18.02.2015 | Tbilisi: Rustaveli’s dilemma, an EU aspirant in post-Soviet clothing?

When describing post-Soviet countries, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of simply answering a series of either/or questions: is the place in question democratic or autocratic, is it booming or stagnating, is it pro-Washington or pro-Moscow? Such paradigms do not fit Georgia, a country of some 4.4 million speaking at least four languages, nestled in the South Caucasus.

The architecture of Tbilisi, the capital, is a good reflection of the country’s distinctive cultural blend: Persian influences are most dominant in the old town, Soviet apartment blocks throughout the suburbs, while wide European boulevards traverse the city and a scattering of futuristic structures frame the skyline.

Over the past decade Georgia has undergone a tremendous transformation.  International observers have hailed the country’s last two elections as democratic and fair; former President Mikhail Saakashvili almost succeeded in eradicating petty corruption after the entire police force was fired in 2005; and in less than a decade the country jumped from 96th to 8th place on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking.  E-government has blossomed and a raft of government services are now available online, making cantankerous Soviet-style bureaucracy a distant memory.  Tbilisi’s skyline has been revamped by an ambitious series of construction projects, including the snakeskin-like Peace Bridge over the Kura River and the bulbous House of Justice.

Yet at the same time Georgia continues to struggle to develop robust institutions.  It is a country in which a billionaire with no political office is widely acknowledged to control the government; where thousands of complaints about the seizure of private property by the state are pending before the courts; and a state whose security services are suspected of routinely bugging the offices of senior opposition figures and many prominent businessmen.  Georgia has also experienced war as recently as 2008, when the Russian army occupied the country’s major port and bombed strategic infrastructure in the capital.

Economically, Georgia’s annual growth, which reached double digits before the 2008 crisis, is forecast to dip to an anaemic 1.1% in 2016.  Whilst official employment figures for 2014 estimated unemployment at 14.6%, local analysts reckon the figure is closer to 70%.  This disparity stems from a misleading classification system, where subsistence farmers and rural inhabitants with even the most meagre of assets are classed as “self-employed”.

In foreign policy terms things ought to be clearer in a country with pro-NATO slogans painted on apartment blocks and EU flags fluttering outside administrative buildings.  Yet Georgia has been pacing back and forth.  Whilst on 27th June 2014 Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU and 77% of Georgians have reportedly expressed support for further European integration, the country has refused to introduce sanctions against Russian officials and its neighbour’s influence is also felt through the powerful presence of the Orthodox Church.  The signing of treaties between Russia and Abkhazia in November 2014 and South Ossetia in February 2015, both of which house Russian military bases, was widely perceived as retaliation for the Association Agreement.

Much like its architecture and its people, Georgia is rich in diversity and full of seemingly contrary signifiers.  It is only with an appreciation of the complex web of influences that define its culture and politics that one can attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions about Georgia and its future.