Georgia’s foreign minister Mikheil Janelidze: A diplomat with vision

Georgia’s foreign minister Mikheil Janelidze: A diplomat with vision
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A GRI Power Brokers feature on Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze.

Foreign Minister Janelidze has demonstrated the diplomatic vision necessary for a country forced to walk a narrow line between amicable Western ties and an imposing post-Soviet relationship with Russia.

Since its independence in the early 1990’s, Georgia has progressively grown closer to the West whilst maintaining ties with its Russian heritage. In the new millennium it has struggled to walk the line between Western liberalization and geographic proximity to its Mother country. The 2008 war over South Ossetia, which saw Russian troops enter Georgia territory to support pro-Russian factions brought Georgia even closer to the West. Today the country’s leaders have a difficult task- to accept the assistance of E.U. trade deals and defense treaties while maintaining a relationship with Russia. Only so many leaders possess the appropriate resume for such a task.

The rise of Janelidze

Mikheil Janelidze has quietly risen through the ranks of academics and Georgian trade departments to the title of Foreign Minister. Before his appointment to the task in December 2015 he received degrees from Tbilisi State University, The Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Federation and the Grenoble Graduate School of Business. In addition, Mr. Janelidze speaks Georgian, English, Russian and German. The trans-continental educational and linguistic experience makes him a perfect candidate to facilitate Georgian relations with its neighbors, and he has taken public steps to do so in his first months as foreign minister.

Though he has had little time to construct any major policies as Foreign Minister, Mr. Janelidze’s previously held positions are indicators of his future plans. Before serving as Foreign Minister he filled the role of Director of Foreign Trade and International Economic Affairs Department as well as Deputy Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development. As a part of this role Mr. Janelidze was the lead trade negotiator for the European Union. This exposure to international trade architecture makes the minister a perfect candidate to lead Georgian foreign affairs for the next period.

Janelidze and Georgian trade

Georgia itself is in the middle of a Westward shift, most significantly displayed through the recent E.U. Association Agreements. These agreements, which further tie Georgia to the E.U. Neighborhood, place the country in a perfect position to thrive trans-continentally. Mr. Janelidze, who has made economic diplomacy a centerpiece of his platform, seems to be the sort of leader the country needs to navigate a complex set of relationships- a leader who is both skilled in diplomacy and trade, with relationships across both Europe and Eurasia.

In the future we will hopefully see Mr. Janelidze’s mastery of trade — both in theory and in practice — stimulate the Georgian and Eurasian trade network. The success of the Association Agreements was a landmark moment for Georgia. It is most likely that the Foreign Minister will seek out further partnerships and trade deals with larger powers, leveraging Georgia’s key geographic position to achieve greater national prosperity. Georgia does not have an overwhelming amount of export to offer, but Mr. Janelidze has the tact to leverage their geographic and regional assets into influence.

Georgia Map

Source: CIA World Factbook

On a larger scale, Mr. Janelidze’s trade and diplomatic agenda could go on to improve the overall architecture of the Eurasian region. He has a forward-facing friendly agenda with neighboring countries and has met publicly with Turkey’s foreign minister. Though the country of Turkey is currently in upheaval, and its future is difficult to predict, relations between Georgia and Turkey are important to the regional trade infrastructure.

With Mr. Janelidze’s strong command of international trade, he could be a key player to the future of the Southern Corridor project and other major projects running through Turkish territory. The Southern Corridor — a mix of oil and gas lines running through the Caucuses and Turkey — is the near future of Eurasian and European energy. One major route, the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan line, cuts from Azerbaijan to Georgia and directly to Turkey, where it connects directly to the Trans-Anatolian line to Europe. Both Turkey and Georgia will be key players in this coming energy infrastructure.

Though troubled times in Turkey, the regional trade infrastructure could continue to thrive if its neighbors have well-practiced trade negotiators in their foreign ministry. Mr. Janelidze seems to have proven himself an international trade master, which indicates that he will also be able to navigate the troubled waters of regional energy dynamics. His regional expertise in both Black Sea and European trade will position him strategically to deal with the coming challenges of Turkey’s warming ties to Russia.

His challenge will be to deal with Turkey and other troublesome neighbors on a trade basis, and not necessarily a political one, since Georgia is more Westward leaning than many neighbors. From a European perspective, the goodwill and regional network of Mr. Janelidze could be a valuable resource for Europeans attempting to navigate complications in Turkey.

Necessary caution with Russia

There are other areas of consideration which could prove more complex than trade liberalization across Europe and Eurasia. Georgia, as a former Soviet Nation sharing a border with Russia, must be sensitive to aspirations which often run counter to those of Russia. Following the 2008 war in Georgia diplomatic ties were cut, and these hostilities remain. Georgia has openly and actively pursued NATO membership, as has Mr. Janelidze, which is a repeated slap in the face to the Russian government. Georgia stands to gain a great deal through joining the Organization, but should not forget the danger it may cause in provoking Russia.

This being said, Mr. Janelidze — educated in the Russian Federation and fluent in Russian — is no stranger to the complicated and turbulent relationship. He seems to balance out aspirations for NATO membership with his strong trade agenda, which is more conducive to relations with Russia. As with the U.S. and China in the 1980’s, these two hostile countries may be able to leverage a relationship through trade, and begin to repair political relationships over time.

The minister has nonetheless reflected the views of the Georgian government in calling out Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory in a quarterly report. This regular update will most likely continue to identify Russia as a perpetrator of human rights violations, which provides even further complications for the relationship.

Though necessary for Georgia to be open about violations within its borders, Mr. Janelidze must be cautious as he leads the foreign ministry and its efforts. Its public friendship with the E.U. and opposition to Russia could place the country in deeper waters, which would most likely not be avoided by NATO membership.

From a security perspective, the Foreign Minister puts forward the same liberal foot as in trade. Aside from his aspirations toward NATO, Mr. Janelidze recently delivered a speech at OSCE. This speech expressed Georgia’s full support of regional security and trade networks, and continued to affirm his desire to collaborate with Europe in promoting peace and prosperity. Aligning with both the E.U. and OSCE has shown Mr. Janelidze’s commitment to liberal trade and security, and could provide the international organizational structure needed to make his dreams become reality.

In truth, it is too early to know whether Mikheil Janelidze will accomplish these goals or not. He has yet to be tested at the Ministry Head scale, but he has shown the vision and the initiative to be a promising leader in the coming years. A close friend in the Caucuses dedicated to trade liberalization and organized security could be just what Europe needs in this time of turbulence. He could prove vital to energy security and anti-terrorism as both issues flare up across Eurasia, and Europe. Mikheil Janelidze is just the sort of leader the region needs.

GRI Power Brokers features high-level individuals having a positive impact on political risk environments. Through interviews, in-depth analysis and insider profiles, GRI explores how power brokers affect the distribution of political or economic power, offering unique insight into those individuals that are shaping market trends in all corners of the world.

Categories: Europe, Power Brokers

About Author

Jonathan Hoogendoorn

Jonathan is a Massachusetts-based geopolitical analyst with an M.S. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Northeastern University. He works at a global analytics firm as well as Wikistrat, focusing on the Russian-European relationship, industry/political dynamics, and diplomatic relations. Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @jonathanhoog