Does western neoliberal rhetoric toward Georgia enable Russian political advantage?

"Georgia's parliament" by Jason Rosenberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By | Rachel Brooks 

February 23, 2021  


Image credit: “Georgia’s parliament” by Jason Rosenberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Outside the Georgian parliament in May of 2012. Today, mass protests erupted as the opposition leader Melia was arrested.  

The political crisis in the Georgian republic continues to deepen. On February 23, The Washington Post reported that the Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia had been arrested, following a series of resignations and heated political rhetoric in the nation, including oppositional rhetoric heating up between Georgian political leaders and their strategic Ukrainian ally counterparts.

Understanding western liberalism rhetoric to gauge western approach Georgia moving forward

As Georgian politics are interrupted by the chaos of political opposition and protest, the western world looks on in growing concern, see France24 broadcast below. The western outlook of Caucasus politics, sometimes flawed in regional understanding or by the rhetoric of western political interest, stands as a separate issue for observing the political crisis within this Caucasus republic.

The U.S. and the European response to the issues in Georgia are shaped as much by the western rhetoric regarding these events as they are by the events as they happen. Likewise, the efficacy of this response as a diplomatic mediation is shaped by the approach, and rhetoric heavily influences corresponding methods. For this reason, Republic Underground will explore western rhetoric, particularly the western liberalism rhetoric that dominates western media. Observing this rhetoric improves an understanding of the western world’s priorities and approach of Georgia as the political crisis unfolds.

How western media has developed rhetoric concerning Georgian politics in recent history

Developing over the last decade, western rhetoric concerning the political turmoil in post-Soviet Georgia has been one of criticism. The reports outline mafia control of Georgia and highlight a political infighting issue present in the country’s development up until this critical historical moment when the country heads either toward a reformation or policy failure. 

France 24 reports Nika Melia’s arrest, and the corresponding protests. 

openDemocracy commentary on the “politics of survival” 

Post-doctoral research of Georgian politics in western institutions reflects the western understanding of Georgia’s domestic politics as a status of “political survivalism.” Dr. Gavin Slade is one example of this viewpoint. Dr. Slade is a postdoctoral fellow of the Freie Universitat in Berlin and a former assistant professor of criminology from the University of Toronto. Slade reflects an understanding of Georgia’s “survivalism” politics in work published by openDemocracy, a publication he frequently contributed to from 2010-2014. 

Slade wrote in “Georgia’s mafia: the politics of survival” in August 2010 that the powerful criminal network of Georgia has been “a prominent feature” of Georgian life before and after the Soviet period. The network has been referred to as kanonieri qurdebi or “thieves-in-law” in the Georgian language. Slade attributed the political changes within Georgia from the past decade as closely connected to this criminal enterprise. 

Slade referenced the work of G.Mars and Y. Altman in “The Cultural Bases of the Georgian Second Economy.” In this research, the authors argued a cultural significance of a “burgeoning second economy” present within Soviet Georgia that was born of Georgian honor codes, risk-taking, and nepotism. This paper was written in 1983, almost a decade before the events of modernization that would catalyze the reform of the Soviet states, and the dissolution of the Soviet power arm into the modernization agenda that transformed Russian world power agendas of today. 

Slade noted a comparative transition between Soviet Georgia and post-Soviet Georgia to this culturally-influenced second economy. Slade’s research found that, in 1993, a decade after this publication was released and two years after the final secession of the Soviet states, the group known as “thieves in law” established themselves as “key players” in the country’s post-Soviet economy and power structures. Slade stated that the “thieves in law” system was born out of the prison camps of the Soviet era that existed in the “gulag archipelago.” 

The American political nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy reviews a western-viewpoint of the Georgian republic’s political scene as of 2018. The American network focused on youth movements and avenues that “bridge the gap” and encourage “youth engagement” in Georgian politics (2018 era). The NED hosted an event with guest speakers from the Georgian republic who reviewed the status of political parties, and the trouble they already faced in 2018. 

Slade then drew direct reference to the glasnost and perestroika era, and how the dissolving of the Soviet system under Gorbachev opened the gates for Georgian political emancipation from the Soviet Union. Yet, this newly found emancipation turned into a bloody civil feud as Georgia attempted to hold onto South Ossetia and Abkhazia (1991-1993). Slade stated that, from this chaotic era, the “thieves in law” developed their power arm. He then quoted the former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze who, in 2003, stated that “thieves in law” had “eaten the country.” 

