Georgian aspirations for EU and NATO membership meet Western fears of Russian overreaction
▲ View of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, with the presidential palace in the background [Pixabay].
ANALYSIS / Irene Apesteguía
In Greek times, Jason and the Argonauts set out on a journey in search of the Golden Fleece, with a clear direction: the present-day lands of Georgia. Later, in Roman times, these lands were divided into two kingdoms: Colchis and Iberia. From being a Christian territory, Georgia was conquered by the Muslims and later subjected to the Mongols. At this time, in the 16th century, the population was reduced due to continuous Persian and Ottoman invasions.
In 1783, the Georgian kingdom and the Russian Empire agreed to the Treaty of Georgiyevsk, in which the two territories pledged mutual military support. This agreement failed to prevent the Georgian capital from being sacked by the Persians, which was allowed by the Russian Tsar. It was the Russian tsar, Tsar Paul I of Russia, who in 1800 signed the corresponding incorporation of Georgia into the Russian empire, taking advantage of the moment of Georgian weakness.
After the demise of the Transcaucasian Federal Democratic Republic and thanks to the Russian collapse that began in 1917, Georgia's first modern state was created: the Democratic Republic of Georgia, which between 1918 and 1921 fought with the support of German and British forces against the Russian Empire. Resistance did not last, and occupation by the Russian Red Army led to the incorporation of Georgian territory into the Union of Soviet Republics in 1921. In World War II, 700,000 Georgian soldiers had to fight against their former German allies.
In those Stalinist times, Ossetia was divided in two, with the southern part becoming an autonomous region belonging to Georgia. Later, the process was repeated with Abkhazia, thus forming today's Georgia. Seventy years later, on 9 April 1991, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic declared its independence as Georgia.
Every era has its "fall of the Berlin Wall", and this one is characterised by the disintegration of the former Russia. The major armed conflict that was to unfold in 2008 as a result of the frozen conflicts between Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the beginning of the last century came as no surprise.
Since the disintegration of the USSR
After the break-up of the USSR, the territorial configuration of the country led to tension with Russia. Independence led to civil unrest and a major political crisis, as the views of the population of the autonomous territories were not taken into account and the laws of the USSR were violated. As twin sisters, South Ossetia wanted to join North Ossetia, i.e. a Russian part, with Abkhazia again following in their footsteps. Moscow recognised Georgia without changing its borders, perhaps out of fear of a similar action to the Chechen case, but for two long decades it acted as the protective parent of the two autonomous regions.
With independence, Zviad Gamsakhurdia became the first president. After a coup d'état and a brief civil war, Eduard Shevardnadze, a Georgian politician who in Moscow had worked closely with Gorbachev in articulating perestroika, came to power. Under Shevardnadze's presidency, between 1995 and 2003, ethnic wars broke out in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Around ten thousand people lost their lives and thousands of families fled their homes.
In 2003 the Rose Revolution against misrule, poverty, corruption and electoral fraud facilitated the restoration of territorial integrity, the return of refugees and ethnic acceptance. However, the democratic and economic reforms that followed remained a dream.
One of the leaders of the Rose Revolution, the lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili, became president a year later, declaring Georgian territorial integrity and initiating a new policy: friendship with NATO and the European Union. This rapprochement with the West, and especially the United States, put Moscow on notice .
Georgia's strategic importance stems from its geographic centrality in the Caucasus, as it is in the middle of the route of new oil and gas pipelines. European energy security underpinned the EU's interest in a Georgia that was not subservient to the Kremlin. Saakashvili made nods to the EU and also to NATO, increasing the issue of military troops and expense in armaments, something that did him no harm in 2008.
Saakashvili was successful with his policies in Ayaria, but not in South Ossetia. Continued tension in South Ossetia and various internal disputes led to political instability, which prompted Saakashvili to leave Withdrawal .
At the end of Saakashvili's term in 2013, commentator and politician Giorgi Margvelashvili took over the presidency as head of the Georgian Dream list. Margvelashvili maintained the line of rapprochement with the West, as has the current president, Salome Zurabishvili, a French-born politician, also from Georgian Dream, since 2018.
