Monday, January 06, 2020

Georgia’s Foreign Policy Trilemma: Balance, Bandwagon, or Hedge? Part 1

Georgia is a small, partly free democracy in a tough neighbourhood, and NATO membership remains an unfulfilled promise. While Russia is widely perceived as the main threat to Georgia’s security, the appropriate strategic or political response to the threat is not obvious. What options does Georgia have when faced with a powerful rival on its border, and what public support is there for these options?

Research on the foreign policy options of small states have generally focused on elite attitudes and structural determinants, butwith some exceptions – less so on the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy. This gap matters as public preferences for a country’s foreign policy (should) be important to decision-makers in a democracy. While foreign policy generally ranks lower than domestic concerns in the publics’ priorities, high stake questions of national security do cut through, and a foreign policy that lacks public support will be harder to sustain. This leads to the question, do threat perceptions predict foreign policy preferences?

Foreign policy analysts often talk about geopolitical choices in terms of balancing and bandwagoning: a state can either form alliances with other countries to balance against the threat of a stronger state, or bandwagon with the country that threatens them in the hope that the threat is mitigated by aligning themselves with the more powerful country.

Georgia’s options can seem like a stark choice between Russia and the West: should Georgia balance against Russia and deter the threat by developing closer alliances with Europe and the US, or bandwagon with Russia and forge closer relations with their northern neighbour? Each option has its advocates and detractors. Balancing can be seen as either a rational response to guarantee survival or as unnecessarily antagonistic. Bandwagoning can be seen as either the pragmatic management of geopolitical realities or appeasement and capitulation.

A third option is for Georgia to hedge its bets and strike a path between balancing and bandwagoning between Russia and the West. This risk management strategy may be well-suited for small states caught between Great Powers, including Russia’s neighbours who want to escape the influence of the region’s dominant power and protect themselves from East-West tensions, while working within the constraints of geography. Armenia’s attempts at a ‘multi-vectored’ foreign policy reflect this logic as well as the difficulties of implementation.

In the March 2016 CRRC-Georgia/NDI survey, respondents were asked to choose between four exclusive options: “In your opinion, Georgia's foreign policy should be Pro-Western; Pro-Western, however we should maintain good relations with Russia; Pro-Russian, however we should maintain good relations with the EU and NATO; or Pro-Russian?”. Georgians clearly favour a pro-Western foreign policy but there is a large constituency that does not want to accept a binary choice between the West and Russia. More than two thirds want what amounts to a hedging option, that is, a foreign policy that leans towards one side but without sacrificing good relations with the other side.


In theory, perceived threats to security should be an important determinant of foreign policy preferences in general, and of preferences over balancing, bandwagoning and hedging in particular. As the chart below suggests, Russia is by far the single most commonly identified threat to Georgia.

To test whether threat perceptions are related to these foreign policy preferences, a multinomial regression analysis is used with the above question about foreign preference as the dependent variable, and the threat perception question, in addition to demographic characteristics and domestic political preferences, as the independent variables.

If Georgians have a preference for balancing, there should be an association between identifying Russia as the main threat and a preference for a pro-Western foreign policy orientation that deters that threat, i.e., aligning with the European Union and NATO. The results provide evidence in support of this. As the table shows, those who identify Russia as the main threat are far more likely to support a pro-Western foreign policy (top left quadrant).



If, conversely, Georgians had a preference for bandwagoning, we would see an association between identifying Russia as the main threat and a preference for closer relations with Russia, i.e. a pro-Russian orientation – this is not the case. Contrary to the bandwagoning logic, we do not see support for a pro-Russian foreign policy amongst those who see Russia as the main threat. Rather, it is those who do not identify Russia as the main threat who are more likely to support a pro-Russian foreign policy. Notably, running the model without the threat perception variable made very little difference to the effect of the other variables on foreign policy preference.

However, as noted above, most respondents, when given the option, expressed a preference for a foreign policy that hedged between a purely pro-Western or pro-Russian orientation. The second part of this blog post, which will be published next Monday discusses this in greater depth.

