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Is Georgia, which is Balancing between Russia and Ukraine, Wandering in a Maze of Internal Ambitions, Starting to Fall Behind?

The key news in recent weeks has been that the European Commission (EC) has finally given Ukraine and Moldova the go-ahead to start realising their Euro-integration aspirations, albeit not without conditions.

As President of the EC Ursula von Leyen has argued, while the European state Ukraine has provided enough evidence of its commitment to the values of the European Union (EU), the country will have to continue on the path of reform, and it will not be a short path. The same reasoning was repeated in the case of Moldova.

On 17 June, the EC formally recommended Ukraine and Moldova to be granted the status of the EU candidate. We have to wait for the EU summit on 23-24 June to finalise it.

The Bloomberg news agency broadcasted a “rehearsal” for the official recognition of Ukraine and Moldova as EU candidates at a meeting of envoys of the Member States of the Community on the same day late on the evening of 20 June. According to the sources of the Agency, there were no objections to this.

Also on 20 June, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Zbigniew Rau indicated that he had heard no objections to the status of EU candidate of Ukraine at the Council of Europe meeting on the eve of the meeting, so everything seems to have been decided.

It seems there is no longer any doubt. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky heralded the penultimate week of June as historic.

If the mood in Ukraine, and probably in Moldova, could be described as restrainedly solemn in those days, the same cannot be said about Georgia. As the President of the EC also pointed out on 17 June, additional conditions need to be met in order for the country to become an EU candidate.

It should be recalled that the “trio” of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia started the Euro-integration path and for some time have been walking in exemplary harmony.

On 22 December 2020, representative of Ukraine to the EU and ambassador to Belgium Nikolai Tochitsky, pointed out at a press conference that the EU Eastern Partnership programme retains a great potential and that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are capable of playing a consolidating role in it.

In 2021, the diversity of consolidation in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova was still evident. On 24 June, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the “trio”, in a joint publication Euractiv, stated that their countries hoped that the EU association format would boost their countries’ cooperation with the EU, as all three had taken a decisive step in favour of a European future by signing the EU Association Agreement on 27 June 2014.

The publication reported that the Treaty is being implemented consistently in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, despite a number of challenges. Ministers said they wanted to send a signal that their countries are at an important crossroad and hoped that European partners and friends would continue to stand by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova on the path of Euro-integration.

On the same day as the Euractiv text was published, the European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell received the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine as representatives of the EU association “trio”.

Already on 3 March of the current year, while the war in Ukraine was still raging, Kiev, followed by Georgia and Moldova, signed the EU accession application.

Here we have a division.

As for corruption, the need to reform law enforcement, these are problems that are still “more or less” divided among all – now it must be said – members of the former “trio”.

And on the subject of political unity in Georgia…

According to different estimates, between 30 and 50 thousand people gathered on the evening of 20 June for the rally Home to Europe of the civic movement Sirtskhvilia (shame in Lithuanian) in the centre of Tbilisi, where European and Ukrainian politicians also spoke out.

However, it is symptomatic that some of the students brought placards with them reading “We demand deoligarchisation” and “The West must impose sanctions on Bidzina Ivanishvili and members of the government of Georgia”.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who has amassed a fortune in Russia, is the founder and informal leader of the ruling party Dream of Georgia.

On 16 June, a rally on the same theme, also held in Tbilisi, was organised by the President of Georgia Salomé Zourabichvili, who called on Georgian politicians to put aside their differences and ambitions, at least for the time being, and to join in a campaign to fulfil the country’s Euro-integration aspirations.

The President did not help, but “leaned” on the refusal of the two largest parties, the ruling Dream of Georgia and the opposition United National Movement.

President Salomé Zourabichvili has previously stressed out that the chance to obtain the status of EU candidate under the fast-track procedure is not a result of Georgia’s but of Ukraine’s heroic struggle for freedom.

Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili, on the second day of the war in Ukraine, firmly stated that his country would not join the Western sanctions against Russia, because Georgia’s national interests demanded it.

The representatives of the Dream of Georgia have subsequently repeated the same message many times.

In fact, Georgia has supported all United Nations (UN) Security Council and General Assembly resolutions condemning Moscow, and was even one of the first to take the initiative to bring a case against Russia before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

However, on 23 April, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that he did not understand the refusal of the government of Georgia to impose economic sanctions on Moscow, also recalling that the Ukrainians and the Georgians are truly brotherly nations and that it is painful for him to see the Tbilisi government taking such a stance.

 

The government of Georgia had to justify themselves. President of the country’s national bank Koba Gvenetadze said in early May that neither the United States, the United Kingdom (UK) nor the EU had reprimanded Tbilisi for ignoring the sanctions.

The Minister of Economy Levan Davitashvili recalled that it is not only Georgia but also some NATO countries that do not impose sanctions. According to the Minister, if they were to be introduced, they would not have any apparent negative impact on the Russian economy, but they would worsen the situation of the citizens of Georgia, which is not in the interests of the government.

President Salomé Zourabichvili has pointed out to the Western press that statement of the Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili on sanctions appeal to public opinion inside the country to make it clear that Tbilisi will not add “sovereign” sanctions to international sanctions against Moscow.

The imprisonment of the third president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2012), has not gone unnoticed in Europe.

Although Bidzina Ivanishvili personally, and then the whole party Dream of Georgia, cannot stand Irakli Saakashvili, he is still seen as the reformer of the country.

During his presidency (2004-2013), he reined in the rampage of corruption and crime, albeit with some flip-flops. The country has built an infrastructure that has worked and continues to work efficiently for the public good.

