This post was originally published in Newsweek.
Rolling tanks and firing artillery recently shattered a delicate truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latest flare-up of this decades-old conflict claimed more than a hundred lives—and tensions remain sky-high despite a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, the terrorist group ISIS orchestrated two deadly attacks in the Russian republic of Dagestan. Russia itself continues to menace the Republic of Georgia, which it invaded less than a decade ago.
Given these recent events, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Caucasus—the crucially important region between the Black and Caspian Seas that encompasses Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Russia—is at risk of becoming even more volatile. It is still possible to diffuse the situation before the area devolves into conflict, but doing so will require more active leadership from the United States and the EU.
Georgia should be the top priority. A nation of just under 4 million bordering the Black Sea, Georgia is suffering from sustained economic stagnation, political instability and breakdown of rule of law, all while under constant threat from Russia.
A new opinion poll found that nearly 70 percent of Georgians consider themselves unemployed. And the poverty rate among the jobless is 24 percent.
One of the key causes of these problems is a lack of skills among the workforce—a direct result of Georgia’s failing training and education systems, which were ranked 119th in a World Economic Forum study of 134 countries.
Georgia has also been wracked by deep political dysfunction. Officials selectively enforce laws. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to wield power without accountability.
Despite these hurdles, Georgia remains the most promising stabilizing force in the Caucasus, thanks to its increasingly pro-Western orientation. Last year, for instance, Georgia strengthened its ties with Europe through the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. Its relationship with the United States, meanwhile, continues to grow, especially since the establishment of the U.S.- Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership in 2009.
Georgians are eager to enter into alliances with the West. At present, more than half of the country’s citizens favor joining both NATO and the European Union—stances espoused by the “State for the People” political party, recently launched. The party is set to contest this fall’s parliamentary elections.
Admission into the EU would boost Georgia’s economy, and NATO membership would leave the country far more secure.
By working more closely with Europe and the United States, Georgia will gain powerful allies able to offer support and advice for political, economic, and educational reforms and future development.
Benefits from a deeper partnership will flow westward, too. Georgia, which enjoys strong diplomatic ties with all of its neighbors except Russia, could serve as an invaluable intermediary in helping the United States and Europe quell the turmoil in the Caucasus.
Closer ties would also boost western economies. A free trade agreement with the United States, for instance, would further open Georgia’s markets to American firms. U.S. exports to Georgia, which include cars, clothing, and restaurant franchises, already total $300 million. And Georgia could serve as a gateway to Iran, Pakistan, India, China and other important regional markets.
Forging stronger ties with Georgia would serve Europe’s energy interests. Georgia offers the only route for delivering natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe that bypasses Russia, which currently exerts enormous leverage over Western European nations due to those countries’ dependence on Russian gas imports.
Europe and the United States have an opportunity to tamp down a potentially explosive situation, while gaining a valuable ally—and an economic partner—in the region. A strong and prosperous Georgia can serve as a bridge between the East and the West, becoming a stabilizing influence in the Caucasus.
Paata Burchuladze is the founder of the Republic of Georgia’s State for the People party. He was previously an opera singer and led several charitable groups. Yuri Vanetik is a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute and serves on the national board of Gen Next and the Gen Next Foundation.