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Rome, Byzantium and NATO: Grand Strategy of the West and Georgia

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Authors: Prof. Dr.Tedo Dundua and Dr. Emil Avdaliani

There are two ways to prove Georgia’s place within the NATO Alliance. First is the current argument urging for total Euro-Atlantic unity, next – historical one. Previous pan-European (Roman and Early Byzantine) military presence in Georgia can be applied to the present discussion. The article covers this issue.

Roman Period. Frankish Limitanei in Lazica

Before being totally destroyed, the Roman Imperial security system actually had shown three gradual phases of development.

A large number of the Italian colonists with the best technologies, swift and comfortable communications, the most prominent industrial output, Roman citizenship, municipal freedom – that was the Roman gift for the Western provinces in the 1st-2nd cc. A.D. Sincere intimacy with the metropolis had been founded as a direct result of complete satisfaction. It paved the way to the Romanization. As for the Greeks, the Romans reserved a quite life and economic stability. Still beyond the Roman Rhine, Danube and Pontus there were others favouring this concept of pan-European integration. The happy client kings used to be awarded with the Roman citizenship. And for the Julio-Claudians these client kingdoms formed the first defense-line of the Imperial territories. A little behind, the whole perimeter was dotted by solid legionary concentrations, proving the system to be impregnable. No cardinal changes took place in the era of the Antonines, except for annexation of the client kingdoms and breaking the big army concentrations in favour of scattering the legions along the whole frontier. In both cases, after defeating comparatively weak enemy at the border, the Romans usually attacked their territory. This system of security is called forward defense.

Greeks and the Romans were sending more and more working hands towards industry, but not to manufacture the means of production. As a result, population was growing, but not amount of industrial goods per capita. Prices rushed high for the Italian produce, demanding damping for provincial food and raw materials, thus weakening the sympathies between the European subjects of the Roman Empire. Some even started to search for a relief beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers. Many things happened that completely changed the defensive strategy, namely: 1. economic crisis; 2. weakening of the integratory links; 3. socio-economic animation of “Barbaricum”; 4. financial chaos and some professional regiments converted into limitanei. From now on they are to stand the first strike and evacuate the whole frontier folk into citadels, thus wearing down the enemy. And there were large and mobile field armies deployed far behind those self-contained strongholds to cut down any invasion into the depth. This system shaped in the times of Diocletian is called defense-in-depth.

But before this new system was finally established, the Romans had been fighting those already easily passing the border wherever they could manage to concentrate large army-units. In the early days of the Empire praetorians formed the only Imperial reserve. And now Gallienus recruited special mobile reserve-regiments. Name for this defensive system is elastic defense.

Security system had to be changed at least because of emergence of the Germanic seaborne attacks from the 3rd c. everywhere at the seas that prolonged the line of the frontier (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore. 1981, pp. 192-193; T. Dundua, N. Silagadze. European Industrial Complexes of I Cycle of Capitalism and the Georgian Western Affiliations. Historical and Numismatic Tale. Tbilisi. 2005, pp. 5-7; T. Dundua. North and South. Tbilisi. 2001, pp. 8-15).

Full-time units, legions, alae of cavalry, cohortes of infantry and mixed cohortes equitatae served the forward defense-system. Part-time border force of limitanei had appeared and auxiliary alae and cohorts had disappeared; and regular mobile reserve – comitatenses – substituted legions, fixed at the border. All they served new security system – defense-in-depth. The whole 3rd c. saw these changes, finally shaped in the times of Constantine I. Septimius Severus was the first to form a certain kind of reserve. He stationed II Parthica in Albanum, increased praetorian and urban cohorts in number. And Gallienus created special cavalry units to serve as a reserve (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 173, 184).

In the 3rd c. large federations of Franki and Alemanni began to threaten the Rhine-frontier. And the Goths had already reached Dniester by 238 (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 128, 146). Franks attacked Gaul, Alemanns – Italy. From the great deeds of Emperor M. Aurelius Probus (276-282) the most important is the deliverance of seventy Gaulic cities. He drove back Franks and Alemanns, four hundred thousand of them being killed. Probus passed the Rhine, and returned back with considerable tribute of corn, cattle, and horses. Sixteen thousand Germanic recruits were dispersed among the Roman units. Other captive or fugitive barbarians gained a new status, that of part-time peasant-soldiers (limitanei). Emperor transported a considerable body of Vandals into Cambridgeshire, great number of Franks and Gepidae were settled on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine, Bastarnae – in Thrace. Pontic (The Black Sea) coast was reserved for some more Franks (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. London. 1993 (first published in 1776), pp. 362-368). But which one exactly? This is to be discussed.