Fight for South Ossetia
The 2008 war was initiated by Georgia. Russia also contributed to previous bad relations by embargoing imports of Georgian wine, repatriating undocumented Georgian immigrants and even banning flights between the two countries. In the conflict, which affected South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili had a modernised and prepared army, as well as full support from Washington.
The battles began in the main South Ossetian city of Tskhinval, whose population is mostly ethnic Russian. Air and ground bombardments by the Georgian army were followed by Russian tanks on the territory of entrance . Moscow gained control of the province and expelled the Georgian forces. After five days, the war ended with a death toll of between eight hundred and two thousand, depending on the different estimates of each side, and multiple violations of the laws of war. In addition, numerous reports commissioned by the EU showed that South Ossetian forces "deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages". These reports also stated that it was Georgia that initiated the conflict, although the Russian side had engaged in multiple provocations and also overreacted.
Following the 12 August ceasefire, diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia were suspended. Moscow withdrew its troops from part of the Georgian territory it had occupied, but remained in the separatist regions. Since then, Russia has recognised South Ossetia as an independent territory, as do Russian allies such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. The Ossetians themselves do not acknowledge cultural and historical ties with Georgia, but with North Ossetia, i.e. Russia. For its part, Georgia insists that South Ossetia is within its borders, and the government itself will take care of it as a matter of law and order, thus solving a problem described as constitutional.
Given Georgia's rapprochement with the EU, the conflict prompted European diplomacy to play an active role in the search for peace, with the deployment of 200 observers on the border between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, replacing Russian peacekeepers. In reality, the EU could have tried earlier to react more forcefully to Russia's actions in South Ossetia, which some observers believe would have prevented what happened later in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In any case, despite initiating the conflict, this did not affect Tbilisi's relationship with Brussels, and in 2014 Georgia and the EU signed a agreement of association. Today it is safe to say that the West has forgiven Russia for its behaviour in Georgia.
The war, although short, had a clear negative impact on the Ossetian region's Economics , which in the midst of difficulties became dependent on Moscow. However, Russian financial aid does not reach the population due to the high level of corruption.
The war is over, but not the friction. In addition to a refugee problem, there is also a security problem, with Georgians being killed on the border with South Ossetia. The issue is not closed, but even if the risk is slight, everything remains in the hands of Russia, which in addition to controlling and influencing politics, runs tourism in the area.
This non-resolution of the conflict hampers the stabilisation of democracy in Georgia and with it the possible entrance accession to the European institution, as ethnic minorities claim a lack of respect for and protection of their rights. Although governance mechanisms remain weak in these conflicts, it is clear that recent reforms in the South Caucasus have led to promote inclusive dialogue with minorities and greater state accountability.
November 2018 saw the last direct presidential elections in the country, as from 2024 it will no longer be citizens who vote for their president, but legislators and certain compromisers, due to a constitutional reform that transforms the country into a parliamentary republic.
In 2018, candidate of the United National Movement, Grigol Vashdze, and the Georgian Dream candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, faced each other in the second round. With 60% of the vote, the centre-left candidate became the first woman president of Georgia. She won on a European platform: "more Europe in Georgia and Georgia in the European Union". Her inauguration was greeted by protesters alleging election irregularities. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) endorsed the election process, but noted a lack of objectivity in the public media during the campaign.
Some Georgian media consider that Georgian Dream enjoyed an 'undue advantage' because of the intervention in the campaign of former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, now a wealthy financier, who publicly announced a financial aid programme for 600,000 Georgians. It became clear that Ivanishvili pulls the strings and levers of power in the country. This questioning of the cleanliness of the campaign has led to Georgia's downgrading of democratic quality in the 2018 ratings.
Public event presided over in January by Salome Zurabishvili at the Georgian presidential palace [Presidency of Georgia].
