Opinion | The Munich Security Conference 2023: Missed Opportunity for Georgia

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s could have used his appearance at the 2023 Munich Security Conference on February 18 to push for Georgia’s vital interests at this time of peril and opportunities. He has missed that chance.

Eka Akobia is an expert in International Relations, Professor

Prime Minister Garibashvili appeared at a panel entitled “Moving Mountains? Building Security in the South Caucasus” alongside Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid.

This specific panel was truly historic, all three participants noted. But it was especially so for Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose leaders sat down together to discuss security after a 44-day war in 2020 which left the two countries with many unresolved issues and grievances against each other.

For these two states, the presence of the OSCE Secretary General was also significant, as the OSCE had been the leading multilateral player in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations.

For Georgia the panel could rather be called atypical than historic. In contrast to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have never formally declared their intention to join NATO or the European Union. After all, the country has long proclaimed its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, has recently been granted a “European Perspective” and is awaiting a possible EU candidacy at the end of the year. It claims to promote security in the wider Black Sea region and presents itself as a major non-member NATO ally.

Drawing on these premises, a more appropriate format for Georgia would have been one discussing issues related to hybrid threats, European security, democratic peace, and “visions for Ukraine” together with other countries grouped as an “associated trio” of the EU- Ukraine and Moldova.

But let us not discount the organizational difficulties of events of this scale and assume in good faith that this was the only appropriate placement for the Georgian leader. That said, we could try to assess, whether the speaker himself used the panel effectively, especially as the moderator gave him every opportunity to raise the issues of core interest for Georgia.

On that count, it seems that PM Garibashvili missed out on an chance to alert the partners about Georgia’s security concerns, project Georgia’s security outlook, and strengthen partnerships for Georgia’s national security.

Here are three major points missed by PM Garibashvili:

First, he missed the opportunity to say that Georgia’s only possible peaceful, stable, and prosperous future is within Europe; that alongside Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia will do its best to fulfill the EU’s twelve recommendations; that he will address, in good faith, even the most radical critics’ concerns about Georgia’s democratization, because moving forward on the EU integration path is the only way forward to Georgia. He could have said that he, as the faithful servant of the people, would fulfill his citizens’ wish to bring Georgia into the fold of the EU.

PM Garibashvili should have emphasized that Georgia can achieve peace only in Europe and that there is no alternative to that scenario. He could have said that throughout its history, Georgia has tried all the configurations of alignment with its northern neighbor.  But none of the forms of co-existence within Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, and/or the independent Russian Federation has brought Georgia any meaningful peace, stability, or progress. He must have argued vehemently that the lasting peace enjoyed by Western European countries after WWII needed to be accorded to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine as well and that a speedy decision in this regard would be a rectification of historical injustice.

Secondly, the head of Georgia’s government missed the opportunity to argue for Georgia’s speedy accession to NATO. He could have presented a concrete national vision for moving forward with the enlargement. There are at least three possible arguments on which Garibashvili could draw: a) Georgia is a long-standing non-member ally and a security provider to NATO; b) Georgia is the key to the eastern Black Sea littoral; c) and the increased security threats for Georgia require enhanced defense capabilities and Allied support. All three arguments would sound rational to even the biggest European enlargement skeptics, given the recent geopolitical epiphany in Europe that appeasement only emboldens the aggressor. The historical and geopolitical stars may not align for Georgia this way anytime soon, so this government may even be held historically liable for missing this unique opportunity.

The third point should have been about positioning Georgia in the world of transport, energy, and digital connectivity. Now that the more traditional and shorter Russian transit routes have become costly politically and security-wise, Georgia’s reputation for its business-friendly environment could make it an excellent alternative. Georgia could have presented itself as the only suitable alternative for a politics-free East-West connection, being an inclusive partner to both – Azerbaijan and Armenia. This would also demonstrate Georgia’s historical key role in the South Caucasus and a step towards a concrete recipe for subregional peace.

There were other regrettable elements in PM Garibashvili’s speech – all of the undertones that put equal responsibility for the continuation of the war on Russia and the Western countries had to be avoided altogether. There is no evidence to support such a conclusion. Furthermore, it would sound as sharply offensive to European countries to hear that there is someone else to blame but Russia and that there is something or someone that can stop the war except the aggressor itself.

More wholehearted expression of support for Ukraine would not have gone amiss, either, together with the commitment to stand together in the face of a historic aggressor. Instead, the Prime Minister’s banality that “war is not a solution” gave the impression that there is someone besides Russia who sees war as a solution. At this point in time, repeating the pre-war European mantra of choice suggests that the Georgian leadership denigrates the Ukrainians’ fight to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the right to a free and dignified life. And professing half-truths and double-edged messages to top diplomats and security experts is imprudent at best and offensive at worst. Alas, this is no way to make more friends or strengthen new partnerships for your country at a time when you need them the most.

If there was anyone left in European security circles who had not yet caught a whiff of the changed rhetoric from Tbilisi, the Munich Security Conference performance from Georgia’s Prime Minister would dispel it, and not in a good way… As it is becoming painfully obvious that when it comes to Georgia, Russia’s hybrid tactics succeeded in rattling the foundations of democracy, pluralism, and freedom.  

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