According to Ed. Gibbon, Franks settled at the sea-coast of Pontus had to check the Alani inroads. A fleet stationed in one of the harbors of the Euxine fell into their hands, and they resolved, through unknown seas, to explore their way from the mouth of Phasis (river Rioni in West Georgia) to that of the Rhine. They easily escaped through the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, and cruising along the Mediterranean, indulged their appetite for revenge and plunder by frequent descents on the shores of Asia, Greece and Africa. City of Syracuse was sacked by the barbarians. Franks proceeded to the columns of Hercules, coasted round Spain and Gaul, and steering their course through the British channel, at length finished their voyage by landing in safety on the Batavian or Frisian shores (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall . . ., pp. 367-368).       

What is this whole story based on? Zosimus and one panegyric to Constantius Chlorus contributed to it.

Narrating about the events in the past, in the times of divine Probus, author of this panegyric mentions undeserved success of the small Frankish band, who, sailing from Pontus on the captured fleet, ravished Greece and Asia, damaged Africa, stormed Syracuse, and passing through the columns of the Hercules, reached the ocean (Recursabat quippe in animos illa sub diuo Probo paucorum ex Francis captiuorum incredibilis audacia et indigna felicitas, qui a Ponto usque correptis nauibus Graeciam Asiamque populati nec impune plerisque Libyae litoribus appulsi ipsas postremo naualibus quondam uictoriis nobiles ceperant Syracusas et immenso itinere peruecti oceanum, qua terras irrumpit, intrauerant atque ita euentu temeritatis ostenderant nihil esse clausum piraticae desperationi, quo nauigiis pateret accessus.) (Panegyricus Constantio Dictus, IV, XVIII. Panégyriques Latins. T. I (I-V). Texte Établi et Traduit par Édourd Galletier. Paris. 1949, pp. 96-97).

Zosimus tells us about the Franks having appealed to the Emperor, and having a country given to them. A part of them afterwards revolted, and having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece; from whence they proceeded into Sicily, to Syracuse, which they attacked, and killed many people there. At length they arrived in Africa, whence though they were repulsed by a body of men from Carthage, yet they returned home without any great loss (Zosimus. New History. Book 1. London. 1814).

There is no mention of mouth of the river of Phasis as a spring-board for the expedition in the sources. Then, what was in Gibbon’s mind? Perhaps, logic, excluding the possibilities.

Indeed, the Northern Black Sea coast is beyond the Roman rule. The Western shores, and the Balkans are already packed with the barbarians. Southern littoral was less used for receptio, while Lazica (West Georgia) and Pontic Limes cannot be argued.And something strange had happened to this limes in the 3rd c.  Now threat comes not from the front, the Romans have Lazi client king dwelling there, but – from behind, because of the Goths living at the Northern shores.

We can only guess that the Franks were in Lazica as limitanei. But we really know nothing about how they were coordinating with the full-time units, their number before and after the revolt, what was the life like for those who stayed loyal.

Still, it seems quite reasonable that the bargain of receptio-system should have been distributed among all Roman provinces to keep the centre undisturbed from the barbaric influx. In the 3rd c. theEmpire is able to do this, not after.

Byzantines in Georgia

With the death of Theodosius, last Emperor of the united Roman world, in 395 A.D. the Empire was divided into two almost same-sized halves. The Western part, while defending itself throughout the 5th c. from various barbarian hordes (at the time, the Western part was defended by regiments consisting mainly of barbarians) coming from beyond the Rhine river, had an almost destroyed tax-paying system. This very factor did not allow the Imperial administration based in Ravenna to muster enough economic and military resources for effective defense of the Northern borders. Last Western Roman Emperors were mere puppets in the hands of barbarian warlords – the process which culminated in deposing the last Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476.

