From 01.02.2020 to 03.02.2020, The Warsaw Institute Review (WIR) and the Warsaw Institute (WI) were represented by WIR Advisor Alexander Wielgos during a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, at meetings at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi, as well as the Information Centre on EU and NATO in Tbilisi.
Georgia is at the crossroads geographically and culturally between Eastern Europe, West Asia as well as the Middle East. Specifically Georgian architecture, history, traditions, culture, philosophy, together with historical influences from, inter alia, the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires, as well as its Azerbaijani and Armenian neighbours in the Caucasus region, give it a rich national heritage. As each region in Georgia is unique, it would seem to come together in Tbilisi. Its multicultural nature is attested to on every corner, for example by various restaurants with Georgian, Russian, and English-language menus, sometimes with Arabic and Farsi too. Furthermore, mosques, synagogues, and various kinds of churches (Georgian, Armenian, and others), and other places of cultural and religious significance, both seamlessly blend in and stand out, all side by side in this valley-situated capital.
With this, geopolitical complexities have shaped Georgia’s history as they do its future today. Foundations for what was an early Georgian nation in the Kingdom of Iberia included practises of Zoroastrianism, and was later rocked by rivalries between the Roman and Persian empires. In 337 AD, the state was baptised by King Mirian III into Christianity. After early Muslim conquests, some were repelled and starting 778 by Abkhazian princes, leading to an Abkhazian Kingdom which began to see some changes by recognising the Catholic Church and the Georgian language and development, and after a period of unrest, the areas were unified under a Georgian Kingdom at about 1008.
Though it thrived, allowing for periods of developing characteristic Georgian culture, writings, and others, in the midst surviving conflicts with and between the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires, in 1466 a drastic, considerable fragmentation took place, with 3 independent states emerging alongside 5 semi-autonomous principalities. Ensuing power struggles reached a more decisive turning point during the Napoleonic Wars, where Georgia was forcefully integrated into the Russian Empire in 1802 after initial steps taken which are of disputed origin, and this was formalised in a 1813 treaty with Persia after intense battles. Further territories were regained from the wars with the Ottoman Empire, such as Adjara, and later in 1867 followed by Mingrelia.
In the aftermath of the revolutions in 1917 in Russia, Georgia declared independence from the Transcaucasian state with Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1918, which was followed by some border wars and clashes. However, in 1921 the country was overwhelmed and was incorporated into the USSR. Georgians resisted what they could. Stalin had actually encouraged the Georgian rebellion to have pretext for eliminating opposition in Georgia, with Georgian protests being violently quelled in 1924 and about 10,000 individuals were executed afterwards.
In March 1991, an independence referendum led to its declaration in April 1991, stoking intense nationalism after having been so long in the USSR. This was followed by a coup from December 1991 to January 1992, which caused a civil war until 1995. In this time, Russia deliberately encouraging, organising, and directing these separatist entities and groups in both the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, which made gains against the Georgian state, and this was further complicated by an ethnic cleansing and expelling of Georgians from these regions. Despite the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) having been established in 1993 and some following ease of tensions, this remained a frozen conflict.
Thereafter, Georgia announced firmly, and continues to this day, intention to join NATO and the EU. As a pro-Western, peaceful change of power, the Rose Revolution in November 2003 brought about an intensification of cooperation with NATO as well as high expectations and hopes for internal reforms in the backdrop of tensions, such as with Adjara in 2004. Though throughout this time, Russia had been building up military presence in these regions, taking steps for political recognition of separatist leaders. Furthermore, in 2006, Georgia had uncovered Russian espionage activity, and led to tensions in the backdrop of anti-government protests in Georgia in 2007.
Following Kosovo’s independence, a retaliatory military build of up of Russian units began an uptick as soon as April 2008 in various forms, including test violations of airspace, explosion incidents, and notably, increased security presence for the reparation of a railroad leading to Ochamchire at the end of July 2008. Surely enough, as the GFSIS piece explains, before sunrise on 07.08.2008, the Russian army invaded, and Georgian forces were able to mobilise only in the evening of that same day. This was accompanied with an intense information warfare and cyber offensives simultaneously, causing blur and confusion in and around the two regions, Georgia, the Caucasus region, and the world.
This GFSIS map shows, as do the dotted lines on Google Maps, is that the south-eastern outer bounds of South Ossetia are just over 40 km away from Tbilisi. These undertakings of pressure and sophisticated disinformation tactics targeted at the local populace and diplomatic engagement persists today. The next steps forward are not obvious, though they are urgent.
WI is member in a fresh new project titled “Russia’s Strategic Activities in Eastern Europe – Systematic Analysis and Awareness Raising”, which aims to cover a specific scope; including the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, neighbouring Poland and Belarus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova, and, of course, Georgia. The geostrategic activities of Russia in these countries are complex, would appear that efforts are made to ensure they are well thought out, and it is difficult to interpret them as beneficial for stability or benevolent in nature. The project systemically studies and clarifies these strategic undertakings in Russian military, covert/subversive, diplomatic, economic and informational activities in Eastern Europe.