This political focus on the “thieves in law” and the system of the Georgian mafia highlights a negative western opinion of post-Soviet states. This negative prognosis approach of post-Soviet states has shaped a western method of “error correction” that has drawn criticism from neoliberal movements of the Georgian diaspora. In western leftism, an outcry sounds against the “western savior” approach to diplomacy. As the move and press of neoliberal thought in the west continues to protest the attitude of wester diplomacy to “fix what is broken”, then a western contrasting viewpoint to Georgia’s neoliberal movement may be discouraged. The likely outcome in this case is a western disengagement with the region or an incoherence in western policy toward formulating contrasting discussion and diplomatic solutions.

Western leftist rhetoric concerning modern Georgian leadership, labor unions 

From a western liberalism understanding of the politics of Georgia, a neoliberal labor interest has been born. The founders of these movements and neoliberal labor unions have, in their public commentary, portrayed Georgia’s current politician line up as “radical” and “right-wing”, even depicting its current controlling party influencers as “clownish.”

For example, in the article “Georgia’s Clownish Mikheil Saakashvili Is the Perfect Embodiment of Post-Soviet Capitalism” the Jacobin magazine highlights the western socialist rhetoric regarding Georgia as a “thieves state” with a bizarre opposition. 

The article was written by Sopiko Japaridze, the cofounder of Georgia’s Solidarity Network, which is an independent workers union that expresses far-left leaning political ideologies for worker’s rights in Georgia. The Georgia Solidarity Network is characterized by decidedly western liberal cultural viewpoints and highlights a westernized lobby of Diaspora actors to transform Georgia into a neoliberalism state. This article was written in October 2020 and made direct comparisons between the Georgian elections and those then-anticipated in the United States.

A discussion of International Republican Institute and Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. This discussion was an expert panel that came together surrounding the Parliamentary elections of the Georgian republic in 2020. The 2020 parliamentary elections were met with a political crisis and an escalation of election fraud allegations. 

An early social discussion of this topic was characterized by an article written by Volodya Vagner of openDemocracy, who in December 2019 wrote “After years of neoliberalism, Georgia’s workers have forgotten what it means to win.” This article described a wave of strikes that took place from the 2018-2019 era in Georgia of worker’s unions.

The article recalls the Georgian Ertoba2013 union workers strike that shutdown Tbilisi in 2018 until the city municipality met its demands. Likewise, the article recalled how Georgians staged a successful wage increase strike in 2019. The article owed the credit of these successful union workers strikes to the Solidarity Network. The Solidarity Network was started by retail workers and service sector workers in 2015 and employed the cooperation of media workers to press forward. In this article, Vagner interviewed Sopiko Japaridze and his co-founder Revaz Karanadze regarding the radical labor reforms in Georgia.

Soviet departures in a neoliberal press for Georgia’s domestic politics 

In the interview, Karanadze spoke regarding the Georgian push to de-Sovietize and end the “Soviet mentality” that was the catalyzing force of a move of neoliberalism. She called neoliberalism the “post-Soviet” legacy of Georgia. Japaridze chimed in noting that, in the post-Soviet transition in Georgia, the church had led the way but workers unions were not adequately represented in his opinion.

Japardize then noted that, despite the neoliberalism movements taking in a new direction, he and his partner in the Solidarity Network have often been equated to Russian agents as workers union, and leftist liberalism ideology all have connections to the policies of the Soviet era. Japardize noted that the citizens of Georgia were mobilized more by the dire workers’ rights and the conditions of society in Georgia, which distracts from the interest in the media or geopolitics. This alleged lessened influence of media in the area is a departure from the Soviet-era, in which the complex organism of the Soviet media was credited with the formation of public opinion regarding western ideology, and state dissent. 

Neoliberalism may enable looming Russian annexation threat

As neoliberal movements for engagement in Georgia approach the definition of a post-Soviet legacy, Russia appears to have interests that could take the country in a different post-crisis regression. Modern Diplomacy wrote on February 20 that, as of November of last year, the Russian-occupied Georgian terriory of Abkhazia signed a 46-point agreement to create “a unified socio-economic space” in Moscow. This, Modern Diplomacy noted, while approached as a Russian effort to alleviate the intense economic suffering in the region, is a major step toward the eventual annexation of Abkhazia by Russia. In which case, there is no real definition of a “post-Soviet” legacy, but rather a neo-socialism of the region that has the appearance of pro-Kremlin activity and replication of the Soviet era.

In the end, the western rhetoric in the region will be defined by how the west views the “de-Soviet” argument, and whether opposition to Russia’s annexation agenda can strongly contrast the neosocialism movements that have been adopted by the western liberal rhetoric toward the country. If the neoliberal outlook presented above is the consensus of western mediation, then Russia’s interests in the region may be enabled by the lack of a consistent and definitively varying counterargument.