Given their territorial proximity, the regional actors of the Middle East have always had an interest in Georgia and the South Caucasus as a window to Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to Georgia’s isolation, and in the years since the country has gradually started reclaiming its historical role as a cultural and economic crossroads between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Ties with the Middle East

Although it is still an emerging democracy, Georgia has become a reference point for its success in reforming state institutions, enhancing political culture through democratization and greater civil participation, and strengthening its ties with the EU. From a centralized Soviet system, the country has transformed its economy into one of the freest in the world, ranked 16th internationally in the Index of Economic Freedom 2019, just after Denmark and Estonia and ahead of Luxembourg.

With its high-profile anti-corruption and tax reforms, the country is an appealing option for both European and Middle Eastern investors and businesspeople, and the Netherlands and Turkey are its leading sources of foreign direct investment. In addition to established partnerships with Turkey and Israel, Georgia’s business environment has attracted investors from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, among other Middle Eastern countries. Moreover, a growing number of tourists from the region, including Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states, further strengthens the relationship between Georgia and the Middle East.

While Georgia welcomes tourists, it has also opened its doors for refugees and asylum seekers coming from different conflict-affected areas, including the Middle East. According to the Social Service Agency of Georgia, as of December 2018, the country hosted 1,072 refugees, offering them social-economic and humanitarian support. Refugees from the Middle East consider Georgia a transit country on the way to Europe, and as a result there is a need to enhance collaboration between Europe, Georgia, and the Middle East to better address the issue.

Regional relations and diplomacy

Georgia has taken steady steps toward stability in dealing with the political conflict with Russia and the ethno-political conflicts with its two disputed regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali — so much so that it has been recognized as the “biggest riser” on the Positive Peace Index 2019 for the second year in a row primarily because of its substantial improvements in the “Good Relations with Neighbors” pillar. Working to enhance stability in the region, the country offers a platform for communication and dialogue to Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who remain estranged over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In addition to providing a venue for bilateral meetings, Georgia has also shared its experience, lessons learned, and best practices with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Similar to countries in the Middle East, civil society organizations in Georgia have gained extensive experience conducting Track II diplomacy with their Abkhaz and Ossetian counterparts. Given the political deadlock over the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali, Track II and Track 1.5 diplomacy are key instruments in sustaining dialogue with Abkhaz and Ossetian interlocutors and maintaining stability inside the country. Although “people’s diplomacy” has not delivered tangible results and has yet to be translated into the political resolution of conflicts in Georgia or the Middle East, most notably in the case of Israel-Palestine, the non-violent transformation of conflicts can build the most sustainable and enduring peace. Therefore, there is a greater need to share the lessons and experience of Track II diplomacy between the Middle East and the South Caucasus to bring in new perspectives on how to break the cycle of conflict.

Regional and international powers

Another important point of intersection between Georgia and the Middle East is the shared interests of regional and international powers, such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the U.S. Thus, the dynamics of conflict or peace in the South Caucasus and the Middle East have significant implications for each other. Heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East have resulted in increased militarization of the South Caucasus, which serves as a strategic military support base. For example, Russia strengthened its military presence in Armenia, which puts further strain on Georgia as the only transit route between the two countries, due to Armenia's isolation from Turkey and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Thus, Russia’s interests in the Middle East include reclaiming its dominant regional role by reining in Georgia and hindering its aspirations to join NATO and the EU through exploiting the disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskinvali region. Securing the South Caucasus as a backyard would significantly boost Moscow’s military position in the Middle East.

However, the U.S. recognizes Russia’s multifaceted interests in the region, and as has been noted by scholars, the Caucasus “has quietly emerged as an important arena within the broader U.S.-Russian competition.” For its part, Georgia is the most committed U.S. ally in the region, an aspiring NATO member, and a major contributor to the alliance’s missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Long-standing U.S. support for Georgia’s democratic transformation and development, as well as military and intelligence assistance to counter Russian aggression since 2008, has been expanded by establishing the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Centre and carrying out regular joint exercises.

Looking through a Middle East lens, Georgia is an interesting example of how to build state institutions and a reliable economic environment despite protracted conflicts and constant threats from a regional power. While business relationships and a growing number of tourists strengthen positive connections, Georgia and the Middle East are closely tied together due to the competing interests of regional and international actors. Thus, collaboration to enhance regional stability and share best practices in dealing with conflicts can benefit both Georgia and the Middle East.

 

Ketevan Murusidze is a Research Assistant at the University of Bradford in the UK. Natia Chankvetadze is an Independent Researcher and Consultant at the Levan Mikeladze Foundation, Policy and Management Consulting (PMC) Research Center, and the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Tbilisi Office. The views expressed in this article are their own. 

Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images