EU vs Russia? Or EU and Russia? Which is Georgia’s way?

Few thoughts from experts for the conference Georgia’s European Way where I am right now.

Questions:

1. If you shortly assess current relations of Georgia and the West (EU, NATO) what you see, a progress, a stalemate, a regress maybe?

2. Some observers are claiming that current Georgia-Russia relations are becoming more pragmatic. How do you see this?

Answers:

Neil MacFarlane, Lester B. Pearson Professor of International Relations, Oxford University

1. Relations between Georgia and these institutions are positive and developing. There are a number of specific difficulties, for example in the EU visa liberalization process. That has potentially negative implications in the upcoming Georgian elections. But there are no big obstacles to further development of cooperation. Georgia, the EU and NATO remain committed to that general objective. However, neither institution is willing to offer integration through membership. That is frustrating for Georgians, but they have come to terms with it. As for the US, relations are very positive as was evident in the recent Kerry visit to Tbilisi.

2. This trend has been present since 2012, when Georgia elected a government committed to improving the relationship. Georgian rhetoric towards Russia became less extreme. Trade has resumed. There is increasing interaction at the people-to-people level, for example, the large numbers of Russian tourists going to Georgia. Russia has been a significant source of FDI for Georgia, although that may have slowed as a result of Russia’s own economic problems.

But there are clear limits on how far the improvement can go. Georgia has not accepted and will not accept the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and their recognition by Russia. Georgia considers Russia’s military presence in those regions to be a military occupation of Georgian territory. There are continuing problems of demarcation of the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia, and Russia has slowly been moving the fences forward.

So there is no full normalization of relations on the cards. In short, the relations have become more pragmatic. But in current conditions, there are clear limits on how much farther this trend can go.

Kornely Kakachia, Professor of Political Science, Tbilisi State University

1. With EU its certainly progress as Georgia signed association agreement without any difficulties unlike Ukraine. But in regards of visa liberalization still much should be done. As to Nato though NATO officials claim otherwise, Georgia’s NATO membership is directly linked to possible Moscow’s reaction. Some allies afraid of provoking a revanchist Russia and are skeptical about the consequence it would have on regional security. Due to Russian factor, while, rhetorically, the NATO membership door to Georgia stays open, in practice, the issue of country’s membership has been put on hold. Understanding this reality, the Kremlin tries to exploit any weaknesses in Tbilisi to gain influence over Georgian politics. As Georgia is not a member of any security organization and its NATO prospects remain uncertain, Moscow attempts to lure Georgia back to its security realm by hinting that some favorable solutions might be found for Tbilisi with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the auspices of the Moscow-promoted Eurasian Union.

Given some NATO allies’ skepticism on Georgian membership, the perpetual promises to incorporate Georgia into Western structures are starting to ring hollow and brought challenges, including democracy fatigue. Some Georgians now think that the price for country to pay for moving up on the Alliance’s membership waiting list (i.e., security dilemma etc) is too high. The frustration is widespread, as the false expectations on fast track NATO integration did not materialize. If not checked, this tendency can cause further disillusionment of the population. Accordingly some pro Russian political forces gained influence and have good prospect to enter Georgian parliament, which was not imaginable few years ago. Nation-wide surveys have shown that Georgians are growing dissatisfied with the slow progress in economic growth and the increasing gap between rich and poor, which has lead to a drop in public support for democratic reforms over the past few years. All this factors accompanied by Russian propaganda contributing to existing satiation.

2. It kind of become more pragmatic if you compare Saakashvili era. Pragmatism is understood as a careful, constructive, goal-oriented policy with realistic plans that successfully resists emotional attitudes and provocations. As GD uses considerable softening of rhetoric over Russia the westward foreign policy orientation didn’t change present government believes that, Georgia’s foreign policy cannot only be “value oriented,” but it must be economically pragmatic as well. Recent overture towards deepening political and economic contacts towards China also fits to this trend. but i guess both side reached certain red lines after which they cant move and reach progress in bilateral relations largely because of Russia’s occupation policy in Georgia.

Laura LindermanNonresident Research Fellow, Atlantic Council

The Brexit vote impacted Georgia’s foreign policy goals in a challenging manner. Voter in the UK, and also the US, that want their leaders to be less involved in the rest of the world and this is a problem for Georgia. A good example of this dynamic is the extremely slow path Georgia is on to get visa liberalization with the EU. The Georgian government has done everything required to satisfy the technical requirements for visa liberalization and this hard work was recognized by the European Commission’s recommendation to grant Georgia visa liberalization – and then the EU decided to delay liberalization without justification.

Russia may be emboldened, feeling that an inward looking EU focused on the aftermath of the Brexit vote is an atmosphere they can exploit and a political victory for them.