The Eastern part (Byzantium) with the capital in Constantinople, on the other hand, showed greater resilience in managing internal problems and external threats. Byzantium managed simultaneously to hold off the barbarians coming from the North and the Sassanians from the East. This was made possible by an efficient tax-paying system the Byzantines inherited from the Romans, which, in turn, made it possible to field large armies to defend the Imperial borders on several fronts and at the same time wage offensive wars (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Harvard. 2009, pp. 1-16. The most apparent case is the reign of Justinian when, while waging war on Vandals in North Africa and the Ostrogoths in Italy, Constantinople still had to defend its Eastern border from the Sassanians and the Danube river from the Slavs).

The Byzantines did not have such abundant resources as the Romans had during the first three centuries A.D. Moreover, the Eastern half was spread on three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – making the Imperial borders highly vulnerable to foreign powers. In other words, the geography put the Byzantine Empire at a huge disadvantage as the Danube river was a barrier easy to cross for the Goths, or in later centuries Huns, Slavs and Avars. In Africa, the desert frontier stretching for more than a thousand kilometers had no geographic barrier to rely on making rich Tripolitania and Byzacena and the South of Egypt exposed to attacks from the Berbers and other nomadic groups. The Eastern frontier too was highly vulnerable as the Arab groupings could easily reach Palestine and Syrian cities from the Syro-Mesopotamian desert. In the North Mesopotamia Byzantium faced its greatest rival, Sassanian Iran, and this portion too needed to be defended with the assemblage of large military power, whether through the field armies or military fortifications. Moreover, the Byzantines had little geographic depth along its entire Eastern frontier to fully employ the defense-in-depth strategy (e.g., in the Balkans Constantinople did enjoy large geographic depth necessaryfor the defense. This was apparent when the Huns under Attila and then the Avars in early 7th c. broke through the Danubian defenses and reached Constantinople. However, military regiments placed in various fortresses and the distance of several hundreds of kilometers (from the Danube to the capital) enabled the Emperor, whether it was Theodosius II or Heraclius, to thwart the barbarian onslaughts). The similar situation was in Africa. Since Asia Minor, Balkans, Egypt and Syria were the most prosperous lands in terms of population number and the level of urbanization, the functioning of the Empire was contingent upon the defense of these provinces. Overall, the Byzantines were at much worse geographic situation than their Western counterparts.

Thus, in order to survive in this difficult geopolitical situation and preserve the Empire from early 5th c. to the 7th c., the Byzantines had to develop a whole set of military strategies. In other words, the Byzantines were no less successful than the Flavians, Antonines and late 3rd c. Emperors. However, the Byzantines made numerous changes by adapting to new circumstances. Since Constantinople had less economic and human resources than the united Roman Empire, the Byzantines always tried to use less military power and employ more diplomacy and the propagation of the Christian religion (G. Fowden. Consequences of the Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Princeton. 1993, pp. 80-100) to safeguard Imperial borders.

The Byzantines inherited from the Romans military presence in Lazica and alliance with Kartli/Iberia (East and South Georgia). This military tradition goes back to the first two centuries A.D. and represents a forward-defense strategy. Byzantine garrisons, which existed in Lazica from the 5th c. till the Arab invasion of the Middle East in the 30s of the 7th c. (T. Dundua. Influx of Roman Coins in Georgia. Roman Coins Outside the Empire. Ways and Phases, Contexts and Functions. Proceedings of ESF/SCH Exploratory Workshop. Nieborow (Poland). 2005. Moneta. Wetteren. 2008, p. 313), did not change their location. However, the role of Lazica considerably increased as in late 4th c. the so-called  Völkerwanderung” or Migration period began. Since the new peoples such as Huns, Avars etc. lived in the Eurasian steppes, which bordered the Caucasian range and the Danube river, Constantinople had to face a two-front war from the North (from the Eastern and Western parts of the Black Sea). Therefore, the Byzantine garrisons in Lazica were transformed into forward posts for collecting information about new peoples coming from the steppes and, in case of need, establishing first diplomatic contacts too.

