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Georgia and Kyrgyzstan: Similar Countries, Worlds Apart

10 MINS READOct 19, 2014 | 12:58 GMT
Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili and his Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambayev take part in a welcoming ceremony.
(VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili (L) and his Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambayev take part in a welcoming ceremony in Tbilisi on October 12, 2016.

Editor's Note: Stratfor has analyzed how the competition between Russia and the West over Ukraine has spread throughout the entire former Soviet space and polarized blocs within the region. The recent travels of Eurasia Analyst Eugene Chausovsky to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan offered a more intimate and first-hand perspective on two former Soviet countries that find themselves on opposing sides of this competition.

On the surface, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan have a lot of similarities. Both have a long history of being under Russian control — in the Soviet Union and before that the Russian Empire. Both are relatively small: Georgia has a population of 4.9 million, while Kyrgyzstan has a population of 5.7 million. Both countries are largely mountainous — the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges run through Georgia and the Tien Shan range runs through Kyrgyzstan. Thanks to this geography, both also have large pockets of restive ethnic minorities, most notably the Abkhaz and Ossetians in Georgia and the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan.

When it comes to the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine, however, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Georgia favors the West; Kyrgyzstan is staunchly aligned with Russia. After traveling through both countries, I found that this orientation goes far beyond the position of the governments and often penetrates into the social and physical fabric of these countries.

Georgia

In Tbilisi, I noticed Georgia's Western orientation almost immediately. In the taxi ride from the airport to my lodging, the crisis in Ukraine came up in conversation just as the taxi made its way down George W. Bush Avenue (named in 2005 by the Georgian Parliament as a tribute to the United States) toward the central part of the city. The driver was very blunt and unequivocal in his views: He told me Russia was trying to recreate an empire in all of the former Soviet space, with Ukraine being just one piece of the effort. He mentioned that Russia tried to do the same thing in Georgia a few years ago, referring to the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War. But it will not work this time, he said, because the United States is not letting it. These same notions — albeit with certain variations in confidence of U.S. support — came up repeatedly during my conversations with taxi drivers and other Tbilisi residents. 

The city's architecture also reflected Georgia's orientation in many ways. Like many former Soviet cities, Tbilisi has plenty of Soviet architectural remnants, most notably the ubiquitous Soviet concrete apartment blocks spread throughout the city. But the city, which has a long history of settlement going back to the 4th century, is also full of medieval and classical Caucasian and European architecture that predates the Soviet era. At the same time, there are also several new buildings in Tbilisi that represent Georgia's effort to clearly and boldly break with the country's Soviet past. There is the Bridge of Peace, a modern, Italian-designed, marine blue structure of arching glass and steel that debuted over the central Mtkvari River in 2010. Nearby, construction was taking place on the Rike Park Theater and Exhibition Hall, another ultramodern structure shaped like a sleek and silver conical tube and resembling a large pair of binoculars. Situated near Tbilisi's carefully preserved old town and its ancient 5th- and 6th-century churches, these medieval and modern structures contrast sharply with the bleak and mundane Soviet architectural style found elsewhere in the city.

Georgia's Western orientation can also be seen in the signage throughout the city. Most street signs in Tbilisi are in both Georgian and English, not Russian. On Rustaveli Avenue, the city's main boulevard, many government buildings are adorned with blue and yellow Council of Europe flags. These same flags can be seen on the streets of Kiev and Chisinau as markers of their country's favorable stance toward Europe — and likewise their lack of actual EU membership. Georgia belongs to this particular group of former Soviet countries trying but failing to gain admission to the European Union.

Outside Tbilisi, there are also reminders of Georgia's pro-Western status. On a trip to western Georgia, I rode on a marshrutka, a sort of minibus commonly used for public transport, down the E60, the only major east-west highway in Georgia. This is the same highway that Russian fighter jets attacked in the August 2008 war, effectively splitting the country in two. Most of the highway is a simple two-lane road, putting Russia's swift five-day defeat of Georgia in the war into perspective. After passing Mtskheta, Georgia's ancient capital 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Tbilisi, the marshrutka entered a landscape of green and yellow hills interspersed with small cottage-lined villages. One of these villages flanking the highway was a camp for displaced people from the war, and I was told people still live there, six years later.

Farther west, road signs appeared indicating the distance to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Since the war, these regions have been off-limits to Georgians; both regions have declared independence from Georgia, and Russian troops now guard their borders. These signs are a constant reminder of Russia's support for the breakaway territories, and Tbilisi sees integration with the West as the only way to one day get these territories back — yet another insight into Georgia's Western leanings.

A few hours later, the landscape transformed from deep hills into the rugged terrain of the Lesser Caucasus. A sign then appeared for Akhaltsikhe, the first sign written in Georgian and Russian but not English. This is an important distinction because Akhaltsikhe is the capital of the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, whose population is mostly ethnic Armenian. Though not a breakaway territory like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the region is another potential source of leverage for Russia against Georgia because Armenians are traditionally more pro-Russian than their Georgian counterparts. Indeed, Russian passports were rumored to have been distributed en masse to ethnic Armenians living in the region, not unlike what Abkhazia and South Ossetia experienced in the lead-up to the Russo-Georgian War. It is impossible to travel through Georgia without seeing reminders of the country's troubles with Russia and its hopes of integrating with the West.

Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, public attitudes toward the crisis in Ukraine were different from those in Georgia. There, the crisis is widely viewed as being the West's fault; the United States and European Union are seen as directly responsible for initiating the overthrow of former Russian-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and for the chaos that ensued. Many people called the new government in Kiev "fascist" — echoing calls I had heard in Crimea just before the Ukrainian uprising — and said the separatists and Russia were rightly defending their position in the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a popular figure among many in Kyrgyzstan — there is even a Putin Pub in Bishkek — while the public is largely suspicious and critical of the United States and Europe.

The architecture in Bishkek and throughout Kyrgyzstan retains much of its Soviet-era influence. But unlike in Tbilisi, there is little new architecture in Bishkek to counterbalance that of the Soviet era. Also unlike Tbilisi, Bishkek is a relatively new city. The Kyrgyz were largely nomadic for much of their history, and it was not until 1825 that the Khokand Khanate founded a fort that would become Bishkek. Imperial Russia conquered and razed Bishkek a few decades later, and it did not become a site for significant settlement until the end of the 19th century. Bishkek's major development occurred during the Soviet era, and since the Soviet collapse, there has not been a significant break in the architectural style of the city as there was in Tbilisi. And so Bishkek remains quite Soviet in appearance, with the ubiquitous concrete apartment blocks, massive government buildings and Soviet monuments — including a statue of the Soviet Union's founder himself, Vladimir Lenin — seen throughout the city.

The signage in Bishkek likewise points to Kyrgyzstan's orientation toward Russia. Street signs, billboards and the names of shops are in Kyrgyz and Russian. Many government buildings still have the Soviet insignia — a sickle and hammer — on top of them. The National Historical Museum, located near the central Ala-Too Square, has an entire floor dedicated to the Soviet Union, complete with large busts of Lenin and Marx and profiles of Kyrgyz Soviet revolutionaries and leaders. This emphasis on Kyrgyzstan's Soviet history stood in stark contrast to Georgia's negative portrayal of the Soviet period in Tbilisi's Museum of Soviet Occupation. Travel agencies in central Bishkek advertised flights not to Europe but to Moscow and various cities in Siberia, where many Kyrgyz migrate in search of employment.

As it was in Georgia, signs of Kyrgyzstan's orientation — in this case, toward Russia — are even stronger outside the capital. In Balykchy, a town 170 kilometers east of Bishkek, one can instantly grasp the reason for Kyrgyzstan's favorable attitude toward Russia. During the Soviet era, Balykchy was a thriving regional industrial and fishing hub. Now, the town is a shell of its former self. There, I encountered a large, abandoned factory, once a major wool and crop processing center, rusting from decades of neglect. The shipyard, set against the background of Lake Issyk Kul, was likewise abandoned. Balykchy has lost much of its population over the past 20 years, with many leaving for Bishkek or Russia in search of work. The Soviet era was Balykchy's golden era, and now it is all but gone.

I also visited the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, which was the scene of widespread ethnic violence between the city's Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations back in 2010. Ethnic Uzbeks make up nearly half the population in the city, and disputes over land rights and political posts have at times led to major instability in Osh and the surrounding region. Uzbekistan was prepared to intervene militarily during the unrest if it were not for Russia, which has a military presence in Kyrgyzstan and is the country's security guarantor. Unlike in Georgia, people in Kyrgyzstan look at Russia as their country's defender rather than as a direct aggressor. It is for all these reasons that, just as Georgia seeks to build closer ties with the West, Kyrgyzstan has moved only further into Russia's camp.

Orientation and Self-Interest

Of course, both countries have exceptions to the rule. I encountered Georgians who would prefer to have a more pragmatic and cooperative relationship with Moscow, and even some who looked back on the Soviet period with fondness. I also encountered some people in Kyrgyzstan who were wary of becoming too beholden to Russia, with concern over what an alliance with Moscow means for their country's own sovereignty and sense of nationhood.

Not everyone in these countries thinks purely in geopolitical terms. Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are relatively poor countries, and ultimately what many people care about most is making ends meet and putting food on the table. Taxi drivers are concerned about rising gasoline prices; the elderly are concerned with their pensions not keeping up with inflation; and students are concerned with where — or if — they will find a job upon graduation. These are key issues that shape public attitudes not only about the government but also about which power or group of powers can help the people meet their needs.

In this way, popular concerns do intersect with geopolitics. The Georgian government has cast its lot with the West, recently signing the EU free trade and association agreement, while Kyrgyzstan will soon join Russia's Custom Union-turned-Eurasian Union in 2015. These are the latest manifestations of their broader affiliations. But as the Ukraine crisis drags on and the former Soviet Union continues to evolve, often in dynamic and unstable ways, there is no guarantee that Georgia and Kyrgyzstan's current orientation is set in stone.

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