Controversial law passed in Georgia: A geopolitical shift towards Russia?


Victor Kipiani's interview with the Norwegian online media outlet Geopolitika.



- How do you assess the current state of Georgia's relations with Russia and the European Union? What steps do you think Georgia should take to navigate its relationships between these two major powers? Also, as a follow-up, is the foreign influence law a point of no return concerning this question? Now that it has been enacted, what does it mean for Georgia's relationship between the two? Is it the first step for Georgia to return to Russia's geopolitical orbit?

I will start with the last question, concerning the reintroduction of that law, which will become law very soon since the Georgian parliament overrode the presidential veto a few days ago. Yes, domestically and internationally, some perceive – and for well-grounded reasons - that the governing party, Georgian Dream, by introducing this law, is attempting to shift the foreign policy objective of Georgia. However, at this stage, it seems to me that a definitive response will crystalize shortly. 

However, the indicators over the last period are already quite concerning and worrisome. We witnessed a very unconventional speech on the 29th of April by the honorary chairman of Georgian Dream Mr. Ivanishvili. He pointed out possibly significant shifts in the foreign policy agenda of Georgia from what has been pursued over the last three decades or so. Hence, as I’m saying very often, this "foreign influence" law is not the central piece of the overall picture anymore.

Indeed, the rhetoric and various statements by officials from the Georgian Dream, in particular, create some “moving sands” for Georgia’s future and its pro-Western and pro-EU integration path. And, not surprisingly, we are already hearing very robust statements from different EU officials and stakeholders, and from the United States, stating that enacting that law would have severe implications for Georgia's relations with the West. Before the veto was voted on, the U.S. Department of State announced that it would implement travel-related restrictions. We will have to see how this announcement will crystallize.

We have also seen significant criticism from the European Union, and we must expect that such political assessments will translate into specific measures. Although at this point, there is not enough clarity about what those specifics might be, inevitably, they will entail regrettable and sad consequences. As for Russia, interestingly enough, it is the only place on the globe which has welcomed the enactment of the law on foreign influence transparency. Moscow generally does not hide its delight with the escalation of the developments on the ground. So, this is the overall picture.

To answer the question about how current events will influence Georgia’s European aspirations, I have repeatedly supported – publicly and otherwise – the clear and explicit path of Georgia to integrate with the EU and Western institutions through different political and legal means, including nine steps for opening EU accession talks with the country. Moreover, the Georgian Constitution clearly prescribes commitments to upholding Georgia's official stakeholders to pursue all their best efforts to integrate with Euro-Atlantic and European institutions.

Based on that very same constitutional provision, quite likely we will see a challenge to the 'foreign influence' law on constitutional grounds. We'll need to wait and watch how the process goes. However, I believe such a challenge is inescapable and unavoidable. Furthermore, it, also, remains to be seen how the constitutional court might rule on whether the enactment of this law by the parliament violates a specific provision - Article 78 - which clearly, unequivocally and explicitly outlines Georgia’s foreign policy objectives. 

Before we jump into the next chapter, which closely ties with recent rhetoric and specific legislation, especially during the significant phases of the war in Ukraine, it was clear to some of us that Georgia has been attempting to maintain its own balance. However, as we discuss this now, it's important to note a substantial deviation by the Georgian authorities from what I believe does not reflect the aspirations of the wider Georgian population.

- In the West, some people, often from the extreme left, label these protesters as puppets of NATO, the US, and the European Union. What would you say to these people in the West?

- I don't believe that the historical and recent narrative of Georgia, which has consistently shown a desire to align with Western political unity, supports the idea that Georgian protesters or society—predominantly, a large part of it—are puppets of Western supporters.

To suggest this not only diminishes the significance of their protests and public outcry but also ridicules and insults them. Of course, neither a significant portion of Georgian society nor our Western partners will accept this dishonest, biased and distorted view. 

I'm quite sure that neither the Georgians who are critically assessing the recent changes nor the Western partners will buy into that narrative or that very speculative, to put it my way, presentation of the situation.

