Everyone should understand the meaning of the word “cost”. You can try avoiding expenses, but costs will still come, one day. What is happening in Georgia now is very much about neglecting the meaning of the word “cost” by politicians, mainly in the West.
Georgia became independent in 1991 and was immediately punished by Russia with several provocations and wars. In 1992, Russian leadership obliged president Shevardnadze to organize protection of the railway running through the Abkhazian part of the country. Trains were robbed several times a day and Georgian authorities had no other choice than to move some military and paramilitary groups to stop the armed robbery.
This move continued with the war in Abkhazia, which declared independence from Georgia, even though Georgians were in the majority in this autonomous republic. Russia provoked and then gave heavy military equipment to both conflicting sides; after heavy fighting and advance of the central government forces, Russia initiated a peace agreement that obliged both sides to get their heavy weapons away from the frontline.
Everybody was calmed until the Abkhazian – in fact the Russian side – broke the agreement, attacked Sokhumi, and murdered thousands and kicked hundreds of thousands away from their homes. During this attack the Russian side committed hundreds of war crimes, organized ethnical cleansing that could be easily called a genocide act.
Main lesson from the 1992-1993 war was that you can’t trust Russia. This was an old lesson. In 1783, Georgia had a treaty with to support each other politically and militarily, but then Russia first betrayed Georgia, then left it alone to fight the Ottomans and Persians, and after being completely weakened, annexed Georgia eliminated the 800-year-old dynasty of King Bagrationi. The Russians, by the way, claim to this day that the Georgians begged for it, which would be something like King Erekle II signing a treaty abolishing his kingdom. The Russians also abolished the autocephaly of the ancient Georgian Orthodox Church by subordinating it to the office of the ober-procurator, subordinate to the tsar.
Between the annexation in 1801 and the first Georgian independent republic in 1918, there were several rebellions and mass murders, violence and completely Russified policies. Nobody surrendered, nobody abandoned the idea of independence, except the Bolsheviks. In 1920, Russia signed a new peace treaty with Georgia and broke it again the very next year, after which Georgia was forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union. New rebellions and mass-murder, forceful use of communism ideology, tens of thousands execute, several hundreds of thousands sent to Gulags. No family avoided the repressions.
World War II was another huge loss for Georgia – despite the fact that combat operations never entered its territory, about 300,000 (20 percent of the male population) died on the battlefields. They fell fighting against the well-trained, well-equipped, well-fed nazi soldiers fighting in very strange ways – the only tactic was to sacrifice people, sometimes fighting without weapons.
In 1978, the Soviets decided to make Russian the only official language on the territory of the USSR, which was enough for Georgians. Hundreds of thousands went to the streets. The Kremlin understood the chance for a domino effect and reversed this dictatorial decision.
Georgia rebelled again in 1988, which ended in bloodshed on April 9, 1989, with the killing of 21 peaceful protesters by Soviet army troops. Since then, the Communist Party lost its power, resulting in free elections in 1990, and the absolute success of the independence referendum and announcement of independence in April 1991 infuriated Moscow — after and together with the Baltic trio – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — Georgia was out by any means.
Importantly, independence was first and foremost a national and ideological issue. Georgians were very much upset by both. However, when Georgia became independent, the entire economy collapsed, because it was too much dependent on Moscow. They had no foreign partners, no money, about 80% unemployment, 80% collapse of the economy, hyperinflation, total lack in energy supply, crime, corruption and disorder. After being one of the richest, Georgia became very poor country.
The Kremlin was sure Georgia would go begging to return, which never happened. People enjoyed their independence, even though they were poor. They took to the streets, started new businesses, found new partners. The free-market reforms from 2004 made Georgia one of the leading reforming nations, and it was experiencing double-digit economic growth until Russia’s August 2008 invasion.
The Russian invasion in 2008 was proclaimed by the Kremlin as a response to Georgia’s use of military force against a peaceful population in the Tskhinvali region (S.C. South Ossetia) that killed thousands. Recently, the International Criminal Court finished an investigation in which they found the Georgian side completely innocent.
However, Russia used this disinformation as a reason to attack Georgia from two sides, occupy them, and unilaterally recognize them. No Georgia flags in Western capitals, no sanctions on Russia, more convenient for many that Georgia was at least half to blame and the West could continue business as usual with Russia. This has been very costly for Georgians, and the costs are still rising.
