After the first of a series of webinars dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on Georgia and the wider world, organized by Civic Idea with the assistance of the Friedrich Foundation, GEORGIA TODAY was privileged to speak with Ambassador Tedo Japaridze, a veteran and mainstay of Georgian diplomacy throughout the decades, about these very issues.
We started our interview by asking him what impact he foresees COVID-19 having on the world, security-wise. With both the US and Germany unimpressed by China’s handling of the situation, we note, is there a danger that this will leave the confines of the usual blame-game politics and turn into an open confrontation?
“This public health disaster is developing into a global political and economic crisis, disrupting our social/economic/ cultural/political matrix. And if we need to speak about the new security challenges, we need to begin by reflecting on how a virus with a 1-to-4% death rate has managed to undermine globalization in such a comprehensive manner,” Japaridze answers.
“As a country committed to a so-called ‘western trajectory,’ it is important that we have responded in a specific way: with transparency, with access to information, with rule of law and social responsibility.
Georgia must at this critical point act resolutely and in coordination with our allies: the US authorities, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, but also China. Now is the time for consolidation and coordination and not for squabbles. We, indeed, live in ‘interesting times,’ according to one Chinese metaphor,” he notes.
“I have been somewhat disillusioned by the failure of Western allies to coordinate their response, political and economic. We should not lose heart. True, the COVID-19 crisis has taken away some of the shine of countries we used to regard as ‘models,’ but we should realize that governance requires mistakes. The only mistake that is dangerous is the one we don’t admit and fail to address.
“I praise China for its decisiveness. We have all taken ‘Chinese measures’ when it comes to social distancing: decisive, expensive, but effective. Beijing should also take onboard the lessons learned by countries like South Korea and Germany. Transparency pays! We should all be self-reflective, stay local, be Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijan, German, American, Chinese, and Singaporean, but also think globally, as COVID-19 does not have a nationality.”
With the US visibly reluctant to assume leadership, and Europe at its most fractious, is there a danger that this power vacuum will be exploited by the Kremlin to try and increase its influence and standing in the near abroad?
Indeed, there are some rough times ahead!
On a global landscape, an economic crisis is unfolding that is already weighing heavily on all countries in the region, including Russia. We started with a supply shock, and we are likely to continue with a demand shock, which is reflected by negative oil futures, for the first time in history. That hurts everybody, but Russia most.
We welcome the signs of cooperation and assistance Russia provided to Italy and even the US! That’s indeed a sign of how a crisis can become an opportunity. However, maintaining “borderization” and kidnapping Georgian citizens on the ABL and finding time for cynical comments on the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, which has saved the lives of thousands of citizens of Georgia during the pandemic and the international community acknowledged that; to do so, instead of offering something practical, not least a word or two of encouragement in a good-neighborly manner while the crisis unfolds, is just irrational and absurd. So our Western partners should be very much watchful (and they are!!!) that while praising Russians for being a “cooperative partner”, they do not look the other way as Russia pursues her imperial narrative. If the West allows Russia to be confrontational in its “near abroad,” tomorrow it may be the turn of its “middle abroad,” or even its “far abroad.”
With everyone pre-occupied with the virus, is there an increased risk that Russia could use the time for covert activities in Georgia?
I doubt that COVID-19 would change Russian mindsets and I am more than confident that their policy towards the “post-Soviet space” would be the same so-called “negative conditionality”: “either with Russia or against Russia”. And Russia’s problem is not only political or strategic – it’s about their so-called “mental maps” of her Czarist or Soviet legacy, whereas Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, other Central Asian countries have stopped being “post-Soviet republics”. They are truly independent, sovereign countries with their own agenda and priorities, and Russia should accommodate with that reality!
But, in reality, my primary concern is to make sure that we do not look like Russia while this crisis unfolds. I fear the phrase “for security reasons,” especially in an election year. Authorities in different countries, even in the most democratic ones, are using that phrase too frequently for my liking. “Coronavirus autocracy” is a real threat.
Assuming the impact of COVID-19 begins to be seen in Georgia’s breakaway regions, what kind of assistance could / should Tbilisi offer, if any?
The COVID-19 is a global challenge and threat, and consequently, it will, unfortunately, impact our breakaway regions and our citizens there. So, we should extend any assistance necessary and requested.
How do you imagine a post-pandemic Georgia?
Unfortunately, I am not an oracle to predict, but I can reflect, if I may, on the future of Georgia.
The value of Georgia is in its “usefulness;” Georgia’s capacity to localize global opportunity for the region. As I have said many times, the Anaklia Deep-Sea Port is going to be an example of that convergence between the global and the local capacities.
Now, we need to think of the local implications of global threats. And one thing to keep in mind is that a post-pandemic economic recovery will require borrowing, and the emerging reality will test Bretton Woods institutions. The World Bank, the IMF and the UN must rise to the occasion, but may not be able to address the current crisis, especially without firm US backing. That is worrisome. For the Washington consensus to work, we need Washington- and New York-based institutions to work.
That brings us before a new cluster of what Donald Rumsfeld calls “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”! We do not know the role of oil over the next two decades and, therefore, our role as a conduit of energy from the Caspian Sea will be reviewed. We do not know what the nature of emerging value chains will be and, therefore, our aspiration to become a trade hub for the Middle corridor for Trans-Eurasian trade will need to be reevaluated.
In sum, Georgia needs to explore its options, holding on to things we can take for granted. I hope and believe that one of the things we can count on is our alliance with the United States, the EU, and Japan.
Beyond our allies, Georgia’s comparative advantage in the region is our record of good and effective governance, even if our politics leave much to be desired. Our role will need to be one of regional facilitators, so we need to quickly study prevailing trends and define our own niche in the emerging new world balances. We should look to build on relationships we have invested in for decades: Washington, Ankara, and Brussels, rather than delude ourselves that we can begin with a clean slate. But we cannot delude ourselves that nothing will change.
By Vazha Tavberidze