- Considering the ongoing war in Ukraine, what implications do you see for Georgia? How should Georgia respond to the security challenges that the war presents? As a follow-up, many people argue that the ruling party thinks that Russia will win the war and is positioning Georgia accordingly. What do you make of this? 

This is an extremely sensitive question. Of course, the war in Ukraine has exposed all the intricacies and implications of Georgian domestic politics. Overall, it’s clear that Georgia stands with Ukraine, and this sentiment spans across all sides of the Georgian political spectrum. It’s also difficult for me to judge who might harbor hidden thoughts about a Russian victory in Ukraine.

Well, the war in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine; and its outcome will have a profound impact not just on Georgian security, but on the overall security architecture in the region, especially in what might be termed the 'no-man's land,' though I do not completely share that term. Undoubtedly, the endgame of the war will be not about the future of Ukraine but Georgia too, - countries that have been in a geopolitical flux for a significant period of time.

As for the said endgame of the war in Ukraine, trust, it should conform to the basic principles of international law: and that is about restoring territorial integrity and sovereignty, among other principles. Again, there is nothing particularly revealing in my response.

But the outcome, which would be translated into a political and geopolitical setup, should also include the geopolitical fate of Georgia and its security. I have always repeated in different interviews that Georgia is like a “prisoner of geography”. Our rightful expectations are that a very positive outcome of the war in Ukraine would not only be in relation to the Ukrainian issue but would also include the Georgian agenda, in terms of enhancing its security and finding its rightful place and role in the Western security architecture in a more articulated and clear way.

- So, on the other side of the coin, if Russia wins, what kind of consequences will that have for Georgia, particularly for the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, if Russia ends up annexing large chunks of Ukrainian territory and achieving their maximalist goals?

We have to recall that Russia is already posing serious threats and challenges to Georgia's security and territorial integrity, occupying almost 20 per cent of Georgian territory. We are also witnessing what we call a “creeping annexation” on a regular and uninterrupted basis. 

Undoubtedly, any negative outcome of the war in Ukraine would expose these threats even deeper and more profoundly. The status of Abkhazia and Tshkinvali region continues to pose a significant challenge for Georgia. 

- What are your views on the future of these regions? Do you see a path towards a resolution that could be acceptable to all parties involved? How will the outcome of the war in Ukraine influence this question?

First, I always challenge any reference to “South Ossetia” as being part of Georgia. There is no “South Ossetia” but the Tshkinvali region that is a breakaway region of Georgia temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation. So, this is a very important remark.

Now, the second point: Any breakthrough or substantial moves towards restoring the territorial integrity of Georgia and reincorporating breakaway provinces could happen, but realistically speaking, only in the context of geopolitical tectonic changes in the region. 

When I refer to 'tectonic changes' in the region, I refer back to the broader perception or understanding of ending the war in Ukraine. If these changes do not occur, speaking frankly and very openly, I do not expect that there will be any substantial progress on that path in the foreseeable future. Georgia would not be able to tackle the territorial challenges on its own.

So, if the Western presence in the South Caucasus is not increased up to a meaningful level, addressing the territorial integrity challenges of Georgia by relying on our own resources only or through some bilateral talks with the Russian Federation, would turn into unrealistic expectations. That would be letting down our population as well as our international partners.

- The next question is more general about Georgia's geopolitical position in the context of the new Cold War between the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe on one side, and the China-Russia axis on the other side. How do you perceive Georgia's role and strategic importance in this context? As a follow-up, the Georgian government recently opened visa-free travel to Chinese citizens in Georgia. What do you make of this?

Let me start by saying that the visa exemptions for Chinese citizens are a very welcome step. No reasonable person could be against free travel and the exchange of contacts, from person to person and community to community. However, we should also not overlook all the implications of the geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing anywhere in the world. 

It remains to be seen how these decisions will translate, if at all, into a more tangible Chinese presence in the region. So, is this build-up of a Chinese influence in the region and the country in a “piecemeal” way?.. Well, let us not jump to any conclusions right now.
On the other hand, what I would note and emphasize is that it seems to me that the United States, because of its obsolete toolkit for dealing with the region, has been losing a battle of narratives to some extent. This is my view, and I could be in the minority in saying that the United States needs to endeavour and use all its efforts to make its own soft power comeback in the South Caucasus and broader Black Sea region.

