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EU and Russia Square Up Over Georgia

In Brussels, the European Commission announced its recommendation that EU national leaders should grant Georgia candidate status, an essential step to future membership of the club. The key condition is that Georgia must pass the reforms needed to qualify for entry.

A dose of realism appears in order. No matter how desirable, Georgia’s path to the EU is strewn with obstacles, domestic and foreign. Some are so formidable that it seems reasonable to ask if full membership will ever happen. You can find me at tony.barber@ft.com.

Neighbourhood wars

Georgia diverges in important respects from its south Caucasus neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan. These two states have just fought their third major conflict since the early 1990s, a one-sided affair that resulted in Azerbaijan’s reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh and the flight of that enclave’s ethnic Armenian inhabitants.

Post-communist Georgia’s experiences of warfare are different. A Russian invasion in 2008 effectively dismembered the Georgian state by enforcing the secession of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which account for about 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory.

The consequences of that Russian attack persist to this day and, in terms of Georgia’s EU membership bid, could be far-reaching. Can or should the EU incorporate a country that is partly occupied by a hostile neighbour? The same question looms over the EU candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova.

Cyprus: a troubling precedent for the EU

There is a precedent in the form of Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004. The island’s northern areas are occupied by Turkish forces in a self-proclaimed breakaway state unrecognised by any country except Turkey.

The division of Cyprus has been an occasional burden on EU policymaking. Cypriot leaders tend to bring up their disputes with Turkey in discussions not directly related to the Cyprus dispute itself. This can disrupt the EU’s decision-making processes.

The risk is that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, once inside the EU with voting rights and informal influence, would do the same thing by frequently airing their difficulties with Russia. It’s clear that many EU national leaders, despite their warm public language in support of this trio, are worried about extending membership to countries that are under partial Russian occupation.

For all that, we should remember that much of Georgia’s population is pro-western. Public support for joining the EU runs very high. This makes Georgia unlike Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have never even submitted applications to join the EU.

‘Our response to Russia’

The Russian problem was on everyone’s minds in Tbilisi when the European Commission made its recommendation this week. Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili described the support from Brussels for her country’s EU candidacy as “our response to Russia and to Russian occupation”.

Meanwhile, Paweł Herczyński, the EU’s Polish-born ambassador in Georgia, prefaced his message of congratulations with a condemnation of the killing of one Georgian citizen by Russian border guards and the kidnapping of another. “[The] Russian military presence in the Georgian occupied breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is illegal,” he said.

If anything, though, Russia’s influence in Georgia has been rising since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Last month, the leader of Abkhazia said Russia would establish a permanent naval base on the breakaway region’s Black Sea coast (in the Ochamchira district).

Locator map of Georgia

There have also been tensions between Georgia’s government and western countries over Tbilisi’s reluctance to freeze the assets of Otar Partskhaladze, a former chief prosecutor on whom the US imposed sanctions for alleged ties to Russia’s FSB intelligence agency.

Under the ruling Georgian Dream party and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire oligarch who founded it, Georgia has refused to join western sanctions on Russia. It has permitted the resumption of direct flights between Tbilisi and Russian destinations.

From Russia with or without love

Not only that, but Russia has restored visa-free travel for Georgians. It has even offered to pay the entire tuition fees of Georgian students at Russian universities.

In short, Moscow is in competition with the EU for Georgia’s affections, and it uses both stick and carrot to pursue its goals. The stick was on display in August when Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president during the 2008 attack on Georgia, warned that the Kremlin might formally annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia if it felt so inclined.

The Hungarian hand of friendship

One condition of progress towards EU membership is that a candidate country should align its foreign policy with that of the bloc. In Georgia’s case, a Brussels spokesman estimated in May that alignment with EU decisions and declarations on foreign affairs had fallen to 31 per cent this year from an already low 44 per cent in 2022.

A curious side-effect of Georgia’s frictions with the EU is that one of the most fervent supporters of Tbilisi’s membership bid is none other than Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s premier.

From the perspective of Brussels, Orbán is the EU’s most awkward national leader, with disputes over everything from democracy and the rule of law to Hungary’s quarrels with Ukraine and its warm ties with Russia. Orbán clearly thinks that Georgia under Ivanishvili, or a similarly minded leader, could be a useful ally for Hungary in the EU.

Democratic backsliding

The reasons for Orbán’s enthusiasm for Georgia go beyond the Russophile tendencies of its government. They are closely connected to the fact that, under Ivanishvili’s influence, Georgia has suffered a decline in standards of democracy, free speech and respect for the rule of law.

In this FT article, Nadia Beard drew attention to government pressure on independent cultural institutions in Georgia. Only days before this week’s European Commission recommendation, the US-based PEN writers’ association strongly criticised the Georgian government’s clampdown on freedom of expression.

Particular controversy surrounds recently passed amendments to Georgia’s law on broadcasting. Ostensibly aimed at cracking down on hate speech, these amendments could easily be abused to restrict free speech, partly because of the lack of strong independent regulatory agencies in Georgia.

Finally, Georgian Dream legislators made an attempt earlier this year to impeach Zurabishvili, supposedly for exceeding her presidential powers in foreign policy matters. The attempt failed, but it was hardly a move calculated to impress EU governments, for she commands respect in western capitals and among pro-western Georgians as a brave individual who embodies the principles of liberal democracy.

Hard road ahead

All in all, there appear to be plenty of reasons to question whether Georgia is making any progress at all towards meeting the EU’s admission criteria on democracy and the rule of law. Tinatin Akhvlediani sums up the debate well in this article for the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi think-tank.

Now, after the commission’s positive recommendation, the ball is in the hands of EU national leaders, who will meet in Brussels next month and decide whether to give official approval to Georgia’s candidacy.

Source: Global Health News

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