On 01.02.2020 and 02.02.2020, the meetings of researchers were held at the GFSIS premises, which saw the participation of researchers from: the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, from Lithuania; WI, from Poland; the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”, from Ukraine; as well as the hosts, GFSIS, or Rondeli Foundation, from Georgia.
Then, the following day, 03.02.2020, at the premises of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi a ‘Duologue’ took place, making it the second Duologue with a Polish Embassy abroad as well as the first in the northern hemisphere. WIR’s signature Duologue initiative, or ‘Strategy Duologues on Geopolitics’, are a series of meetings with Embassies to exchange views from the perspectives of an Embassy and a geopolitical quarterly and think tank.
Though current diplomatic relations were established 28.04.1992, historical ties between Poland and Georgia go back further. As early as the 1400’s, during the Georgian Kingdom’s later stages, King Konstantin of Georgia had sent envoys to Poland’s King Aleksander Jagiellończyk, the earliest diplomatic contacts and relations. These relations were further developed in a diplomatic role as ties between Poland and Persia also further developed or underwent changes.
Later, as Georgia had gained independence, albeit temporarily at the time, in 1920, both Poland and Georgia recognised each other as good partners, and had established a formal alliance on the first opportunity.
Also, during the crisis and the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, as Russia had prepared and was also conducting war on the cyber front, it caused disruption on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, and in response, the late President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczyński had on his website posted messages in its stead. The late President, alongside the heads of states of other Eastern European countries, travelled to Tbilisi in strong support of Georgia against the Russian aggression.
There is a Lech Kaczyński Street in Tbilisi, as well as a Lech and Maria Kaczyński Street, or ‘Lekh da Maria Kachinskebis Kucha’, in both Batumi and Gori. This, as well as other elements in Georgia named after Polish individuals honoured or with meaningful ties with Georgia, had recently been joined by the Władysław Raczkiewicz Square in Kutaisi, which was formally inaugurated just last month, January 2020, named after a prominent figure in Polish history who was “raised in the Georgian spirit and culture”. Władysław Raczkiewicz was a prominent high ranking civil servant and President of the Government in Exile.
Also at this time in January 2020, the Directors of the Lech Kaczyński National School of Public Administration and Zurab Zhvania School of Public Administration signed a memorandum of cooperation as an essential step in professionally developing civil servants and the functionality of public administration. Some other notable endeavours include supporting several scholarships for students, or the promotion of economic development programmes together with PARP.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland to Georgia H.E. Mariusz Maszkiewicz and First Secretary Marcin Mamoń elaborated on Polish and Georgian ties, as well as ongoing cooperation between Georgia and Poland. Foremostly, however, that the Polish Embassy in Tbilisi is the contact point for NATO, and as such, the Embassy is amongst the most active in Tbilisi. Its role as the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi is imperative as Poland is one of the strongest advocating entities for furthering steps of Georgia’s accession into both the EU and NATO, and Georgians frequently express strong friendliness to Poland.
Furthermore, just before the start of this decade, in December 2019, the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative of enhancing steps towards accession into the EU, were observed, which covers Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. From these, Georgia has taken the most decisive steps. Poland, together in partnering with Sweden, is a founder of the EaP.
Following the Duologue, the final meeting of the visit was at the Information Centre on EU and NATO in Tbilisi, with Deputy Director Ms. Irina Shamiladze, who elaborated on the mission and achievements in Georgia with regard to accession steps, as well as the challenges which need to be constantly and diligently faced in a variety of scopes, both local and in isolated areas, as well as an overall national scale.
The sentiment of Georgian people is overwhelmingly positive towards NATO and the EU, with 84% supporting the aim to join NATO and 70% supporting the aim to join the EU in a 2018 poll. The EU and NATO Information Center in Tbilisi is outstandingly active, having organised 600 events which reached out to more than 37,500 people in 2018 on improved knowledge and understanding of both NATO and EU as important institutions to join for the well-being of the country. This figure increased in 2019, most particularly important now in context of Brexit. From these events, a vast majority were held in the neighbouring regions, having a regional representative for each region, and distributing information in Georgian. Communication channels which accompany these events are also the use of fun and educational activities for youth as well as university students, seminars, meetings, open debates, and open days, such as their NATO Days, the NATO-Georgia Public Diplomacy Forum, the Information Campaign on Visa-free Regime, and so on. Use of social media, namely Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, to better communicate to the younger citizens is elemental in these necessary endeavours.
The above meetings gave some great first appreciation of Georgia, and there was much more to be discovered, with some unique cultural aspects as well.
Georgia is the birthplace of wine, where it was first invented around 8000 years ago. That is why the Passport Control at Customs upon arrival also gave a small bottle of wine. Furthermore, ‘Qvevri’ are the traditional pots, usually in the shape of an egg and kept partially buried, which are used to store and ferment the traditional Georgian Qvevri wine. The practise is an Intangible UNESCO Heritage. So are traditional dishes which are more well known, such as the Khachapuri pastry.
In all, WIR’s short visit was able to get some insight into Georgia’s geopolitical situation with namely Russia, ties Georgia has with Poland, as well as Georgia’s aspirations for joining NATO and the EU, and share it with its readers.