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Look South 1

Georgia has been rightly occupied with its northern neighbor. But it may be well advised to look south for threats – but also for opportunities.

The sea of chaos in its southern neighborhood is licking at Georgia’s doorstep. On June 14, the Georgian security services detained four suspects in recruiting for the Islamic State (IS).The US State Department’s 2014 Country Report on Terrorism (link here ) estimates 50-100 Georgian citizens are fighting either for al-Qaeda or for the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. The number is similar to that of the volunteers engaged in war in Ukraine – whose actions get much higher media profile.

It is hard to shake off old habits. The view from Tbilisi gazes intently north, where the former Imperial master stirs trouble in Europe and towards the West, where the country’s hopes for future development lay. But it is a much shorter flight from Tbilisi to Baghdad than to Moscow or Berlin. The country is bordering Turkey – one of the leading investors over past 20 years. Georgia hasstrong historic and cultural ties to Iran, lasting relations with Israel and is courting Saudi investors. Tbilisi cannot ignore the storms that have transformed the region beyond recognition.Establishing itself as a respected meeting venue also has an added benefit of security – the warring states are likely to protect the safe haven.

Georgia has stakes in stability, and it might have a modest, but crucial contribution to offer in these times of chaos – a neutral platform for dialogue. The platform that is needed as old alliances are fraying and old enemies seek ways to communicate.

Iran is re-entering regional politics with force – through orchestrating Shia proxies that both increase instability and help Tehran regain the foothold. Its influence and wealth are likely to growth further if the sanctions related to the nuclear program are lifted. Saudi Arabia tries on a role of a Sunni bulwark against Iran’s expansion, as it has done by spearheading the campaign against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. But Saudi leadership is checked by relative inexperience of its military in larger campaigns, little cultural clout, as well as by concerns in the region over its radical brand of Wahhabi creed.

Mainstays of the regional power are in disarray – Egypt is stymied by sclerotic political system and economic decline; Syria has been plunged into bloody chaos of civil war, while Iraq – once a military check to Iran’s power – has largely become its client state.

Rethinking of the United States’ regional ambitions under President Barak Obama’s administration has taken toll on America’s key allies. Political, military and security links between Israel and Turkey have frayed, with Turkey’s leadership cultivating closer ties to the Islamic world.

Raise of the Islamic State (IS) poses a threat to all established states in the region and beyond through its fluid military structure, infectious religious creed and brutal disregard to human life.

Turkey, the United States and – to a much lesser degree – Israel have been Georgia’s key partners in shaping its south policies. Turkey has emerged as a reliable economic partner, while larger oil and gas projects involving Azeri deposits have brought the politicians from three countries together on a strategic level. Israel was courted by President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration as an investor and partner in military and security spheres. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were also courted for investment. Engagement of the Georgian soldiers in Iraq under US-led operation firmly put Georgia among the US allies in the region.

But while official Tbilisi has consciously sought this role, it kept a realistic stance over regional politics, holding an open door to US arch-enemy Iran. Since January 2011 the Iranian citizens could travel to Georgia without visas and stay for 45 days. Tourism, but also investment in small business grew significantly since, while remaining very modest in overall terms – estimated 1.9 million USD in 2013, according to the Georgian Statistics Office. An abruptdecision by the new administration in Tbilisi to cancel visa free travel with Iran in July 2013 contributed to the drop in visits and nearly full repatriation of the invested capital in 2014, according to the same office. Criticized sharply both by Iranian officials and the opposition at home, the Government has since tried a U-turn. The visa rules were simplified to allow for online applications. An investment forum was held for Iranian business community in Georgia. The 40-member government delegation has recently visited Tehran on economic talks, and other high-level visits are forthcoming.

On the face of it, Georgia and its capital, Tbilisi have a lot to offer to further both formal and informal dialogue. It is relatively accessible. It is frequented by travelers and officials from the wider region.It offers both privacy for informal meetings in mountainside resorts and venues for conferences and public events in Tbilisi and Batumi. The Foreign Ministry officials had gained considerable experience and contacts in dealing with regional officials on complex portfolios.

For Georgia to become a venue where the diplomatic future of the region is forged, is a question of supply and demand. But it is also the case, where supply might create its own demand.

First comes the question of doctrine. Here, Tbilisi does not need to invent a wheel – it has an interest in stable neighborhood and it is worried about extremism of any sort. So far, so good.

Second, political leadership. This might be tricky. The current government is devoid of the sort of statesmen with deep knowledge, imposing presence, and ready affability that Middle Eastern politicians like to have as a host.

Third – technical knowledge and skills. Georgia’s Foreign Ministry was derided for amateurism in the past, but its diplomats have conducted a consistent and well-coordinated non-recognition policy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia across the globe since 2008. The degree of knowledge, reach and improvisation this feat required is a rare exception in post-Soviet space and certainly exceptional in Georgia’s “weight category”[due diligence: author of this article served as the Head of International Relations Department at the MFA in 2012-2013]. This experience must be conserved and used.

Another crucial element is security: security of the guests must be assured physically, but also importantly from the prying eyes of the competing security services. Here, the Georgian spymasters will be hard pressed to earn respect of their much more experienced counterparts.

Fourth – a matter of demand. To develop its niche, Georgia should market itself as a credible middleman to the European powers and the US, convince them of the need of a bridgehead to the troubled southern regions. This might prove a tedious task, only eased by the relative shortage of competitors.

Surely, this would require additional resources. But by contributing to security along its southern borders, Georgia will come across as a country that cares about long-term outcomes, not only about its own short-term survival. In a complex world of diplomatic trade-offs, by investing the diplomatic capital further ashore, small country can punch way above its weight – and gain friends for resolving the issues that are much closer to home.


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