Visiting Researcher Feature: George Mchedlishvili

Dr. George Mchedlishvili is a CERES Visiting Researcher for the Spring 2016 semester, sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment Fellowship. While at CERES, Dr. Mchedlishvili is researching the foreign policy trajectories of the South Caucasus States. Earlier in his career, Dr. Mchedlishvili was a student in the Physics Department at the Tbilisi State University. However, as Georgia went through dramatic political developments in the 1990s, he was prompted to switch careers, instead analyzing the political developments of his own country and the rest of the Soviet Union. Currently, he is Associate Professor at the School of Social Sciences and Coordinator of the Caucasus Studies M.A. program at the International Black Sea University in Tbilisi, Georgia. Previously, he served in in the Policy Planning Division and the Georgian National Commission for UNESCO within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. Dr. Mchedlishvili also holds a Ph.D. in World History from Tbilisi State University and a Masters of Education from Harvard University.

Dr. Mchedlishvili will also present his talk The United States and the South Caucasus: Successes, Setbacks and Adjustments on Monday, April 18, 2016 at 12:00 PM in Room 302-P in the Bunn Intercultural Center.

How did your academic interest in the politics of the South Caucasus begin?

“I became interested in my region first as a responsible citizen [of Georgia]. My formation as a citizen occurred in the late 1980s and early 90s, during a revolutionary transformation in the world and during the first hard years of independence. This developed my interest in political events in my country and in rest of the region. I come from a totally different scientific background; I graduated from the Department of Physics of Tbilisi State University and pursued that career until the age of 25-26. When I managed to do postgraduate studies, I started with the sciences, and later I made a sharp turn. But it was more or less predetermined. I don’t want to compare myself to John Adams, who used to say that, ‘I am doing politics and war so that my children can do math and arts.’ At the time I realized I couldn’t afford pursuing other careers. There was no room for natural sciences and those sorts of activities, given the turmoils and economic meltdown exacerbated by the secession movements and by internal conflicts. It was clear there wouldn’t be any support from the State in decades to come. That realization drew me to pursue other careers, as well as developed my general interests towards political situations.”

How does studying physics compare to studying the social sciences?

“Of course, it’s impossible to compare, but the sort of thinking that is developed in natural science sharpens your thinking when it comes to social sciences. I am not the only one with the same experience; I have many friends who underwent the same path. One of the reasons why technical sciences were far more developed in the Soviet Union was because the authority feared a good education in social sciences would create people who would pose threat to the leadership. However, this approach backfired, and the first people who started to question the authority of the Soviet Union were physicians. Everyone knows the academic Andrey Sakharov, an iconic figure who started to intellectually shake the foundation of the Soviet system.”

What is your current research?

“I am focusing on the foreign policy of my region that is topical as far as post-Soviet society goes. My region represents an interesting case. Comparing the foreign policies of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia provides a window into the development and evolution of foreign policy of a state. The three states share a lot: history, geography and culture. In the first decade of the Soviet Union, their levels of development were roughly the same, and it was later that their foreign policy orientations determined their paths. My project deals with external factors in formation of the foreign policies of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and focuses on the US, since I am here: How did the policies of the US help these countries to establish their statehoods, what was achieved and what are the challenges? I want to pinpoint what was done perfectly, what was done well and what can be improved. The South Caucasus is the bridge to the Middle East, it is a bridge to Eastern Europe. It could also be considered as an extension of the Black Sea region. There are energy issues, security issues and the proximity to the Middle East. The US’ interest now is to ensure security and peace in the countries, later we will see a scaling back of the US activities towards this direction.”

How did you come to study this topic at CERES?

“About three years ago, I found out about the Carnegie Fellowship, and I immediately thought of CERES and Georgetown University. When it comes to foreign policy, foreign service and international relations, Georgetown is the prime place. It’s arguably the best in this sphere. This is an incredible opportunity to be exposed to scholars and to be in D.C. in general, as this is the political capital of the world.”

What is your take on American perceptions of the South Caucasus?

“Since this is my third extended visit to Washington, D.C., I have observed that knowledge about the region has been increasing, crystallizing and deepening. There is an understanding that this is an important region, but of course the region is still second to the Middle East East Asia. Although, there is contemplation about how to proceed with policy towards the region and how to aid the region in its development economically and politically. The profiles of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have increased significantly. However, sometimes Westerners try to come up with sharp solutions and their understanding of the region is black and white. I often get questions such as, ‘are these good or bad guys?,’; ‘does Azerbaijan have any hope or not?’; or, ‘ is Armenia an independent state or not?’ They tend to want to have a simple answer. It is understandable, because few people work in these countries, and it is harder for them to stay informed. Thus, increased scholarship is necessary for deepening knowledge of the region and the rest of the former Soviet Union. I hope that in the coming years we will see more specialists in this regard.”

What do you plan to do after your semester at CERES?

“For the next year, my plans are set. I am returning to Georgia and will resume teaching at the International Black Sea University, where I will take classes in South Caucasus politics and continue teaching. And I will chair M.A. program in South Caucasus Studies. Hopefully, the program will include students from Armenia and Azerbaijan, showing that these students can study side by side.”