The recent NATO Warsaw summit was focused heavily on deterring Russia. However, Georgia was pushed further down on the agenda than they would have liked and there is no resolution to Georgia’s membership question – which remains in limbo. At this year’s summit, Georgia hoped to either receive a long-coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP), a direct roadmap for eventual integration with NATO, or to have MAP removed as a precondition for membership. Instead, Tbilisi got more cooperation formats with the Alliance and more resources for increasing the country’s defense capabilities.

Georgian people / government are unlikely to dramatically change their opinion that NATO / EU is the way forward for them in the near term. For more than twenty years, the Georgian people and their governments have continued to confirm the decision to move closer to the west, with steady opinion polling on the topic. The 2008 war with Russia looms large in public memory and NATO is still seen as a way to help protect the country from future attacks. The security situation remains difficult; only seventy-five kilometers of Tbilisi-controlled Georgian territory separates Russian border guards in South Ossetia from the Russian base in Gyumri, Armenia. The Georgian leadership fears being relegated to the gray zone between Russia and Europe, where Moscow can exert its will without regard to Georgia.

2. Georgia has been pursuing a pragmatic and patient relationship with Russia. But with the full knowledge that the Kremlin’s end game is power and  influence over its smaller neighbor.

Konrad Zasztowt, Analyst, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)

1.  Georgia – NATO and Georgia – EU relations are developing. Obviously, in case of integration with Georgians are waiting already 8 years for Membership Action Plan, prerequisite to receive full membership. It’s a long period, and naturally it brings disappointment of the Georgian political elite and society. On the other hand NATO is helping Georgia in modernization of its army, security sector reform. The Alliance is positively influencing transformation of state institutions into more democratic and transparent ones. The same goes with the EU. The EU countries are reluctant to promise even a perspective of membership to Georgia in a distant future, which is sad and irritating for Georgians, who are fully aware that some of the countries accepted as a members in  the past were less prepared to membership and had less successes in transformation of the political and economic system in line with the EU criteria. Still, without cooperation with the EU Georgia would lose its image of the most democratic country in the region. Probably, the elites would be tempted to follow Russian model, that is authoritarian one, with corrupt elite, difficult environment of business and lack of freedom of speech.

2.  I agree with such opinion only regarding the position of Georgian side. Government in Tbilisi in recent years was silent even in cases of outright provocations of Russia, such as so called “borderisation” land grab by Russian forces on the administrative boundary line with occupied South Ossetia or kidnapping of Georgian citizens in this region by Ossetian separatists. Actually, even the previous governments under presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, who is accused of being hawkish towards Russia, except of the brief period of August 2008, were pragmatic towards Russia. Already under Saakashvili in 2010 the visas for Russians were lifted, (Russia still requires visas from Georgians travelling to Russian territory).  For Georgian producers of wine, mineral water or fruits and vegetables Russia is an important market. It cannot be excluded however that Russia will come back to economic blackmail and ban Georgian exports like it already did in the past. Russia will refrain from aggressive actions towards Georgia probably until Georgian parliamentary elections in October. If the winner of the elections will remain openly pro-Western, and will continue policies of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Russia will probably come back to policy of pressure and intimidation. It’s not clear however, will the next government will be still pro-Western. Conservative and Euro-skeptical politicians gain popularity in the ruling Georgian Dream party as well as in other parties like for instance Patriotic Alliance.

Florent Parmentier, Adjunct Professor in Sciences Po, Director of EurAsia Prospective

1. The current Georgian leadership has changed the country’s foreign policy priorities compared with the Saakashvili era. The later made NATO a foreign policy priority once in power, and after the war of 2008 he leaned more toward EU integration. He was well aware that the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 made it impossible for Georgia to join NATO as a full member, but looked for other ways to integrate with the Western partners. With the ‘Georgian dream’ coming to power, the hope is that Georgia can rely on a situation when Russian / Western relations would go softer. This hope disappeared with the war in Ukraine, and Georgia is left once again between in a difficult position. Upgrading relations with the West and improving somehow the relations with Russia remain the objective, though the current tensions make it a difficult task. In this context,

2. Georgian leadership knows that Moscow is not going to accept that Tbilissi either seeks to join NATO, to upgrade relations with the US or simply want to chart its own foreign policy course. But Georgia is not the top priority of the Russian leadership now, so more pragmatism can be expected from this. The Russian foreign Ministry may have some strong statements (e.g. about the Noble Partner, it “regard this ongoing ‘exploration’ of Georgia’s territory by NATO forces as a provocative step aimed at escalating the military and political situation in the South Caucasus. To a large extent, this was encouraged by Washington’s and its allies’ open connivance at Tbilissi revanchist ambitions’), but it won’t go much beyond rhetoric right now, as Russia has other priorities in Syria and Ukraine.

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