That being said, as we discuss the specific Georgian law and recent developments, we are already receiving promising and encouraging messages from the United States that if Georgia returns to its progressive path, this would be reciprocated by the United States in terms of liberalizing visa restrictions or possibly introducing a free trade regime between the two countries. And on top of that, I'd also point out expectations of the increased help by the United States in the realm of security in the past. 

All in all, what we're witnessing in Georgia these days are mainly negative developments, but there could be a swift reversal of these negative developments. And should there be any positive outcome, it would surface and happen rather sooner than later. I believe that there is not much time to wait until the situation is clarified more definitively and predictably.

- While we're on the topic of security, you already mentioned Georgia's desire to join the EU and European institutions. But what about NATO? Is it completely unrealistic given what has happened in Ukraine? If yes, what can NATO do for Georgia in the current geopolitical situation?

- I think that at this point, it’s more realistic to focus on getting this nation back on its pro-EU path. As for NATO, any steps to increase the defensibility of Georgia would be extremely welcome and are very much at the top of the agenda. However, at this juncture, with the war in Ukraine still in flux and discussions about further NATO expansion to the east not being clearly articulated—at least not at the level of any concrete political indications, planning, or future designs—it’s not realistic expecting Georgia joining the alliance within a short time.

Again, I would rather reframe my response when I speak about the broader conflicts and wider implications of ending the war in Ukraine and the likely consequences - political and geopolitical. Those consequences could and would more likely also indicate how realistic it would be for NATO and Georgia to continue moving towards each other. However, at this moment, the picture in that regard is quite obscure and vague, to put it mildly.

That being said, of course, we're not limited to just a few possible support mechanisms by NATO. There are various avenues for cooperating with NATO, including a broad package called "the substantial package of NATO-Georgia cooperation." I think we have to make full use of all the elements of that package unless and until any definitive decision on the NATO side is made on further expansion to the east. In any case, ending the war in Ukraine will quite likely provide us with better grounds to discuss.

- What can Europe, the European Union, do to help Georgia cope in these challenging times and achieve its geopolitical, economic, and institutional goals?

- Well, the European Union has been a very critical partner over many years. But, from my personal view, I would wish for the European Union to transform from a type of soft power presence into a more robust presence.

So, that's something which the European Union has to revisit and reconsider, especially when facing very mighty competitors in the region who often play by no rules. And, I believe that the last few years have been a wake-up call for the European Union to redesign its approach and become more competitive and result-driven in our age of the “world order with no order”. 

- How do you assess the current state of government in Georgia? What are the major internal challenges that Georgia faces today? And how can these be addressed to strengthen its democratic institutions? As a follow-up, what kind of legal reforms do you believe are necessary to enhance Georgia's investment climate and economic growth?

- The biggest challenge is institutional erosion, which has substantially undermined the role and influence of institutions in shaping the politics of Georgia. Policymaking has been confined to what I would call the “inner circle”, or the Georgian “deep state”. Hence, a key objective for us over the next year or so is to redesign and restore that very much-needed institutional capacity.

That being said, a clear path to achieving this and various other objectives that are so critical for Georgia’s democracy and the viability of the Georgian state, is to ensure full compliance with the nine recommendations set forth by the European Union. Our next primary goal still remains opening accession talks with the EU by the end of this year.

- So, given your experience in law and international relations, what personal lessons would you share with the next generation of Georgian leaders?

- Well, we are a small nation in a very volatile part of the world. As we do not possess hydrocarbons, enjoy military might or, let's say, significant foreign currency resources and the like, the only path to long-term sustainability and competitiveness for Georgia goes across open and free society, transparency, and accountability. It is also about honesty in the eyes of its own citizens and credibility when speaking with international partners. These are truly essential and critical for moving forward.

Again, I fully appreciate that the very reference to a “democracy” might sound annoying and superficial when failing to cope with various challenges successfully. However, that substantiating that very true and genuine meaning of democracy and rule of law, in the first place, is what we need when we speak about Georgian competitiveness and viability. I cannot think of anything different when chartering our own way in the next few decades to come.