Georgia has sought ways to ensure its security and restore territorial integrity since early 90-ies. Integration with NATO has been viewed as one of the available ways to achieve this goal. There are other ways and options discussed like a bilateral military agreement with the US as the latter is seen as the only power capable of opposing Russia. Neutrality is another, less popular option discussed. It is feared that neutral Georgia will be left at Russia’s mercy. Historical memories feed these fears as Georgia proclaimed neutrality in 1918 when it briefly restored independence and in 1920 in exchange for recognition from Russia took an obligation not to host any armed forces hostile to the Soviet government. In 1921 Georgia was overrun and annexed by Russia.
Of course the political environment has improved since 1921 and Georgia may not fear an unprovoked, full-scale aggression from Russia, especially that since 2008 Russia holds military bases in Abkhazia and South Osetia. This factor complicates Georgia’s NATO integration thus alleviating Russia’s major security concern. Plus, the base in South Ossetia keeps Tbilisi in check, so to say. Under these circumstances Russia should be quite happy with the status quo and does not look to have any motives for another war.
However, at the same time, Russia continues encroachment on Georgia by moving the administrative border with South Osetia deeper into the „mainland Georgia“ (Tbilisi controlled territory, or Georgia without Abkhazia and South Ossetia), – a process called „borderization.“ Such actions feed further Georgian fears and makes the public opinion extremely wary of any peace projects that will include Russia, among them neutrality. As 11 years have passed since the war Georgia has expected some goodwill gestures from Moscow, such as the conclusion of non use of force agreement, or at least stopping the „borderization.“
Because of this Georgian society fears that neutrality will leave the country without any Western protection and guarantees. Because of this periodical joint US-Georgian military exercises are welcomed as the demonstration of the US commitment to protect the „mainland Georgia.“ It is believed that „Russia understands only the language of force.“ The history of Crimea’s annexation has contributed further to this belief. Ukraine gave up nuclear arms in return for a promise its territorial integrity would not be breached. This promise turned out to be a hollow word. How can Georgia rely on any promise or pledge after what happened in 2014?
So Georgia continues by inertia what it started in early 2000-ies – Euro-Atlantic integration. Although it is becoming clear that the consequences of the 2008 war have mounted extremely severe obstacles on the way to NATO both public and government hardly see any other option. Plus, already a lot has been done for achieving this goal, a lot of sacrifices have been made – too much to stop halfway. European and Euro-Atlantic integration is outlined in the Georgian constitution as a priority and a goal that all state institutions must serve.
Once again, that means that changing Georgia’s foreign policy stance from Euro-Atlantic orientation (even if it means adoption of successful and lucrative model of neutrality) will not be easy. It will take not only making respective decisions by the executive government but also making constitutional changes. That means that public opinion and lawmakers have to be convinced that any such changes is truly in the interests of the people of Georgia. So what kind of neutrality model can be convincing?
The proponents of neutrality refer to such cases as Switzerland and Austria. These are appealing examples indeed. As NATO integration was never an end in itself and was viewed as means for ensuring security theoretically Georgia can discuss any other means including neutrality. The main question that will be asked here is the following: can models of Switzerland and Austria apply to Georgia under the given circumstances?
Swiss neutrality came as a part of the European concert created after the defeat of Napoleon. The country was given respective guarantees from all of the then great powers. Unlike Georgia it is situated in the middle of Western Europe, not in the South Caucasus. It can be argued though that Western Europe became secure and peaceful place only in the second half of the 20th century and so that Swiss neutrality worked successfully for about 130 years. The neutrality of Austria is a different story of course and it would never have taken place without Russia’s consent as the latter got persuaded such a project would serve her interests (first of all because it would serve as a bait for Germany). As it is known the Austrian neutrality was never breached either.
As successful and lucrative these two cases are there is one serious factor that could put their validity under question when applied to Georgia. Neither Switzerland nor Austria never belonged to the Russian sphere of influence (if the brief period of post WW2 occupation of Austria is not counted), not to say anything about their being part of the Russian empire. While Georgia used to be an important part of the Russian empire due not only to its strategic location but also close ties between Russian and Georgian elites. What was possible for European countries like Switzerland and Austria may not be that realistic for Georgia, first of all without respective political will on the part of official Moscow.
Austrian model in particular is interesting here because it would never take place without such political will. This model is also interesting for Georgia as it presumes complete political and economic independence in return for military neutrality. Is Georgia’s military neutrality something really that important for Russia that it may allow the Austrian model to apply to Georgia? It may be true that Russia is genuinely concerned with NATO enlargement and actually many policymakers in the West (and in Georgia too, for that matter) underestimated these concerns. Even if official Moscow is ready to do so there are some serious issues that will have to be addressed and solved in case Russia and other major powers agree to apply the Austrian model to Georgia.
Before getting to these issues we should state that these major powers should include the US and the EU. Both parties should be interested in preserving Georgia as some success case of democratic transformation and modernization. They should also include China that must be interested in Georgia as one of the transportation hubs. Turkey and Iran could be attracted as well as they are interested in peace and further development of economic cooperation in the region.
But once again, Russia is the crucially important party of such deal. Does it have enough motivation to apply (genuinely) the Austrian model to Georgia? What could these motivations be? Maybe one of them could be the creation of lucrative precedent for others, first of all for the Ukraine? After all, as we already mentioned, the Austrian precedent, was created as an appealing example for Germany.