For example, when approximately in 557 the Avars reached the Volga river, in modern-day Southern Russia, in a year or two through the Alans they sent an embassy to Constantinople. But, before the letter was received in the capital, first it had been passed through the hands of Byzantine generals stationed in Lazica (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, p. 59). The role of Lazica increased also because of the mountain passes through which the newly-coming nomads from the North could potentially penetrate into the South and cause havoc even in the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire as it happened in 395 when the Huns reached as far as Antioch (P. Heather. The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford. 2007, pp. 145-154). The Byzantine officials also used the passes to distract nomad leaders by making them to take much longer roads to reach the Imperial capital. Menander Protector preserves the bitter complaint of a Turkic chief from the steppes, North to the Caucasian range, dated by 577: “As for you Romans, why do you take my envoys through the Caucasus to Byzantium, alleging that there is no other route for them to travel? You do this so that I might be deterred from attacking the Roman Empire by the difficult terrain (i.e. high mountains which for horses are very hard to cross). But I know very well where the river Danapris (Dniepr) flows, and the Istros (Danube) and the Hebrus (Maritsa, Meric)” (Excerpta de Legationibus Romanorum ad Gentes, 14, in The History of Menander the Guardsman. Translated by R. C. Blockley. London. 1985, p. 175).

Lazica’s military importance increased even more following the stand-off between Justinian and the Sassanian Shahanshah Khusro I Anushirvan in mid-6th c. By the time Iran had already been increasing its political and military pressure towards North and West, which culminated in the abolition of the Albanian and Armenian kingdoms during the 5th-early-6th cc. As was said, mid-6th c. saw renewed warfare between the empires and the focus of the conflict, traditionally along with the North Mesopotamia, also fell on Lazica. Iran was interested in occupying the Eastern Black Sea coast to pressure Constantinople (which by the time was already embroiled in a war with the Ostrogoths in Italy) into signing a more winning peace treaty for Ctesiphon. The Byzantines knew well that if the Sassanians managed to occupy the Lazica shore, Iranian military vessels in the near future would make their way through the Bosphorus directly to Constantinople. This is well reflected in one of the passages from Procopius – Lazi sent an embassy to Khusro to explain the geopolitical advantages which the Iranians would gain through controlling Lazica and the Byzantine fortresses there: “To the realm of Persia you will add a most ancient kingdom, and as a result of this you will have the power of your sway extended, and it will come about that you will have a part in the sea of the Romans through our land, and after thou hast built ships in this sea (i.e. Black Sea), O King, it be possible for thee with no trouble to set foot in the palace in Byzantium. For there is no obstacle between. And one might add that the plundering of the land of the Romans every year by the barbarians along the boundary will be under your control. For surely you also are acquainted with the fact that up till now the land of the Lazi has been a bulwark against the Caucasus Mountains” (De Bello Persico. II. 15; Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1914, pp. 225-226).

The above analysis of the Roman and Early Byzantine military strategies towards their neighbors quite clearly shows that Georgia always had its own place within the pan-European military alliances. Why not bring it back?

NATO and Georgia

NATO alliance’s strategy could be likened to the best military traditions of Roma and Byzantium discussed above. As was the case with these two Empires, NATO too regards the Black Sea and its Eastern shore – Georgia – as fundamental for the alliance’s strategy in the Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region overall.

As for the Romans and Byzantines before, for NATO too Georgia’s Black Sea shore would allow the alliance to expand militarily in the region and control crucial land and maritime military routes from the North to the Black Sea basin. There is also an economic dimension since Georgia serves as a vital transit route for oil/gas pipelines, important railroads connecting the Caspian and Black Seas. Indeed, as Roman and Byznaitne army units before, NATO’s presence in Georgia would serve as a defensive shield for trade in the region which in Antiquity was often referred to as a part of the famous Silk Road and nowadays is called as the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor because of oil/gas transport infrastructure.

This strategic vision is well reflected in one of the recent NATO-Georgia Commission statement: “Georgia is one of the Alliance’s closest operational partners, and an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Allies highly appreciate Georgia’s steadfast support for NATO’s operations and missions…” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019. Direct allusion to the alliance’s Black Sea strategy is also seen in another passage from the same Commission statement: “NATO values Georgia’s engagement in, and contributions to, strategic discussion and mutual awareness, on security in the Black Sea region” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019.

Thus NATO alliance’s strategic vision for Georgia and the wider Black Sea region is similar to how the Romans and Byzantines saw this part of the world.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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