What made Russia aggressive toward Georgia was not its pursuit of NATO and the EU, but its ability to live, succeed, reform, eliminate corruption and become a friend of normal civilized nations. Russia had waged propaganda against Georgia since its independence, making Russians consider Georgia an enemy.
A 2006 survey showed that Russians believed Georgia was enemy number three, but it later become number one in 2008 (not a big surprise, – Estonia was the 3rd). Even those Russians living abroad (I met them in Brooklyn, 2006, Johannesburg, 2004) were sure that Georgia was aggressive towards Russia and not the opposite. This is how the Kremlin prepared the war with Georgia, and then sold it first inside and then outside the country.
Russia has its own problems starting with totalitarian attitudes and ending with a great desire to keep the territory united by any means. One can understand such problems are not easy t deal with. Nevertheless, it is not a problem of Georgia and it is not visible that Russians are trying. They still live with the memories of their greatness, keeping Lenin’s statues everywhere, worshiping Stalin, justifying mass-murder with the need of order and making Russia great. They never have regretted their sins.
Georgians and Eastern Europeans were aware of the Russia problem, and not from books or movies, but from their own experience. Many of them, including the Baltic Trio, were smart and quick enough to become NATO/EU members. They are now much safer. Hovewer, Georgia, Ukraine and many others were not so lucky.
In the spring of 2008, NATO was very close to accepting the candidacy of Georgia and Ukraine, but some strange European leaders postponed the decision, which gave Russia the chance to invade Georgia and then Ukraine. Undoubtedly, if Georgia and Ukraine had become NATO members in 2008, Russia would have never attacked them, as it would have been dangerous and the appetite for invasion came right after the Kremlin sensed the weakness in the West.
As I wrote before, Russia has many issues, which is that it needs constant aggressiveness to make Russians feel satisfied. They could be very successful, rich and happy if they abandoned their imperial attitudes, but no leader can feel safe if a decentralized Russia loses some territory. Propaganda gives Russians two choices; live in a decentralized and wealthy country or guarantee a unified territory by all means, at the expense of poverty. The second is the only choice of the leaders and the wealthy subordinated to them.
The Russians think as if they were in this trap, of which the whole world or at least its former power satellites should be a part. Georgia and Ukraine neither have right to break out of it, nor to decide their own future, succeed, and become rich. If Russian aggressiveness is forgiven or forgotten, its appetite will increase again to demand all of Eastern Europe and beyond. Permanent aggression to prove greatness is the only way to keep Russians poor but happy.
Many people from Georgia and Eastern Europe tried hard to make Western politicians aware of the threats coming from Russia, but their efforts proved futile as West continued to be naive. Some residents of the West justify their blindness by blaming the victims instead of aggressors, because they simply look for easy business gains.
It was clear that it was a huge mistake in the 1990s to believe that Russia had changed. Many Western companies were encouraged by their governments and rushed to Russia (same for China’s PR) to invest there and be ahead of the competition. This happened in parallel with war crimes, political murders and human rights violations permanently committed by the Russian government. Nothing we saw in 2022 was new, as such Russian war crimes were known in 1992, 1993, 1999, 2001 and 2008. Western forgiveness has created new opportunities.
No international institution, including the UN or OSCE, has been able to stop aggressive invasions. There were no sanctions on Russia after 2008 (it was only excluded from the G8). Sanctions after the 2014 annexation had some effect, but they could not curb Russia’s military appetite. Many Western companies stayed, continued to work in Russia, and even increased their production capacity, obliged some other nations to buy their goods produced in Russia.
Simultaneously, the EU became increasingly dependent on Russian energy despite warnings, despite the lack of any real need for such dependence. There are no goods in Russia that do not have substitutes. Furthermore, the Russian market is not so important and large as to make trade so attractive.
On the other hand, even if the Russian market is valuable, is it good for business? There are no good ratings for business conditions except for market size (Global Competitiveness Study). Other components such as corruption, crime, judicial efficiency, freedom of press, and corruption perception are below world average. Therefore, any business, despite its size, can face huge problems in Russia and can only rely on mafia relationships with criminals or politicians. In consequence, any possible benefits from making business in Russia can be destroyed by the costs.
Unluckily, some decision-makers in the West have chosen to ignore the above problems. The collapse of the SU was such a relief to Western people and governments that they could not realize why, how it happened and who did it, who took on the cost of liberating Western societies from the Soviet threat. Then they quickly forgot any caution, cut military and security spending below NATO standards, and mostly shifted those funds to social programs that trapped their economies in long-term public debt and unfunded liabilities.
