Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.01.21

The Gloomy Geopolitics of Georgia

JBPress on December 6, 2013

Few nations seem to be more geopolitically challenged than Georgia in the Caucasus. She was ruled, entirely or partially, by three neighboring hegemons in the past, namely Russia, Turkey and Persia. When it comes to being ruled by powerful neighbors, however, Georgia is not alone.

Other examples are Poland sandwiched between Germany and Russia, Iraq/Mesopotamia surrounded by Turkey, Persia, Greco-Romans and Bedouins, or the Korean Peninsula invaded hundreds of times by China and threatened or controlled by Russia and Japan.

Despite these historical difficulties, the Georgians have unyieldingly maintained their traditions. Their language with its unique letters and grammar is said to have no linguistic relatives in the world. It is almost amazing that their mother tongue has survived those centuries of harsh foreign rule.

Most recently for Georgians, their motherland was "occupied" by the Soviet Union between 1921 and 1991. After her re-independence, Georgia opened a "Soviet Occupation Museum" in Tbilisi to remember those seventy dark years of humiliation.

Moreover, in a sense, the Russian occupation continues. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not too far from the Georgian capital. At least two de facto border villages near Tskhinvali are literally divided by hundreds of meters of brand new Russian-made barbed wire.

Those villages are located in the foothills looking down on the Georgian side of the border. On top of those hills, to my surprise it was not Ossetian border troops, but Russian Federal Security Service units, who are stationed there and monitoring the Georgian side 24/7.

Over the barbed wire I met an old Georgian couple and their grandson left behind in isolation without a food supply. Their relatives live on the Georgian side. Whenever they talk to outsiders, Russian officers come to interrogate them. This is the reality I witnessed in Georgia last week.

These gloomy geopolitics Georgia faces frame its foreign policy orientation. The post 2008 political landscape, which is the product of former President Saakashvili's failed attempt to regain South Ossetia, prompted the government in Tbilisi to face the strategic reality.

For example, Tbilisi now seeks a better working relationship with Moscow. Everybody knows the aggressive policy vis-a-vis Russia in 2008 was counterproductive. However, this will not convince the Russians to change their basic position on South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

Of course, this might lead to some improvements in trade or visa handling but Russia will not tolerate Georgia's policy of seeking accession to NATO and the EU. Belarus has called on Georgia to return to the Commonwealth of Independent States. Georgia seems to be trapped in the middle.

Giving a lecture to students at Caucasus University in Tbilisi, I thought of the Korean Peninsula as a Georgia in East Asia. Trapped between China, Russia, Japan and the United States, South Korea's foreign policy seems to be as doomed as that of Georgia.

Those geopolitically challenged nations don't trust their powerful neighbors for good historical reasons. Like Georgia, South Korea plays a diplomacy of balancing, which aims to make their relations with each regional power as friendly and non-hostile as possible.

However, there seems to be one big difference between Georgia and South Korea: the pivot of foreign policy, or lack thereof. For Georgia, despite their great efforts to maintain cordial relations with their neighbors, orienting towards the EU and NATO is always the basic bottom line.

On the contrary, South Korea does not always seem to be interested in pivoting or having a steady ally in their foreign policy. The tripartite U.S.-South Korea-Japan coordination is of course important for South Korea but only for the purpose of confronting North Korea.

Unfortunately for Japan and the United States, when it comes to South Korea-China relations, the Koreans don't seem to be interested in this triangle. They seem confident that they can balance China alone without pivoting to the U.S.-Korea-Japan virtual alliance.

This is not to claim that the Georgians feel that they can rely on the EU and NATO. They are by no means so naive. It is just to suggest that South Korea could learn a lesson from the Georgian experience that external power could be the best way to counterbalance regional hegemons.

Whether the Koreans, either united or divided, continue to utilize the U.S.-Korea- Japan virtual alliance to survive the rise of China is up to them. If they do, they have a better chance of survival as the Georgians do using their balancing act. If not, the Korean Peninsula will drift as Georgia did in the past.