By Tornike Kakalashvili
Georgia, a small country in South Caucasus frequently referred to as an Eastern European state by some western media outlets, has a long-standing Euro-Atlantic ambition – the former soviet republic aspires to become an EU and NATO member state.
The very latest public opinion poll, released in January 2021 by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-founded non-profit, shows that 80 percent of respondents accept the Government’s aspiration for Georgia to become a member of the EU, a four-point rise compared to the previous June 2020 survey.
”Historically, Georgia’s foreign policy and its national interest have always been driven by aspirations towards the Western world. Therefore, in 1991, when we regained our statehood, we loudly declared that we would become full members of the free family of European nations.”- The Information Center on NATO and EU of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Georgia tells me.
Back in 2018, the Parliament of Georgia amended the constitution and now the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the country have been constitutionally guaranteed. It can be seen as a signal of strong geopolitical desires in the nation.
Georgia is an associate country member of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). The European Union and Georgia enjoy a close relationship, which is based on the EU-Georgia Association Agreement (AA) including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, that entered into force in July 2016 and endeavors to political association and economic integration. Additionally, since 28 March 2017, Georgian citizens benefit from visa-free travel in the Schengen zone for up to 90 days in a 180-day period.
”With the implementation of AA, Georgia will integrate up to 70 percent of the main part of the EU legislation into the Georgian one. In fact, it is a tool that sets European standards in all areas of our daily reality.”- MFA-affiliated center says.
For some tourists, it is quite bizarre to see that all public buildings in Georgia fly the European flags alongside national ones despite Georgia not being a member of the EU. Nonetheless, it plainly illustrates Georgia’s top foreign policy goals.
Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and occupied 20 percent of internationally recognized Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has been waging a disinformation campaign in a post-soviet nation for years, seemingly unhappy with its neighbor’s pro-Western agenda. According to annual reports on anti-western propaganda of the Media Development Foundation, Georgian NGO, the Kremlin tries to portray the West as a perverted, morally degraded threat to Georgian identity in a socially conservative and devout Orthodox nation.
Hostile Russia’s anti-western disinformation is one of the biggest challenges facing the country in its Euro-Atlantic way hence the Information Center aims for ”providing the objective and accurate information” to the Georgian society on Euro-Atlantic integration through ”effective and proactive communication.”
“One of the important tasks of the Center is to strengthen the resilience of the citizens to the myths and misconceptions spread as a result of anti-Western propaganda. To achieve its goals, the Information Center conducts an average of 500 to 750 events or activities each year, and the number of beneficiaries ranges from 25,000 to 30,000 per year.”- says the Information Center.
Recently it was unveiled that the Government of Georgia will apply for full EU membership in 2024. It is widely seen just as a symbolic act.
Kakha Gogolashvili, the Senior Fellow at Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), one of the leading think tanks in the country, says that Georgia’s integration in the EU is first and foremost a civilized choice but nobody has the illusion of the ex-Soviet nation’s EU membership at this stage. He believes that it is unlikely that the EU response will be positive towards the official application for accession.
“At best, the application may tell us that the country has a ”membership prospect” but does not yet deserve candidate status. They may even leave unanswered for an indefinite amount of time. Nevertheless, at worst, the EU would indicate there are many issues where we lag behind EU values and standards.”- Gogolashvili emphasizes.
The Senior fellow of GFSIS notes that readiness for the EU membership has many dimensions, including full support from the population, which already exists, however, Georgia is lagging behind in terms of socio-economic development, infrastructure, human capital, labor market development, and labor productivity.
“Approximation with EU standards is underway, but we have not yet implemented even half of the directives and regulations provided for in the Association Agreement.”- He points out.
Gogolashvili names numerous challenges like weak businesses, poor macroeconomic indicators, a rapid and dramatic devaluation of the national currency, the flawed judicial system with very little trust in the population, defective electoral environment, the fragility and inefficiency of institutions, unresolved problem of Russian-occupied territories as Georgia’s obstacles in the prospects of the integration into the EU.
Kaha Gogolashvili also says that EU membership is a way to strengthen security guarantees for such a small country like Georgia which needs to be in a large union of countries in order to maximize its political and economic security. The senior fellow at GFSIS thinks that it is also key to receive the financial and economic support that the EU provides to the newly acceded countries.
”The four freedoms gained in the case of EU membership are important both for the well-being of individual citizens and for the intensive development of business, investment and trade or services. It will help to quickly raise the level of welfare.”- Gogolashvili reckons.
On February 23, the Georgian police violently stormed the headquarters of the United National Movement (UNM), the country’s largest opposition party, in order to arrest opposition leader Nika Melia. This has cast a shadow over the county’s western aspirations. The dramatic move has further escalated the ongoing political crisis in the South Caucasus country, where the opposition parties do not accept the results of the 2020 general elections, citing it was rigged and boycotting the Parliament. The police raid of the UNM office has drawn unpreceded backlash from Georgia’s western partners.
Ned Price, Spokesperson of the State Department said “What we’ve seen in recent days is in contravention of Georgia’s own Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
The U.S. embassy has issued a statement saying “Today, Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations.”
“Georgia’s place as a free member of the European family is not in doubt but is put in danger by the violence and assaults on freedom,” – reads the joint letter signed by the Chairs of Lithuanian, Czech, Polish, Latvian, American, Estonian, German and British Foreign Affairs Committees.
In the wake of such harsh international criticism, will Georgia manage not to deviate from the course of democratic development anymore? And will Georgians finally succeed to accommodate themselves with the European family, which looks like a desirable future society for the majority of them?
By Tornike Kakalashvili
Illustration: Amelie Lutz