amongst many foreign affairs analysts. Similarly, if Russia were to win the Russo-Ukrainian war and annex more territories of Georgia beyond Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a means of an exit strategy to legitimise Russian power in the face of dwindling allies and a plethora of domestic ructions, this could be a significant historical occurrence which could potentially lead to the alteration of the entire international order as we know it.