AMB Bakradze: Facing Up To Frozen Conflicts, A LESSON FROM GEORGIA

Engagement rather than neglect is key. It’s time to take the U.S.–Georgia relationship to the next level.

The American Interest

Russia’s invasion and long occupation of parts of my country Georgia, as well as Ukraine, inevitably spawn discussions of “gray zones” and “frozen conflicts” among Western observers. These terms are meant to describe a world in which politics has ceased to operate effectively, or where efforts to unfreeze things have failed — in all cases due to Russian intransigence.

The problem with these terms is that they actively shape a kind of reality, and in doing so result in failures of imagination or true commitment to effecting change. In short, conflicts that are relegated to “frozen” status recede into the background, which is where they all too often remain.

Recent events in Ukraine, however, remind us that “frozen conflicts” rarely stay that way. Rather, they are problems that lie dormant for only as long as it is convenient for Russia that they do so. Not recognizing this fact, and not being proactive about them, cedes enormous advantage to Moscow.

From our perspective in Georgia, there has never been anything “gray” about Russia’s occupation of our territories — except perhaps the color of Russia’s tanks and artillery. Ten years ago, Russia’s armed forces took possession of two regions of Georgia, equivalent to 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory. In percentage terms, this is comparable to the Russians occupying Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota — the entire American Midwest — as well as Florida and Texas.

The humanitarian crisis Russia’s invasion has caused in the regions it invaded is horrifically vivid — a nightmare in technicolor: Russia’s occupation has ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of people from the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. Russia continues to isolate both regions from the rest of the country by closing crossing points, putting in place physical barriers along the administrative boundary line and conducting a campaign aimed at eradicating Georgian culture. Basic human rights, including the right to freedom of movement and residence, to property, and of access to native-language education, are being violated in the occupied regions of Georgia; illegal detentions and kidnappings are a regular occurrence.

Not only is there nothing “gray” about all this, but the conflict itself is also far from “frozen.” Since the invasion, Russia has implemented a “creeping annexation” strategy, wherein its troops move fences overnight to quietly gobble up more and more territory. Families and properties have been divided. This process of silent expansionism in some places comes very close to critical infrastructure, such as pipelines supplying gas to Europe from the Caspian region.

Russia continually reinforces its illegal military presence in Georgia’s occupied territories by constructing new bases, bringing in new troops and equipment, and conducting military exercises. Georgia’s government has made clear its desire to find a workable and fair solution to Russia’s occupation. But Russia has not cooperated in addressing the conflict through international accords and dialogue, such as the Geneva International Discussions, the multilateral mediation forum co-chaired by the UN, EU, and OSCE to address the security and humanitarian consequences of the war. It has flouted resolutions in support of Georgia’s territorial integrity from the U.S. Congress, the UN, and the EU Parliament. Russia continues to be in breach of its international obligations and refuses to implement the EU-mediated ceasefire agreement of August 12, 2008.

Allowing the Georgia-Russia conflict to continue will perpetuate imperial stereotypes that will drive an irreversible wedge between the next generation of the Russian and Georgian people. This is as unnecessary as it is counterproductive. Georgia is no threat to Russia. To the contrary, a stable, strong Georgia as part of NATO and the EU along Russia’s southern flank only enhances the latter’s stability and security. The proof of this is to simply imagine the opposite.

In Georgia, Russia is still being intransigent, so the conflict has fallen from view. But the West ought not let this be an excuse for delaying action.

The primary goal should be to get Russia to the negotiating table. This should be a priority for simple humanitarian reasons: just because these conflicts seem invisible or quiescent does not mean they are not inflicting daily harm on innocent people. The people of Tskhinvali and Abkhazia deserve relief, and their problems can only be addressed with Russia negotiating its withdrawal from the area.

At the same time, Georgia’s accession to both the European Union and NATO should be accelerated. Georgia is nowhere near a crossroads between the West and Russia. Indeed, we are well beyond the intersection; we have positioned ourselves firmly in the Western camp.

The current government, and all Georgian governments before this one, have insisted on Georgia’s historic European identity, and have strived to create both the policies and the momentum to integrate Georgia into the political, economic, and security structures that undergird the transatlantic alliance. This commitment is supported by the overwhelming majority of Georgian people. The Association Agreement and Visa Liberalization process with the European Union that Georgia fought for and won was not an act of political serendipity. It was willed and worked at.