THE APPROACH TO THE WEST
Since the policies pursued by the Georgian presidency since Saakashvili came to power, Georgia has made a determined move into the Western world. Thanks to all the new measures that Tbilisi is implementing to conform to Western demands and requirements , Georgia has managed to profile itself as the ideal candidate for its entrance in the EU. However, despite the pro-European and Atlanticist yearnings of the ruling Georgian Dream party and a large part of Georgian society, the country could end up surrendering to Russian pressure, as has happened with several former Soviet territories that had previously attempted a Western rapprochement, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Becoming the most favoured country in the Caucasus to join the European Union, with which it has a close and positive relationship, Georgia has signed several binding treaties with Brussels, following the aspiration of Georgian citizens for more democracy and human rights. In 2016 the agreement of association entered into force between the EU and Georgia, allowing for serious steps in political and economic integration, such as the creation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). This preferential trade regime makes the EU the country's main trading partner partner . The DCFTA financial aid encourages Georgia to reform its trade framework , following the principles of the World Trade Organisation, while eliminating tariffs and facilitating broad and mutual access. This alignment with the EU's framework legal framework prepares the country for eventual accession.
As for agreement of association, it should be mentioned that Georgia is a member country of the association Eastern under the European Neighbourhood Policy. Through this association, Brussels issues annual reports on the steps taken by a given state towards closer alignment with the EU. The committee of association is the formal institution dedicated to monitoring these partnership relations; its meetings have highlighted the progress made and the growing closeness between Georgia and the EU.
In 2016 the EU's Permanent Representatives committee confirmed the European Parliament's agreement on visa liberalisation with Georgia. This agreement was based on visa-free travel for EU citizens crossing the country's borders, and for Georgian citizens travelling to the EU for stays of up to 90 days.
Georgia, however, has been disappointed in its expectations when the EU has expressed doubts about the desirability of membership. Some EU member states cited the potential danger posed by Georgian criminal groups, which several pro-Russian parties in the country took advantage of to wage a vigorous campaign against the EU and NATO. The campaign paid off and anti-Russian opinion waned, prompting Moscow to assert itself further with military manoeuvres, although public support for the Georgian Dream continued in the 2016 elections.
Despite the lack of any prospect of forthcoming accession, the EU continues to offer hope, as in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's tour of the Caucasus last summer. On her visit to Georgia, Merkel compared the Georgian conflict to the Ukrainian conflict due to the presence of Russian troops in the country's separatist regions. She visited the town of Odzisi, located on the border with South Ossetia, and at a speech at the University of Tbilisi said that both that territory and Abkhazia are "occupied territories", which did not go down well with Moscow. Merkel pledged to do her utmost to ensure that this "injustice" remains present on the international diary .
Georgian President Salome Zourachvili also believes that the UK's exit from the EU could be a great opportunity for Georgia. "It will force Europe to reform. And being an optimist, I am sure it will open new doors for us," she said.
Hope in the Atlantic Alliance
Russia's behaviour in recent years, in addition to encouraging Georgia's rapprochement with the EU, has given a sense of urgency to its desire to join the Atlantic Alliance.
In 2016, several joint NATO-Georgia manoeuvres took place in the Black Sea, where a coalition fleet was stationed. This was evidence of a growing mutual rapprochement that Georgia hoped would lead to NATO membership at that year's NATO summit in Warsaw. But despite the country's extensive defence, security and intelligence training, it was not invited to join the club: Russia was not to be inconvenienced.
NATO assured, however, that it would maintain its open-door policy towards eastern countries and considered Georgia to remain an exemplary candidate . Pending future decisions, Tbilisi was left with strengthening military cooperation, offering as an incentive the "Black Sea format", a compromise solution that includes NATO, Georgia and Ukraine and increases NATO's influence in the Black Sea region.
Georgia, as the capital ally of NATO and the European Union in the Caucasus region, aspires to greater protection from the Atlantic Alliance vis-à-vis Russia. The European political centre observes the Georgian population's efforts to join the international organisation and opts for a strategy of patience for the Caucasus region, as in the Cold War years.