The person of Irakli Saakashvili does not necessarily influence relations between Ukraine and Georgia in the direction of reconciliation.

When third president of Georgia left his homeland after losing the elections in October 2013, several cases were opened against him in Georgia and an international search was launched, although Interpol refused to support accusations of Tbilisi.

In 2015, third president of Georgia became a citizen of Ukraine and became actively involved in its life, followed by the leader of the United National Movement, who was attracted to the country by his comrades from his government, who also held important positions in Kiev.

For the supporters of the ruling Dream of Georgia, Ukraine began to look, in a way, like a branch of the Georgian opposition.

Before last year’s municipal elections, Mikheil Saakashvili decided to return to his homeland and was immediately arrested on 1 October. Since then, he has been imprisoned and has repeatedly declared hunger strikes. The streets of Tbilisi have been the scene of violent demonstrations in his support.

On 12 February, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine formally recognised Irakli Saakashvili, a Ukrainian citizen, as a victim of ill-treatment in a prison in Georgia.

In the context of the ties of the third president of Georgia with Ukraine, Irakli Garibashvili seems to be answering not to Kiev but to Mikheil Saakashvili supporters in Georgia in his polemics with Kiev.

The Dream of Georgia takes a strictly anti-war stance, declaring that the war with Russia in 2008 was provoked by the third president, and that Georgia suffered as a result.

In the current circumstances, the point was reached where the Prime Minister explains that the desire and objective of the highest Ukrainian authorities after 24 February was to open a second front in Moldova and Georgia.

In fact, when Tbilisi refused to join the war, unfounded accusations began to be levelled against Georgia.

Irakli Garibashvili is convinced that Mikheil Saakashvili also travelled to his homeland with the aim of staging a coup and forcing Georgia into war (the former president arrived in Georgia almost six months before the Russian invasion).

“If Mikheil Saakashvili were in power now, we would have a second Mariupol. Do you understand what a dirty provocation we have protected everyone from?” – proclaimed the Prime Minister during his spring visits to the regions.

Fifty days after the Russian invasion, Ukraine and Georgia did try to mend their differences when a delegation of Georgian parliamentarians visited Kiev, Bukhara and Irpen on 16 April.

Commenting on the issue of sanctions against Moscow already on the territory of Ukraine, the head of the delegation, the Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia Shalva Papuashvili, promised that his country would not help Russia in any way.

On 5 May, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Georgia made one of the strongest statements on the subject of aggression against Ukraine at an international conference in Warsaw, in the presence of Volodymyr Zelensky and Ursula von der Leyen: “We condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a clear and flagrant violation of international law and of the UN Charter”.

On the other hand, Khatun Samnidze, also a member of the delegation to Ukraine from the opposition, believes that the Dream of Georgia was forced to send representatives because of pressure from the West and when it found out that representatives of the United National Movement were planning to go.

In an interview with the Russian daily Meduza (18 May), the politician described the position of the Dream of Georgia as a truly pitiful kneeling gesture against the Kremlin.

While Tbilisi could not make up its mind on sanctions, an American diplomat and former US representative to NATO Kurt Volker pointed out in an interview with the Georgian portal Palitranews that the country had lost its status as a leader of reforms and had been taken over by Ukraine. Georgia is now seen as a country that has moved away from democracy.

Devil is in the details.

On 21 June, a member of the feminist group Pussy Riot Olga Borisova was not allowed to enter Georgia without any explanation, even though she considers Tbilisi her home and has an apartment there. Olga Borisova and the other members of Pussy Riot have protested many times against the aggression in Ukraine, and have been detained and fined many times for those protests…

Why?

About real or perceived influence of Moscow. On 13 July, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that the government had concluded negotiations to become a shareholder of the company Borjomi Georgia.

Mineral water with a unique composition is both the pride of Georgia and one of the country’s symbols and trademarks. On 29 April, operations of Borjomi Georgia were paralysed due to financial problems after its founder, the Russian business oligarch Mikhail Fridman, came under Western sanctions over aggression of Russia in Ukraine.

It can also be seen as an allegory of the geopolitical status of Georgia, when the country’s symbol, though not directly, ended up suffering from sanctions imposed on Russia.

The Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili, still insists that his country has achieved more Euro-integration reforms than Ukraine and Moldova.

At a cabinet meeting held on 13 June, they said that the first country to merit official candidate status was Georgia, followed by Ukraine and Moldova. When matters in this regard inexorably deteriorated, on 20 June he stated, no doubt not without resentment, that Ukraine had earned the recommendation for candidacy because it was at war and Moldova because it was a neighbour of a country at war.

Meanwhile, the recommendations of the EC are relentless: unlike in Ukraine, in Moldova and Georgia the development of institutions guaranteeing democracy, human rights and freedoms is insufficient.

The country is obliged to overcome political polarisation, to implement the so-called “Charles Agreement” (the Dream of Georgia agreement on reforms with the opposition, brokered by Council of Europe President Charles Michel, but later withdrawn from by the ruling party), to adjust the electoral law, to ensure media diversity, and to “de-oligarchies”, which means to remove the excessive influence of the business oligarchs in the economic and political life of Georgia.

If the EC’s conditions are met, official status as an EU candidate will be conferred on Georgia in December.

Summing up. It will not be good for Georgia if Tbilisi University professor Ilya Georgy Nodya’s assessment of the current government turns to be true: the government is trying to “look good” in the eyes of Washington and Brussels, but this does not mean that it is really committed to democratic values.

Arūnas Spraunius

 

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