What matters more: who you think you are or who others think you are? Addressing a major gap in IR scholarship, the importance of identity in influencing state behaviour was first elucidated by writers within the Constructivist school of thought, most notable among whom was Alexander Wendt. In his seminal article “Anarchy is what states make of it”, Wendt draws attention to the significance of identity by employing the metaphor of “the looking-glass self”, arguing that states form identities of themselves through their interactions with other states: that “the self is a reflection of an actor’s socialization”(Wendt 1992:404). Such a theory seems to predict that a state’s identity and how others perceive it should bear correlation. How, then, do we explain instances when a state’s conception of itself differs markedly from the perceptions of others?
On a recent visit to Georgia, a country that western Europe views as part of western Asia (being part of Eurovision doesn’t count – so is Israel), your correspondent was struck by the extent to which the people there do in fact consider themselves culturally, politically and geographically European. The EU flags flown on nearly every major street in the capital and galleries dedicated to shows of “European” art or culture speak of a nation determined to graft itself onto the European continent. Indeed, their determination in doing so openly defies the clear political reality: despite falling beyond the Caucasus Mountains, and thereby geographically within Asia, and having even their NATO accession vetoed by France and Germany, nearly every political party in Georgia cites accession to the EU as one of its main policies.
The extent of Georgia’s self-delusion was clearly demonstrated in 2008 when it launched its invasion of South Ossetia, a breakaway province whose autonomy is guaranteed by Russia. Since Georgia cannot have failed to realise that Russia would oppose a violent reintegration of the secessionist territory, or that the possibility of winning a war with Russia was nil, Saakashvili’s confidence that the invasion was still a realistic option could only have stemmed from a belief – resting on the perception of Georgia as an integral part of the Western alliance – that NATO would certainly back him, and the threat of them doing so would be enough to prevent Russia from retaliating. Unfortunately for Saakashvili, Russia knew better.
How can we account for this disconnect between how Georgia views itself and how the rest of the world views it? Georgia’s process of identity formation, as a bulwark of Christianity against the Islamic world, naturally led it to view itself as part of a greater whole, Christendom, defined against the East – the land of its enemy. However, for the countries of Western Europe, as the centuries passed and memories of Holy Wars gave way to the hopes of the enlightenment, the boundaries of Christendom became gradually less important than the boundaries of ‘Western civilization’ which were both culturally and politically narrower than those of Christendom. Georgia’s absorption into Russia and later the Soviet Union allowed it to be largely forgotten by the remainder of Europe, even if a distinctly European culture and heritage were preserved within the country itself, frozen during the years of ‘occupation’. By the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, Georgia – eager to return to the West – suddenly found itself defined as the “other” by its erstwhile friends and as outside the new boundaries of the European world, the EU.
Georgia is far from the only country to feel itself entitled to be part of the European project only to find its demands for recognition rebuffed. Indeed, Georgia’s problem highlights a widespread issue inherent within projects of regional integration: what happens to those left on the edges? The intense integration of the European Union, in binding the countries of the inner circle together, has necessarily meant a hardening of its external borders, both literally and metaphorically. This has had noticeably negative effects for outsiders in terms of access to markets and migration opportunities which “neighbourhood policies” have done little to compensate for. Georgia’s foundering attempts at democracy and construction of a national identity have, in part, been beleaguered by this rejection, as have those of many of the new states on Europe’s periphery. This is because support for democracy and self-determination were based in part upon the assumption that such things were an intrinsic part of their Western identity – to find this heritage denied by those they wished to join meant a loss of identity and corresponding political ideological crisis.
As Europe is forced to bind itself closer together in order to save the European dream, the possibility for further expansion only becomes narrower or confined to the option of a two-tiered Europe within which the periphery nations would continue to be outsiders. For the Caucasus, this means that the region will continue to be a fracturing bridge between two worlds, perennially defined by what it isn’t. Excluded from the projects of regional integration occurring around it and failing to come to terms with what a Caucasian identity might be, the region looks set to remain troubled for some time. At least, from the perspective of inner Europe, their troubles will remain far outside our borders and can therefore be comfortably ignored. Pity the forgotten nations of the Caucasus.
Kate Brooks is an Oxford MPhil student in International Relations.