Note: The analysis uses a multinomial logistic regression. The dependent variable is the foreign policy preference. The base category is ‘Pro-Western’. The table shows the predicted probabilities for the following independent variables (with base category in parentheses): threat perception (all responses other than Russia as main threat), education (higher than secondary level), party support (Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia), and country direction (Georgia is not changing at all). The other independent variables are sex, age group, settlement type, and ethnic minority domain. Party support was recoded into four categories: GD-DG, United National Movement, No party/Don’t know, and Other. Country direction was recoded as wrong direction, right direction, or no change.

Replication code of the full analysis is available here, including alternative model specifications. The data used are available here.  

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Georgia’s Foreign Policy Trilemma: Balance, Bandwagon, or Hedge? Part 2

The first part of this blog post discussed evidence of an association between perceiving Russia as the main threat to Georgia and a preference for a foreign policy that balances against that threat through alliances with the West. The relationship between threat perception and hedging, defined as attempting to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West, is less clear.

A large number of Georgians prefer some form of hedging foreign policy – either a pro-Western policy that maintains good relations with Russia, or a pro-Russian policy that maintains good relations with the West. In absolute terms, the pro-Western hedge group is much larger than the pro-Russian hedge group, and the former is fairly evenly split – 54% to 46% – between those who perceive Russia as the main threat and those who do not. In the pro-Russian hedge group, only 16% identify Russia as the main threat. If we combine all those who expressed a preference for either of the two hedging options – about three quarters of respondents who expressed a foreign policy preference – slightly less than half (44%) identify Russia as the main threat to Georgia (which is about the same as the population as a whole).

Hedging, by design, incorporates the logic of both balancing and bandwagoning. On the one hand, support for the two hedging options mirrors the more uncompromising positions of straight pro-Western or pro-Russian preferences. Identifying Russia as the main threat is positively associated with both a purely pro-Western and pro-Western hedge position as well as negatively associated with both a purely pro-Russian and pro-Russian hedge position.

On the other hand, a hedging strategy seems to be more important for those who do not see Russia as the main threat: this group is more likely to support a pro-Russian policy that also maintains good relations with the West (bottom left quadrant). But those who do see Russia as the main threat seem to prioritise balancing over bandwagoning. At the same time, they are less likely to opt for a policy that maintains good relations with Russia (top right quadrant) than a strictly pro-Western orientation.





Commenting on Serbia’s foreign policy and Belgrade’s attempt to navigate between the West and Russia, a US diplomat once said "You cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far away." This precarious position for small states is well-known to Georgia and Armenia, and comparing the two cases can be instructive. Georgia and Armenia face similar conditions for reasons of geography and history, and the trilemma of balancing, bandwagoning, and hedging shapes foreign policy choices. Each country risks incurring costs if they lean too far towards the West or towards Russia, and as a matter of self-preservation they have to successfully manage relations with both sides, which also comes with risks. That said, threat perception among their respective publics is very different – Armenians do not see Russia as a threat to the same extent as Georgians – and support for Euro-Atlantic integration is far higher in Georgia.

The intuitive logic of hedging is clearly appealing and it resonates with many Georgians. There is a large domestic constituency in favour of a foreign policy that seeks good relations with both the West and with Russia, especially among the more than 50% who do not identify Russia as the main threat to the country.

The danger, however, of pursuing the best of both worlds is that you end up with the worst of both. Nor should it be forgotten that foreign policy preferences may be explained better by shared identity and values than by threat perception, and that it is a primarily pro-Western policy that also maintains good relations with Russia, and not vice versa, that commands the greatest support among Georgians.

Confronted with multiple competing demands and challenges – from strong public and elite support for greater Euro-Atlantic integration to the persistent tensions between the West and Russia and, not least, the ongoing presence of the Russian military on Georgian territory – Georgia’s politicians and diplomats have their work cut out as they navigate a tough geopolitical neighbourhood.

Note: The analysis uses a multinomial logistic regression. The dependent variable is the foreign policy preference. The base category is ‘Pro-Western’. The table shows the predicted probabilities for the following independent variables (with base category in parentheses): threat perception (all responses other than Russia as main threat), education (higher than secondary level), party support (Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia), and country direction (Georgia is not changing at all). The other independent variables are sex, age group, settlement type, and ethnic minority domain. Party support was recoded into four categories: GD-DG, United National Movement, No party/Don’t know, and Other. Country direction was recoded as wrong direction, right direction, or no change.

Replication code of the full analysis is available here, including alternative model specifications. The data used are available here.