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Guns, Graffiti and Geopolitics on the edge of Asia

Nikkei Asia, June 13 2023






WILLIAM MELLOR, Contributing writer

TBILISI, Georgia -- The car on a road to nowhere on Asia's western frontier displays a map carefully painted next to the rear number plate. Inside its borders is the defiant message: "I am from Georgia and my country is occupied." The S1 highway's supposed destination, the Black Sea port of Sokhumi, is still shown on road signs, but in reality has been forbidden territory for Georgians since Russia invaded the country 15 years ago and seized one-fifth of its territory. That was a move many believe led directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin's subsequent assault on Ukraine. "In retrospect, the West should have pushed back against this flagrant aggression in Georgia," Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus who is now Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Nikkei Asia. "It emboldened Putin and instilled in him the perception that he could tough out the international reaction and carry out further invasions." Street corner in Tbilisi with a mural showing solidarity with Ukraine on Jan 18. (Photo by Hiroki Endo) Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned in a keynote speech last year to Asia's largest security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, that "Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow." Now some analysts see the ongoing consequences of Russia's earlier 2008 advance into Georgia as a cautionary case study for smaller Asian nations living in the shadow of a vastly larger and more powerful neighbor. "Georgia is a telling example of what to expect from small countries at the feet of a major power," said Alexey Muraviev, associate professor of national security and strategic studies at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. "There are lessons to be learned by smaller nations dealing with such things as China's aggressive assertiveness in the South China Sea and knowing when to stay out of the fight." Georgia's security is also of growing economic significance to the rest of Asia. It forms part of the strategic so-called "middle corridor" that offers a rail-based overland trade route between East Asia and Europe that bypasses Russia. For exporters in Japan, China and South Korea, this shortcut can halve the time seaborne cargo takes to reach European Union countries. Georgia is located in the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas, where cartographers have long disagreed over the exact dividing line between Asia and Europe. With a population of 3.7 million in a land area less than half that of Cambodia, Georgia is engaged in an increasingly precarious balancing act between the West and the Eurasian giant on its northern border. The Georgian government's long-stated aim is to join the EU and NATO, a policy that polls show is overwhelmingly supported by Georgians. But since the Ukraine invasion, the ruling Georgian Dream party, founded and backed by the country's richest oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has infuriated the West by lurching closer to Moscow. This year, Georgian Dream attempted to introduce a so-called "agent of foreign influence" law similar to legislation used in Russia to crush dissent. The government scrapped the plan in March, but only after violent street protests. In May, Georgia allowed two Russian airlines and one Georgian carrier to resume flights between the two countries after a four-year hiatus, despite EU sanctions on Russian aviation. This time, street protests were in vain. "Georgia's action was seen as a hostile act by Europe, and not at all congruent with a country that wants to join the EU," said Stephen Jones, a professor who heads the Georgian Studies Department at Harvard University. "It's another indication the government is moving more towards Russia than towards Europe." Georgia’s military, pictured rehearsing for an Independence Day parade, was powerless to halt Russia’s 2008 invasion and occupation of 20% of Georgian territory. (Photo by William Mellor) For all its understandable preoccupation with Europe and Russia, Georgia also looks to East Asia for economic opportunity. In 2018, it secured a free trade agreement with Beijing. Since then, China has overtaken Russia as the main destination for the country's exports and has become an enthusiastic consumer of vintages sourced from one of the world's oldest wine-growing regions. Xinjiang-based Hualing Group, which operates a free trade zone, hotels and an airline in Georgia, has become a major foreign investor. Georgia is also a member of the Asian Development Bank and next year its quaint, architecturally eclectic capital, Tbilisi, will host the annual meeting of the ADB's board of governors. Anti-Russian graffiti is plastered over downtown Tbilisi -- often displaying flags supporting Ukraine and the European Union. (Photo by William Mellor) Widely regarded as one of world tourism's better kept secrets, scenic, hospitable Georgia is considered safe and friendly, with visitors arriving at Tbilisi airport even known to have been greeted with bottles of wine by immigration officers. Yet despite the smiles and vibrant nightlife, they're constantly reminded that this former outpost of the Soviet empire is a far from happy place. At two restaurants on this reporter's recent trip, the bills had printed messages at the bottom stating: "Fact check: 20% of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia." At one of them, a notice on the front door stated: "World Should Stop Russian Aggression! Russia is an Occupier!!! Putin is Evil!!! If you do not agree with these statements, please do not come in!!!!" Even less subtle is the graffiti on walls across Tbilisi with messages such as "F--- Russia" and "Putin Murderer." Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags are flown alongside the red and white of Georgia's. Driver Giorgi has painted a map on the back of his vehicle reading: "I am from Georgia and my country is occupied". (Photo by William Mellor) All this in a country that has become a haven for hundreds of thousands of Russians, where Russian is widely heard on the street and any foreigner of Western appearance is often assumed to be Russian. While many of these newcomers share the Georgians' abhorrence of Putin's invasions, others merely moved to Georgia to avoid being drafted or for economic opportunity. Russian civilians were crossing into Georgia at the rate of about 10,000 a day in September last year, according to Georgian officials. Should that once again become a military invasion, Georgia's tiny army would be hopelessly mismatched against Moscow's forces, as was proved in 2008 when Russia occupied the separatist regions of Abkhazia, and its main city Sukhumi, and South Ossetia. Moscow even briefly sent tanks into Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin. Today, Russian troops in South Ossetia remain within an hour's drive of Tbilisi. "Down there, 3 or 5 kilometers away," Giorgi, an otherwise jovial 39-year-old taxi driver, says as he points to a road leading north from the main Tbilisi-Gori highway toward the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains.

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