Plus, as we already mentioned, there are some serious issues that will have to be addressed. A political will on the part of official Moscow is an indispensable attribute of such a project. But there is also a problem of Georgia’s territorial integrity – an absolute red line for the Georgian people. This is something that, once again, can not be solved without Russia.
This is the issue that has served as an apple of discord between Georgia and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is what brought NATO into the Georgian public discourse and political agenda as Georgia suffered a bitter defeat in the war with Abkhazian separatists who were almost openly supported by Russia. This will no doubt further complicate the task even if the Austrian model is applied to Georgia seriously. As the Georgian opinion is very suspicious of any neutrality projects the possible plan of „Austriazation“ will have to include not only solid security guarantees but also a clearly outlined roadmap for peaceful restoration of territorial integrity. Its implementation should be linked to the implementation of the roadmap of applying the Austrian model to Georgia (of course if such a decision is made by Tbilisi, its Western partners, Moscow and other interested parties).
It is well understood that helping Georgia with restoration of its territorial integrity will take Russia not only political will but also some serious efforts. South Ossetians and Abkhazians especially have lived outside authority of official Tbilisi. In both entities whole generations have grown for whom Georgians are enemies, or at least outsiders. So the reconciliation will not be that easy. But the reconciliation will hardly ever start if Georgians are not allowed to interact and communicate with people living in the break-away regions. Despite the fact that there is clearly no danger of any military action on the part of Tbilisi against Abkhazia and South Ossetia (it would be a suicidal act) those territories are being isolated and sealed off from the „mainland Georgia“ by the Russian military and special services who control the administrative borders. For a starter Moscow could allow an interaction across the dividing lines. Anti-Georgian propaganda in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be stopped too. It does mean any restrictions on freedom of speech, it means stopping supporting media sources and projects demonizing Georgia.
The next step in the roadmap of peaceful restoration of territorial integrity could be a conclusion of non use of force between Moscow and Tbilisi and after that taking specific steps for reassuring people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Namely proclaiming both territories demilitarized zones and creating additional demilitarized zones around these territories – both from the Russian and Georgian sides. Respective border checkpoints between Georgia and Russia could be staffed (from the Georgian side) by mixed teams bringing ethnic Georgians, ethnic Abkhazians/Ossetians and (at the initial stage) representatives of a third party. In this regard Switzerland would be the most relevant choice as it already has played a mediating role between Moscow and Tbilisi since the war and has been part of the Russo-Georgian deal on trade corridors across Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The third party should also observe the situation along the borders for making sure that zones adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain demilitarized. The same activities could be carried out along administrative borders to reassure the people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The demilitarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is quite a long term project and it should go in parallel with the process of confidence building, restoration of trade and cultural ties across the administrative borders. A lot has to be done to overcome the consequences of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Abkhazian question is much more complicated as there are some pressing issues like a huge number of ethnic Georgian refugees expelled after the war of 1992-93. Their return will be undoubtedly raise fears among ethnic Abkhazians who already account for less than 50% of the population and who are making their best to preserve their national identity and sovereignty (as sovereign Abkhazia can be considered under the given circumstances). But on the other hand, Abkhazia suffers from isolation, absence of access to quality healthcare and social services and it does not look like these problems will be addressed any time soon if nothing changes.
In the light of these circumstances in return for the compromises Abkhazia should be promised tangible benefits. Many of them – like wide autonomy and guaranteed support for preservation and development of language and cultural heritage – are already guaranteed by the Georgian constitution and outlined in various governmental projects. Plus, Georgia with the support of its partners must attract financial and technical aid for development of Abkhazian infrastructure and exploitation of its wide economic potential as unique tourist destination. This will offer wide opportunities for both Western and Russian capital benefiting not only foreign investors but also locals as their properties will increase in value. The rise of living standards in the region should boost growth of population too, thus alleviating the fears that Abkhazians have had for the last decades.
One of the biggest problems that will persist in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia is preservation of civil order and protection of the returned refugees. Police forces in both regions comprise of locals who have functioned outside not only outside the Georgian jurisdiction but also outside normal practices of rule of law and civilian control. This issue will have to be addressed step by step, through attracting consultants and specialists from partners and international organizations who will provide necessary training and expertise. Then, with time police forces will be reformed and refreshed, enabled of serving local societies in accordance with the best practices in the whole South Caucasus. As it is known police force in Georgia has been widely recognized as incorruptible and one of the most efficient and effective in Europe.
Once again, this is a long term process that has to be preceded by the removal of the dividing barriers, restoration of people-to-people contacts, creating opportunities for establishing and widening of trade and cultural ties. Despite all imposed restrictions and alienation caused by the conflicts both Abkhazia and South Ossetia still maintain rather intense ties with the „mainland Georgia“ as South Ossetia has no natural boundaries with the „mainland Georgia“ (in fact it has natural boundaries with Russia) and there is a substantial ethnic Georgian minority that still remains in Abkhazia. The fears that Abkhazians and South Ossetians have about their security will be addressed through the demilitarization of these regions while returning them under the jurisdiction of Georgia will offer them not only various opportunities but also benefits of affirmative action.
The demilitarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia definitely does not mean that Georgia will downsize its armed forces. Neutrality brings certain obligations, among them the ability to protect its own territory. While access zones to Georgia through Abkhazia and South Osetia will be made secure through their demilitarization the rest of the perimeter should be fortified and protected. Georgian armed forces must be trained and equipped for defensive warfare. Georgia should continue participating in peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations as it has done up to these days. It will help with maintaining high standards and combat readiness.