We have learned through experience to keep our friends close and to pay our dues. Our culture demands intense loyalty to our families and friends. America is such a friend. Georgia resides at an intersection of many American vital geopolitical interests. As National Security Advisor John Bolton forcefully asserted during a recent visit to Tbilisi, “We consider [the U.S.–Georgia relationship] one of our highest priorities. It is in a strategic area of interest for the United States.” In turn, our debt to America for supporting our freedom and independence by taking sometimes unpopular political decisions, as well as with existential economic support and security assistance, cannot be overstated. Every Georgian feels this in his or her bones.

The United States has valued both our contributions to peace and our example to others. Georgia has become an example of a small but responsible partner, punching above its weight. We volunteer our soldiers at the highest per-capita rate to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with our American and NATO compatriots in Iraq and Afghanistan. No nonsense, and no “caveats.” When your friends fight for you, you fight for them. Period.

As an aspirant to full NATO membership with America’s unwavering backing, we have met our obligations and even raised the bar. For over a decade, and despite the global economic downturns Georgia, we spent more than 2 percent of GDP on defense, including more than 20 percent on equipment — just as NATO has mandated and President Trump has insisted. With strong American support, we anticipate full NATO membership in the future.

Of course, Georgia has advanced further and faster in some areas of integration — with both NATO and the EU — than in others. But this is to be expected. No one has ever believed that some kind of silver bullet remedy exists that would transform Georgia overnight from a country held in the imperial captivity for over two centuries to a fully integrated member of the European Union or NATO. But joining these institutions is our civilizational choice, and no one should underestimate our resolve at achieving it. The United States and the Transatlantic community can ensure that this existential decision is never threatened by championing Georgia’s full membership in both the European Union and NATO. A strong Georgia, properly integrated into the West, is the best hedge against Russian-engineered instability.

Finally, we must work together to foster economic growth. A free trade agreement with the United States would help furthering what is already well underway. Georgia is the overwhelming success story of its region. Georgians currently enjoy a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, and visa free travel in the Schengen Zone. We have preferential trade agreements around the globe, including with the European Free Trade Association, the CIS countries including Russia, Turkey, and China. We currently are exploring an FTA with India and Israel.

Georgia is a favored investment venue for OPIC (now USIDFC), the IMF, the EBRD, the Asian Development Bank. We are home to more than 190 American companies, including many of the leaders of their industries. Foreign direct investment has reached historically high levels for the past 3 years, with cumulative total of more than $10 billion since 2012. Georgia’s actual growth in 2018 is running above 5 percent. It is broadly seen as an attractive place to invest. For example, the World Bank ranks us 6th out of 189 economies for “ease of doing business.” The World Economic Forum ranks Georgia as the 8th least burdensome tax regime in the world. The Heritage Foundation’s index ranks Georgia as 16th best in the world in “Freedom of Economy.” This is better than all but six countries in the European Union itself.

And Georgia is a global economy with global reach and global ambitions. Our new ports at Poti and Anaklia, owned and operated by American companies, make Georgia a major gateway to eight landlocked countries in the middle of Eurasia. Georgia and its partners can access markets from Europe to Asia of over 2 billion people.

Trade and development foster security. A full trade agreement with the United States, which we now seek, would advance the political, economic, and security prospects for both the United States and Georgia.

Russia has made a sport of creating disasters all along its periphery since the fall of the Soviet Union, and has been using these so-called “frozen conflicts” for leverage when they are needed. The West should not let Moscow get away with this behavior. It may seem easier to ignore these issues when they are not in your face, but doing so is just kicking a problem down the road for a time when it will only be more difficult to confront.

As Ambassador, I am of course making a specific case for my country, but the template I have outlined is broadly applicable elsewhere. The West should: 1) Regularly bring up the conflicts with Russia, and force it to negotiate with its neighbors; 2) Integrate Russia’s neighbors into Western institutions as a means of broadly fostering stability; and 3) Encourage trade as a means of bringing widespread prosperity.

In short, be proactive. Not doing so will only embolden Russia.