This week a record number of world leaders delivered speeches to the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). As expected, the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic featured heavily with, unsurprisingly, many world leaders touting their response. Chinese President Xi Jinping focused on how we can bring the international economy back to financial health, while Russian President Vladimir Putin offered UN employees free coronavirus vaccines.
This UNGA meeting is more significant than most, not because it’s virtual, or because it’s the first appearance by both the Russian and Chinese Presidents since 2015. On its 75th anniversary world leaders are “meeting” to opine at a time when we have all been forced to reckon with the current state of the world in very personal ways.
It is a fact that the coronavirus pandemic has given fervent voice to those that for decades have feared the dangers of an uncontained China. Military and technological advancements as well as economic power have provided the Communist country with the ability to remake the global political landscape. These voices find a newly receptive audience, in the halls of government and in our homes, with our usual freedoms constrained by a virus born in China.
In the U.S., policies that take aim at China’s malign global agenda rather than create pathways for greater Chinese investment have become more palatable, and that trend is unlikely to slow for the foreseeable future. But what about in a post-corona economy? What about those nations already under economic pressure, historically vulnerable to outside interference, and struggling to orientate themselves in regions of competing global economic powers the likes of Russia and China? What about staunch U.S. allies like Georgia?
The former Soviet bloc nation is at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, strategically important to the West, not just as a bulwark to Russian regional influence but as a safe alternate route for energy and digital pipelines connecting the Caucasus to Europe as well. It is strategic allies like this that will fall victim to authoritarian influence if we do not vehemently promote and support democratic reforms that deliver economic independence.
U.S. support for Georgia’s membership of NATO and accession to the European Union remains strong and often touted. There is renewed support for a Free Trade Agreement between Georgia and the U.S. within Congress and among those that have assisted and tracked Georgia’s liberalization. However, Russian interference continues to run amok of Georgian democracy and is heavily influencing decisions of strategic importance to the West while harming Georgia’s economic health.
A recent example includes moves by the Georgian government to undermine a U.S. and Europe-backed investment consortium contracted to construct a $2.5 billion deep water seaport at Anaklia on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. The port would have provided critical supply routes binding Central Asian States to the South Caucuses, and countered Russian efforts to control regional supply chains. However, the investment agreement was abruptly revoked by the national government, undoubtedly to the pleasure of Moscow and Beijing.
This week, the Georgian National Communications Commission is set to use new powers rushed through by the Georgian government to expropriate Caucasus Online. This would undermine a business deal between the internet company and NEQSOL Holding, an Azeri firm with company operations in the U.S., the UK, Azerbaijan and more. After originally giving the deal its blessing, the Georgian government has targeted the firm with historic fines, threatened to suspend Caucasus Online’s license, and even amended its communications law – in an untransparent manner – in order to empower the Georgian telecoms regulator to expropriate the company.
Since last November, members of Congress have several times raised concerns with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia about Georgia’s increasingly uncertain business climate and political targeting of specific companies. Congressman Adam Kinzinger wrote in January “Unfortunately, economic indicators show a sharp decline in foreign direct investment in Georgia as American and European companies have suffered harassment, causing many to reconsider their business ventures.”
While it reeks of Russian interference, the motivation behind the Georgian government’s targeting of Caucasus Online is baffling. Azerbaijan is Georgia’s largest investor and the deal to purchase Caucasus Online relates to a much larger strategic project to build fiber optic cables from Azerbaijan into Europe under the Black Sea, providing improved internet access to over 1.8 billion people. This new digital speedway aims to improve regional economic development, facilitate e-commerce in the region, and establish Georgia as a prominent trade hub between Asia and Europe.
It’s almost as if the U.S. is failing to connect the dots — as long as Georgia continues to undermine friendly investment, it inevitably provides a vacuum that China and Russia would be more than happy to fill.