Crossroads and icons
In February 2021, former Prime Minister of Georgia and then-Minister of Defence Irakli Garibashvili returned to the Premiership after a six-year hiatus. A prominent figure in the ruling Georgian Dream party’s conservative wing, Garibashvili was given a mandate to break with the party’s erstwhile political ambiguity and embark on a truly traditionalist-conservative course. Garibashvili’s return to power and the ensuing ideological shift, while mostly aimed at domestic politics, would have strong impacts on Georgia’s foreign policy, particularly in Tbilisi’s relations with Asia and Central and Eastern European countries.
Crossroads and icons
The Economics of Geography

Crossroads and icons

Source: Website of the PM of Georgia
Stefano Arroque 16/10/2023 10:02

In February 2021, former Prime Minister of Georgia and then-Minister of Defence Irakli Garibashvili returned to the Premiership after a six-year hiatus. A prominent figure in the ruling Georgian Dream party’s conservative wing, Garibashvili was given a mandate to break with the party’s erstwhile political ambiguity and embark on a truly traditionalist-conservative course. Garibashvili’s return to power and the ensuing ideological shift, while mostly aimed at domestic politics, would have strong impacts on Georgia’s foreign policy, particularly in Tbilisi’s relations with Asia and Central and Eastern European countries.

Georgian Dream had long eschewed ideological rigour. The presence of several internal factions, mirroring divisions within Georgian society, resulted in a political balancing act between the long-held social conservatism of Georgian society and the liberalism of some of its urban elites and Western allies. Preserving an internal balance between the two factions was perceived by the party leadership as a necessity, partly to avoid agitating the mostly urban, liberal-leaning demographic that tends to lead anti-government protests. Ironically, it would be the latest protests, held in the late 2010s and early 2020s, that would put an end to this balancing act in favour of the party’s conservative wing, with the resignation of the centrist Giorgi Gakharia in favour of Garibashvili. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, one is only able to balance two opposing forces for so long as there is a level of power equivalence between them and a desire by both to preserve the status quo.

The new Prime Minister, now in his second mandate, was given a mandate to embark on a truly conservative course. The vast majority of Georgians, particularly those outside of the aforementioned milieu, adhere to a pronouncedly traditional view of society. This can be partly explained by the enduring political and societal influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Church plays a central role in the Georgian national consciousness and, to a majority of people, in their personal worldview, as shown by a 2020 study carried out by the Caucasus Research Resource Centres. It remains the most trusted institution in the country, followed by the Armed Forces, far ahead of any civilian or political body. Religious values and dogma, intercalated with patriotic messages as is common across the Orthodox world, are thus of paramount importance to the construction of most Georgians’ views on social, political, and national issues. 

It was in this context that Garibashvili was called for a second mandate. The former Prime Minister returned to power with an ideological platform strongly anchored in the country’s Orthodox Christian heritage and values, patriotic messages, and a moderate form of souverainisme. This pronouncedly traditionalist-conservative platform, besides representing the most consequential domestic political shift in a decade, would impact Georgia’s foreign policy and its view of its place in the international system as much as it did its internal affairs. Two areas of the world saw their importance increase exponentially to Tbilisi during Garibashvili’s second Premiership, albeit for different reasons: Asia and Central Europe.


Silk Roads and Corridors


If in domestic politics, Garibashvili has anchored himself strongly on the conservative side of the political spectrum, in foreign policy, he has opted for an even more balanced approach than his predecessors. The previous pro-European and broadly pro-Western position, as well as its scepticism towards Russia on the political-diplomatic level, were preserved as key aspects of Georgia’s foreign policy doctrine. However, Garibashvili’s approach thereto follows a much more pragmatic pattern, demonstrating a renewed consciousness of the increasingly multipolar character of the international system. This is reflected in a policy that reaffirms Georgia’s commitment to its Western allies while seeking to expand partnerships to its East. Metaphorically, it can be argued that the centre of gravity of Tbilisi’s foreign policy has shifted Eastwards, even insofar as the West is concerned. In Europe, it has pushed for stronger relationships with Central and Eastern European countries, with whom it shares a strong support for EU Enlargement and, in some cases, ideological similarities. Towards the rising Asian economies, the government has placed strong emphasis on economic relations, emphasising its strategic location and adopting a more strictly pragmatic approach than its predecessors.

