Accessibility links

Breaking News

Can Georgia Learn From The Melian Dialogue?

In the aftermath of August 2008, the mere question whether Georgia and Russia could become good neighbors might have seemed absurd.
In the aftermath of August 2008, the mere question whether Georgia and Russia could become good neighbors might have seemed absurd.
In the wake of the August 2008 war, the mere question whether Georgia and Russia could become good neighbors may seem absurd; but from the perspective of history, and especially from the point of view from Athens, where I now live and work, it is not only the most important question, but one to which the answer can be an emphatic "yes."

The outcome of any war has less to do with "the facts on the ground" than with how they are perceived and interpreted both by the warring parties and by outside observers. In thinking about the August 2008 war, most of the latter have suggested that it demonstrated that Russia is not a peacemaker. But was Moscow instead motivated solely by the desire to reaffirm its position as the dominant regional power?

Those are two very different things, and it is worth considering both, because the one may or may not preclude the other.

Clearly, some in the current Moscow elite exhibit an alarming schizophrenia in their worldview. Some of their Georgian counterparts meanwhile cling to an unrealistic perception of world politics, in which they mistakenly believe Georgia occupies a central place. On the one hand, some in Russia see their country as increasingly influential in the world; and on the other, the majority of Russians are afraid for their own country's future in general.

It is precisely this internal divide that helps to explain Russia's behavior; it is a divide that those who deal with Russia must recognize if they are to be successful. Georgian policymakers too need to take those sentiments into account. This does not mean surrendering vital political interests. It means fixing them into a more realistic framework.

If that happens, then Georgia will be able to contribute positively to the ongoing complex dialogue between Russia and the West, and specifically the United States, and instead of injecting into it an unnecessarily negative charge, will enable the sides to discuss those contentious Georgian problems (which are not, unfortunately, the top priority on that agenda) in a less agitated and neurotic manner.

Good Neighbors

Getting there from where we are now will require changes in both countries, not only in policies and politics, but also in mind-sets and perceptions. Neither country will find it easy to make such changes without the assistance, and even urging, of outsiders.

But it is imperative to make them, not just for my country's future, but for Russia's. The reason is simple: if we cannot become good neighbors, we will both find the poison of animosity eroding the perspectives of stability and economic prosperity in our part of the world, given that those two notions are inseparable and interconnected.

Georgia's interest in good neighborly relations with Russia is obvious, but so is Russia's. And the international community has a compelling need to ensure that Russia and Georgia get along. Georgia is a small country and can never forget that it lives next to a large one. To ignore that fact or to assume that others can provide the kind of support that will allow Georgia to do so is to ignore the realities of international politics. Obviously others can help Georgia only if Georgia helps itself.

At the same time, Russia has an interest in being surrounded by cooperative friends, and not by forever restive adversaries. At the moment, however, some of Russia's neighbors are looking to the West -- to NATO or the European Union -- for two reasons: we want to survive as independent, capable, and democratic countries; and being a bit naive or simplistically romantic in this regard, we do not see any attractive alternative.

As one close associate of Vaclav Havel told me in Prague in the early 1990s, "If we do not contain certain trends in Russian behavior in what Russians currently call the 'near abroad,' tomorrow Russians may behave in the same way towards the 'middle abroad,' and some day even in the 'far abroad.'" So, whether the West likes it or not, it has an interest in promoting such cooperation between Russian and its immediate neighborhood.

Achieving this is difficult, but not impossible. First, however, we need to overcome the impasse in relations between Russia and the "near abroad" -- an impasse between a Russia that sees its position in the world at risk, and a neighborhood that wants to escape Russia's malign old Soviet tactic of masking its efforts to retain control over its former sphere of influence by adducing dubious "national interests." But there are also several aspects of the Soviet legacy, especially perceptions and misperceptions, that Georgia in turn needs to rid itself of.

Both Russians and Georgians need to acknowledge that good neighborly relations are preferable to any other option. To achieve this, however, both sides also need to overcome the historical and geographical constraints that constitute the ideological underpinnings of their respective policies. As August 2008 demonstrated, that is no easy task. And it requires far more than defining and promoting national interests as some appear to think.

A Modern-Day Melos

That is especially the case in the difficult and confused environment of the former Soviet Union . Since the collapse of that strange empire, its successor states have embarked on the process of increasing state capacity, but quite naturally, each has its own agenda.

For Russia, the restoration of its influence is part and parcel of the revival of their "strong state" concept. For Georgian leaders, among others, reunification of the country and accession to European security organizations (NATO) and economic organizations (the EU) were essential elements of the state-building agenda. Quite obviously, these differing approaches clash at one level, but may still be compatible if all involved focus not just on their own needs, but on the needs of others.

Indeed, there is some recognition of that. Prior to August 2008, several people told me that Russia would be glad, or at least satisfied, if Georgia became a "military neutral" country by dropping its NATO aspirations. Had that occurred, they subsequently said, Moscow might have changed its approach. Hypothetically, that option could only have been considered had Georgia been geographically in the same location as, for example, Switzerland.

A useful point to begin for a Georgian -- and an entirely natural one for someone like myself who works in the shadow of the Acropolis -- is Thucydides' account of the Melian dialogue, the tumultuous relationship between democratic but powerful and imperialist Athens and Melos, a much smaller neighbor, during the Peloponnesian War. It is a true example of the difficulties of creating good neighborly relations.

Athens sought to convince the small island of Melos to become a vassal state, but Melos, loosely allied to the Spartans, wished to remain neutral and believed that the Spartans would defend it. That distant mirror is especially important for Georgians now: Everyone involved should remember that 2,400 years ago Athens destroyed Melos when it refused to submit, and the Spartans did nothing to defend their "allies." The first "realpolitik" gambit, and so typical of contemporary world politics!

Thus, in thinking about the future, Georgians must not just continue to look to distant powers to solve their problems with Russia. They must address them themselves. That requires understanding of what both Georgians and Russians want, and seeking ways of building confidence and cooperation.

That will require asking some tough questions about just what Georgia can and should do. But it will also require Georgia to become a functioning, capable, and secure democracy, because unless it does, Georgia will not succeed in defining its future place in the world or moving toward it, and will not have the capacity to stand up to any challenges and risks that emerge. And consequently, Georgians should be talking about all these issues rather than acting as if some deus ex machina from far away will step in and relieve Georgia of the need to think and act on its own.

Tedo Japaridze is alternate director-general of the International Center for Black Sea Studies (ICBSS) in Athens, and a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States for Georgia. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the ICBSS or any other organization or government, or of RFE/RL