Georgian Democracy And Russia: Matter Of Language


By Guner Ozkan

Instruments of geopolitics are not just confined to the strength of armies, military alliances or economic presence. The existence by itself, whether or not established by others, of liberal or illiberal democracy in a country is also part of geopolitics. Georgia has long been part of such a world in a geopolitical game where democracy plays an essential role. Certainly, Georgia is situated on one of the hottest geopolitical fault lines in which a number of states’ economic, political, military and ideological interests are both overlapped and contested. The democratic experience of Georgia since independence, as seen in the cases of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus region, has carried all the hallmarks of that geopolitical wrangling and coalitions. These have come in the forms of both direct action and inaction by Russia and the U.S. as the two leading contenders in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus, seen for instance in the examples of the fall, rise and survival of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze in late 2003 and Mikhail Saakashvili after the August 2008 war.

Georgia - Russia Relations
Georgia – Russia Relations

There are lots of reasons to think that the health of Georgia’s democracy will show similar symptoms when impacted by external action or inaction as seen in the past examples. The sustainability of the current democratic achievement of Georgia thus continues to depend on the ability of the new government to develop workable and peaceful relations with first its big neighbor in the north, Russia, and then to work out a fine balance between the interests of Moscow and Washington in the South Caucasus region. Then the question is how likely and/or to what extent Bidzina Ivanishvili, or his Georgian Dream coalition, winner of the election, will be able to do so. There are a number of crucial determinants as to whether these are achieved or not, such as the language of Georgia and Russia toward each other, different understandings and a need for democracy, and hardcore geopolitical matters. In this article, I will touch on the necessity to adopt better language by both Georgia and Russia to start a healthy dialogue and have a stable relationship. But before beginning this, a few words should concerning the language used in the recent elections should be offered.

On Parliamentary Elections

In a region such as the South Caucasus, the free will of the people is not often reflected in the ballot boxes. It is Georgia which has for a long time tried to change this long lasting “tradition,” and seems to have finally done so with the parliamentary elections held on October 1. The language used by leading contenders toward each other during and after the elections seems to have helped maintain a calm political atmosphere in Georgia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, and the winner of the elections, had always stressed since entering politics that he was opposed to resorting to violence in their election rallies and anti-Saakashvili demonstrations. Most importantly, Ivanishvili did not accept any other violent political clashes in the country and any attempt to remove Saakashvili from power through any sort of brute force. He appealed to his supporters a number of times to only use democratic and peaceful methods to change public opinion and expect to have their voices heard by the government. Putting aside other factors, such a calm language and attitude by Ivanishvili in the run up to the elections led to a change in the attitude of Saakashvili too. Even if Saakashvili did not hesitate to use harsh words against Ivanishvili during the campaign process, like him being a stooge and agent of Vladimir Putin to sell Georgia to Russia, he denied all these allegations in a calm manner. At the end, even before the final election results came out, Saakashvili conceded the defeat of his party, the United National Movement. Perhaps, in return for Saakashvili’s effort to reduce the tension by admitting defeat and accepting the democratic choice of the Georgian people, Ivanishvili retracted his demand that Saakashvili must resign in favor of dialogue and cooperation. Whether or not he displayed this behavior for the sake of maintaining a peaceful atmosphere in the country or if it was really a natural result of his calm nature, such behavior has always been a rare commodity in Georgian politics. So long as they, both actors in the coming government and opposition, maintain this calm language and respect, then they would be one step forward in their struggle to establish a deeply rooted democratic tradition and behavior of compromise and cooperation in the country, all of which would then help them fix urgent the socio-economic and other problems of Georgia. Indeed, both the group in power and opposition seem to have passed a significant test with the elections, in which the language they used toward one another played an important if not crucial role. What about relations with Russia? Will or can Georgia and Russia adopt a sort of language toward each other that could break the ice between the two sides?