Approaching Russia's borders is problematic, and multiple criticisms have been levelled at NATO over the easy Georgian membership due to its geostrategic status . Russia has repeatedly expressed concern about such joint cooperation between the US, NATO and neighbouring Georgia.
President Zurabishvili's speech at the Holocaust remembrance events in Jerusalem in January [Presidency of Georgia].
A VIGILANT RUSSIA
The wounds of the 2008 South Ossetia war have not yet healed in Georgian society. Despite Georgia's political attempts at rapprochement with Western institutions, Russia remains suspiciously vigilant, so that relations between the two countries continue to be troubled. Last summer saw the latest episode of tension, which led the Georgian president to describe Russia as an "enemy and occupier".
After some rapprochement in 2013 that saw an increase in food trade and Russian tourism coming to the country, Moscow has shifted to a strategy of attempting rapprochement at the religious and political level. With that intention, a small group of Russian lawmakers travelled to the Georgian capital for the Orthodox Interparliamentary Assembly. This international organisation, led by Greece and Russia, is the only one that brings together the legislative bodies of Orthodox countries. The meeting took place in the plenary hall of the Georgian Parliament, where Russian MP Sergei Gabrilov took the seat of the Speaker of the House. Several politicians from the civil service examination did not take kindly to this and mobilised thousands of citizens, who staged serious public disorder in an attempted storming of the Parliament. The Russian delegation was forced to leave the country, but the attempt at Russian influence through religion was clear, whereas until then the Church had kept out of all political controversies.
The riots, in which many people were injured, prompted members of the government to cancel all foreign travel and the president to cut short her trip to Belarus, where she was to attend attend the opening of the European Games, a presence considered important in Western eyes. Demonstrators protested against the Georgian Dream headquarters, where they burned and stormed outbuildings. The ten days of rioting were not only justified by the incident at the Assembly, but also as a reaction to the Russian occupation. In addition, the conflict between the Georgian Dream and the opposing parties led by Saakashvili, now in exile in Ukraine, may also have contributed.
The crisis ended with the departure of Prime Minister Mamuka and the appointment of Georgi Gaharia as his successor, despite criticism that he had been criticised for his management of the unrest as interior minister.
The uprisings, while well-intentioned, are against Georgia's interests, the Georgian president said, as what the country needs is "internal calm and stability", both to progress internally and to gain sympathy among EU members, who do not want more tension in the region. Salome Zurabishvili warned of the risks of any internal destabilisation that Russia could provoke.
In the wake of the June protests, the Kremlin issued a decree banning the transport of nationals to Georgia by Russian airlines. While claiming to ensure "national security and protection of citizens", it was clear that Moscow was reacting to an anti-Russian tinged revolt. The decision reduced visitor arrivals from Russia, which had been accounting for one in four tourists, which the government said could mean a loss of $1 billion and a 1 per cent reduction in GDP.
The tension reached the television media in the Georgian capital. Days after the riots, the host of Rustavi 2's 'Post Scriptum' programme intervened in the broadcast speaking Russian and hurled several insults at President Vladimir Putin, which Russia described as unacceptable and 'Russophobic'. The channel apologised, admitting that its ethical and editorial standards had been violated, while several Georgian politicians, including the president, condemned the episode and lamented that such acts only increase tensions between the two nations.
The events of last summer show Georgians' rejection of an enmity with Russia that, in addition to heightening tensions with the big northern neighbour, may have an impact on Georgia's relationship with the EU and other Western international organisations, as they will not tread on quicksand, especially with big Russia in front of them.
Asmus, Ronald D. A Little War That Shook the World. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
Cornell S. E. & Starr, F. The Guns of August 2008. Russia's War in Georgia. London: M.E. Sharpe, 2009.
De la Parte, Francisco P. The Returning Empire. La Guerra de Ucrania 2014-2017: Origen, development, entorno internacional y consecuencias. Oviedo: Ediciones de la Universidad de Oviedo, 2017.
Golz, Thomas. Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in The Post-Soviet Caucasus.New York: Taylor and Francis, 2006.