Sino-Georgian relations, while never negative, have grown in depth and scope during Georgian Dream’s governments, with Georgia being recognised as a strategic country by Beijing due to its location as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Garibashvili has taken an even more enthusiastic stance on ties with Beijing. During a recent trip to China, Garibashvili met President Xi Jinping, with the two committing to establishing a “strategic partnership” and elevating Sino-Georgian ties to “the highest level”. Archil Kalandia, the Georgian Ambassador to China, reaffirmed Tbilisi’s willingness to increase its role and participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. Besides boosting Chinese investments in Georgian infrastructure, cooperation in trade, economic, educational and cultural matters was discussed. Georgia’s geographic location and its strategic value were often highlighted, with a prominent Georgian Dream MP describing them as the “standard necessary for the development of the historical Silk Road”.Garibashvili’s language and that of the Georgian government is now one of multilateralist pragmatism - one that still holds the Western world as its main partner, albeit, increasingly, far from the only strategic one.

Georgia has also worked to strengthen its relations with other key emerging regional and global players from Asia. Relations with Central Asian countries have developed in a mostly positive direction over the past decade, notwithstanding significant divergences in geostrategic alignments with some of the main actors in the region. One of the main multilateral initiatives connecting Georgia with Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, is the  Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor, in which Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye also participate. The project has become particularly relevant since the beginning of the War in Ukraine. Tbilisi has also sought to develop its relations with India in the political and economic spheres. Notably, in a symbolic display of bilateral friendship, India returned to Georgia the relics  of Queen and Martyr Ketevan, one of the most revered Saints in Georgian Orthodoxy. In two countries that place such a high value on their religious heritage as India and Georgia, such an event cannot but be read as a sign of - good - things to come, even beyond the political and cultural spheres. Ultimately, an analysis of Tbilisi’s Eastward outreaches shows the Georgian government does not plan a U-turn from the country’s established foreign policy doctrines any time soon. Rather, what Garibashvili has sought to do is to adapt said doctrines to a new international situation - one in which multipolar world order is not a concept from a distant past or a hypothetical future but the very basis upon which a successful foreign policy must be built.  

Photo: AFP/Xinhua/Liu Bin


Garibashvili’s ideological transformation of the Georgian ruling party resulted in a unique mélange within the same party of a quintessentially Georgian form of traditionalist conservatism, with a strong religiously and philosophically Orthodox component and notions of Central and Eastern European-style conservatism. This form of conservatism is defined as “traditionalist” due to its foundations upon - and emphasis on - traditionally Georgian structures, such as the local Orthodox Church and its dogmas, Georgian historical traditions, and patriotic discourse. This was accompanied by active efforts to emulate successful European models of conservative politics and governance. In foreign policy, this resulted in a rapprochement with governments from that region, with whom Tbilisi shared both ideological similarities and common political and diplomatic goals. Hungary stands at the centre of this new Georgian European policy. The choice for Hungary can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, Budapest’s prominence in the development of conservative schools of thought and political action since 2010 has made it a lodestar for like-minded political leaders across Europe. Secondly, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a known supporter of EU enlargement and an opponent of its conditioning to certain measures and postulates favoured by liberal-leaning States, making him a natural partner for Garibashvili. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Georgian Prime Minister’s speech at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference held in Budapest. The speech marked the culmination of a years-long process of ideological maturity not dissimilar to that undergone by other European national conservative politicians.

The Georgian Prime Minister made use of repeated references to Hungary’s own model of conservative governance and terms that have become unequivocally associated with European (national) conservatism. With a constant effort to contextualise them within Georgian reality, they were equally aimed at the Conference’s audience and at his domestic one. To the first, the message was clear: Georgia, too, is a party and a battlefield in the broader cultural and political disputes affecting European nations. In Garibashvili’s own words, Georgia was now faced with a battle between “truth and false truth” , with the first consisting of the “traditional, supreme, eternal, universal value” upon which the country was founded and which it seeks to uphold, and the latter consisting of the many facets of liberal ideology. The mention of universality and the references to Georgia’s early apostolic acceptance of Christianity also pass a strong message: Tbilisi is not a distant outpost of European civilisation, as some have depicted it in the past, but an integral part of the Central and Eastern European cultural-political space. If previously Georgian conservatives were cautious regarding some aspects of European integration (and vice versa), fearing the dissolution of the country’s national character and religious values, they now had the reassurance that an alternative path within the European Union was possible. And most importantly, they had found loyal, like-minded allies in a political arena where such allies were strongly needed.