Matter of Language and Russia

Certainly, among those factors that have significantly influenced Georgia-Russia relations are the personality or behavior of their leaders. No other country in the South Caucasus has suffered more from the use of hectic and harsh language than that of Georgia. Since independence, it has been as if a cycle of contrasting personalities held power one after another in Georgia, which created division not only among Georgian people at large but also the country’s relations with the outside world.

The outcome of harsh language naturally produced deep rifts with a country closer to the region and having many times announced a self-declared, regardless of opinions, special relationship with countries in the post-Soviet geography. This country was and still is none other than Russia. It was the first president of Georgia, Gamsakhurdia, who used to have a language that excluded not just nationals of the country who were not ethnic Georgians but also Russians and Russia’s interest. This was one of the reasons why Shevardnadze, after the ouster of Gamsakhurdia from power in 1992, chose a conciliatory language as far as Russians and Russia’s interests were concerned. Shevardnadze, who had remained in power for about ten years until late 2003, was not less critical than Gamsakhurdia of Russia’s support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and whose war against Tbilisi. And yet his difference, and perhaps his virtue, was that he knew very well of the Russian elite and what sort of language he should use when dealing with Russia. Eduard Shevardnadze maintained his cautious language and deeds in relation to Russia even when he started intensifying military relations with the U.S. and NATO.

Unlike Shevardnadze, Mikhail Saakashvili after the consolidation of his power following the Rose revolution at the end of 2003 blamed Russia for everything that went wrong in the country. Especially after he took control of Adjara in 2004 from the region’s longtime ruler, Aslan Abashidze, and Russia, which had a military base in the region in Batumi and was believed to be providing Abashidze with political and military protection, Saakashvili got bolder when dealing with other separatists regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and increased his rhetorical language against Moscow’s cloud over them. The more Saakashvili failed to have positive responses from Russia over the return of breakaway regions to the control of Tbilisi, the more he intensified military and political relations with the U.S., asked for full membership in NATO and political and economic integration with the EU. The language of enmity and hatred had gradually dominated and shaped most of the Saakashvili’s speeches toward Russia and Putin. The Russian side did not remain silent against Saakashvili’s words and deeds. Putin at the helm in Russia, having come from the old KGB apparatus, was and has still been one of the harsher critics of Saakashvili and Georgia’s Rose Revolution. The language of personal dislike and hate used by both sides against each other reached its acme with the August 2008 war and continued afterward at a similar level.

Ivanishvili, even before he entered politics in October 2011, has always maintained his level-headed attitude regarding Russia. He did not enter into any kind of individual confrontational rhetoric, neither with Putin nor any other Russian political figure, regarding any problems the two sides have had deep divisions over. Ivanishvili has displayed a personal behavior, and perhaps knowledge, caution and experience, similar to that of Shevardnadze. Despite this, however, the virtues Ivanishvili is showing may not be enough to avoid stark language with Russia due to the fact that the Georgian Dream is a coalition movement made up of nationalist parties alongside liberals. The Georgian Dream is an alliance of convenience that was established on the single most important purpose, ousting the United National Movement of Saakashvili from power, which is now accomplished.

Thus, it is early to say whether such current solemn acts and the silence of Ivanishvili and his partners toward Russia and Russian politicians will bring any positive change to Georgia’s damaged relations with Moscow. At least the Georgian Dream has gone a step forward toward Russia with the language it used, and seems to expect a positive return. So far Russia has chosen to be silent to this, only expressed its welcome for change in Georgia, and distanced itself from both the success of Ivanishvili and the successful democratic practice of the Georgian elite and people.

All in all, however, the language difference is not enough to explain the rift between Georgia and Russia, and the geopolitics of Georgian democracy. Surely, the issue of language between Georgian and Russian leaders is just one thing, but the main question is what makes these two sides so fiercely divided and how likely is it that they can bridge the existing gap. These questions go deep into the heart of the problems that long made the two countries fall apart. At this point, the main issue between them is a sort of democracy that each side gives different meanings to and requires as a cure for their own socio-political problems and security fears.

Guner Ozkan
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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