Moreover, some of the EU nations have taken on so many commitments to environmental reforms that they have forgotten about the economic risks and energy dependence on Russia, which has unfortunately encouraged Russia to invade Ukraine again and start a terrorist war in 2022.
The isolationists like to say that the West should not support Ukraine, should not even impose sanctions on Russia. They claim it is expensive and creates greater risks. They believe Ukraine and Georgia – or any other nations – should be abandoned if negotiations, international institutions and condemnations by the Western leaders cannot help. They will feel more comfortable in such consequences of economizing their money, creating their own security solely.
This must be answered very firmly and clearly – Ukraine is not just fighting its freedom war. It is taking Western money and resources in exchange for the peace and security of the same American or European isolationists. The Ukrainians take the costs of everyone else to make the World more free and secure after this war. And nothing compares to their cost now.
These and other facts are well-known and Russian counterparts studied the potential of the western reactions very well. Russia rose from the ruins of the SU, organized a very good trade of its energy resources and created a good source for the return to the military and security domination. Russia made a good use of the international organizations to destroy the Weast’s weak responses andremained unpunished after its crimes in Chechnya, Georgia and interventions in Ukraine. In return, several concessions were offered to Russia. For instance, Georgia was denied the purchase of US anti-tank weapons. US leaders took very radical and open steps to start relations with Russia from scratch.
Meanwhile Georgia made its very first step to become a normal nation. Elections in 2012 changed the government peacefully. The new government promised to warm-up the cold relations with Russia and not stand between Russia and the West to normalize relations after the 2008 war.
Russia’s demand was clear – Georgia must prove our tolerance in exchange for peace (even without returning the occupied regions). Georgia has taken several steps (in my opinion completely incorrect) to prove that it is improving its relations with Russia in parallel with its very slow integration with the EU. DCFTA and the Association Agreement with the EU have not shifted the balance sheet towards trade with the EU.
On the contrary, trade with Russia after 2015 has increased several times and hardly changed. Unfortunately, neither the EU nor its member states paid attention to such developments. Georgia began to slide back toward the Russian trap. The US was mainly involved in its internal affairs and had no time for Georgia’s problems.
The internal situation in Georgia has become very much dominated by a situation in which the ruling party created by billionaire Ivanishvili has acted as if there was nothing wrong with normalization with Russia. Without clear and effective leadership, the opposition has become very fragmented and weak. Policymaking was placed in the hands of temporary ruling party leaders – coming and going frequently.
The opposition was not interested in dealing with day-to-day political issues and was only preoccupied with petty political fights. The lack of a clear position by Western governments on several problems and the neglect of several institutional weaknesses made the situation even more precarious, which also contributed to the collapse of the opposition.
The West made the mistake of suggesting that after a strong start and apparent institutional improvement, the Georgian people could continue to develop their political and economic system on their own even under Russian pressure. It was obvious that Georgian people could solve neither its military nor the political problems without a strong partnership with the West. This is especially important to keep the Georgian civil society strong, – the core difference with Russia, the main force that achieved and kept freedom. Strengthening of the civil society is more important in Georgia than even of the political parties.
On the other side, Russian leaders have always known and understood the importance of Georgia, which is perceived as a gateway to the big region, a window of opportunity for many in the East. Russia has continued its efforts to expand its influence in parallelwith the neglect of the West.
Even now, many believe that Ukraine is very expensive to defend and support. They forget that the Kremlin will not stop there, because every agreement for it is a new point to start other aggressive actions. Therefore, expenses, as they have been before, will rise or, as economists would say, the opportunity cost of inaction now is very high. For some Western politicians, the only relief may be that the costs they have created will be paid for by future generations.
And there will be costs, not only because of the predatory appetite of Russians – one should understand the mood and character of ordinary Russians to guess where this comes from. Aggressiveness towards others is the only politics the ordinary Russians support. Georgians will never accept slavery and surrender to Russia, which is a fate prescribed to them by isolationists in the West. Only a small fraction of the population still speak Russian – that has passed and will never return. Ukraine is not going to surrender either. The Russians thought Ukrainians would disappear after the mass murders and Russification of the 20th century. But they are here and alive.
Costs cannot disappear through wishful thinking. Current decision makers may try to hide from them, but they may return at a higher rate.