Photo: AFP/Vano Shlamo

A New Balancing Act


Notwithstanding the success of Garibashvili’s diplomatic outreach in Hungary, two main challenges remain for Georgia in the wider Central European context. Firstly, the War in Ukraine has negatively impacted broader regional cooperation formats, such as the Visegrád Group. Key regional players such as Poland and the Czech Republic have taken a much harder line on Russia and sanctions than Hungary. Georgia’s pragmatic stance towards Moscow and its unwillingness to adopt a more bellicose tone have led to allegations of pro-Russian sentiment within Georgian Dream, even in the face of Garibashvili’s condemnation of the Russian government’s actions in Ukraine. These allegations found support among certain Central European countries, which saw the government’s refusal to engage in more hardline rhetoric as a further indication of their suspicions. Secondly, international pressure over the arrest and detention of former President Saakashvili remains a short-term challenge to Tbilisi’s European ambitions. Saakashvili has been detained since 2021 on abuse of power charges. The former President’s arrest was condemned by several EU Member States as being politically motivated, with further concerns regarding his conditions in prison. As recently as last February, a non-binding resolution was passed in the European Parliament referring to the ex-president as a political prisoner and calling for his release. The Georgian government, in turn, accuses all involved in efforts to free Saakashvili of disregarding its sovereignty and the rule of law. With no solution in sight for the time being, this will likely remain one of the main nods in Georgia’s European policy.

It is undeniable, however, that Garibashvili has succeeded in building a uniquely Georgian model of conservative governance, which can be classified as a moderate form of traditionalist conservatism. At home, the government promotes a socially conservative platform in most areas of policy. The Patriarchate continues to enjoy positive relations with the government and retain its paramount societal role. The idea of Georgia as being part of Europe but still distant enough - more so on account of historical divergences than geographical considerations - to not conform to certain ideas nowadays conceived of as “European values” forms an important part of Garibashvili’s conceptualisation of Georgianness. Rather, the “European values” with which Georgia does identify, under this traditionalist conservative view of itself, are ideals of freedom and democracy, recognition of a common historical-cultural heritage, and the desire to engage in the European integration process. These messages have formed the basis of Garibashvili’s political messaging and action since his return to power and can be said to form the hardcore of his political ideology.

On foreign policy, Georgia has also experienced significant transformations since Garibashvili’s return to power in 2021. On the one hand, Tbilisi has greatly expanded its extra-EU networks and strengthened its political and economic relationships with several key global players, such as China and Türkiye. On the other hand, relations with Georgia’s EU partners have followed the turbulent pattern of the 2010s - never truly negative, but not as positive as either side would have desired. Garibashvili’s strategy of engaging ideologically similar countries in Central and Eastern Europe may win Tbilisi valuable allies in Europe. Several obstacles, however, remain to be overcome, including the need for further trust-building efforts with some of these States. Garibashvili’s new approach, thus, favours pragmatism and the acknowledgement of the new, multipolar order while maintaining a pro-Western orientation. This is, in itself, a balancing act, as the foreign policy of smaller States tends to be whenever world order tends towards multipolarity. If carried out successfully, this may significantly raise Georgia’s bargaining power on the international stage. If it fails, it may lead the country into relative isolation, leaving Tbilisi between a lukewarm West and a still-distant East. The diplomatic balance, faced by many Georgian Kings, Presidents, and Prime Ministers throughout the country’s thousand-year history, now stands before Garibashvili. Preserving the equilibrium between its Western and Eastern arms, with a slight deviation towards the West, is Georgia’s main objective. Success, or lack thereof, in preserving this balance will be crucial to the future of Garibashvili’s conservative governance project. And more importantly, it will define Georgia’s foreign policy towards the East, as well as its relations with Hungary, for years to come.

The author is a Brussels-based expert in Central and Eastern European affairs with a strong background in European studies and regional integration in Central Europe. He has published several articles on Central European politics and, more recently, on EU-South American relations. Having briefly lived in Georgia in 2015, he has remained a strong admirer of the country and its rich culture

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