During a visit to Brussels in January 2021, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili eagerly expressed Georgia’s desire to apply for full EU membership in 2024. Zourabichvili was favourable to the EU’s engagement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. She twittered that “What we need is more involvement from the EU in conflict resolution.” The EU does get involved in Georgia’s conflicts. However, instead of security, the EU focuses on Georgia’s democracy and stability. On March 1st, 2021, European Council President Charles Michel called the Georgian government and oppositions to solve a domestic political turmoil.
Michel held a series of meetings in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. He asked the government and oppositions to start a dialogue on Nika Melia’s arrest, the main opposition party United National Movement (UNM)’s chairman. Michel is confident with the negotiations he presided: “When I asked the clear question to all the participants: ‘Is there the political will to strengthen the political dialogue in order to find together solutions,’ the answer was clearly ‘yes, this is a good step.’” Zourabichvili confirmed that “Georgia will continue to be an island of stability and democracy. The EU has been and will be the engine that strengthens this.” UNM member Salome Samadashvili supported the EU’s involvement but holds reservations on its method: “The EU will be extremely active in overcoming the current crisis… it is impossible to simultaneously arrest political leaders and talk about dialogue.”
Georgia has been in political turmoil for nearly a month. In the 2020 parliamentary election, the current ruling party, Georgian Dream, defeated UNM’s coalition by 24 seats, but UNM refused to accept the result and continued to protest against the current parliament. A Georgian court accused Nika Melia of organizing violent demonstrations. The then Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia disagreed with his own party, Georgian Dream, for such a decision. Eventually, Gakharia resigned on Februruary 18th, 2021, and Nika Melia got arrested on February 23rd. These events have triggered even greater political polarization in the country. UNM supporters encircled the residence of Bidzina Ivanishvili, former Prime Minister and Georgian Dream’s founder, to chant for another parliamentary vote during Michel’s visit to Tbilisi.
The EU and Georgia both hope to build a closer reciprocal relationship, but they have different focuses. While Georgia is anxious about Russia’s external pressure and territorial disputes, the EU’s priority is Georgia’s internal democracy and stability. In the 2014 EU-Georgia Association Agreement, the EU mentioned many times that it wishes to strengthen human rights, democratic principles, the rule of law, and good governance with Georgia, but didn’t comment anything on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Zourabichvili’s Brussels visit was clear evidence for these diverged demands. When Gakharia spoke of “We seek de-occupation and peaceful restoration of our territorial integrity while continuing to move closer to the U.S., EU and NATO,” Michel changed the agenda to that the EU will “stand by Georgia in its efforts to…deepen reforms.” The EU Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell echoed Michel’s point: “Georgia needs a fully functioning, representative parliament, enjoying the trust of the population… and to advance the wider reform agenda, including in the judiciary.”
The EU is in a dilemma. Although the EU does want to support Georgia, it is unwilling and unable to involve too deeply in Georgian politics. It focuses on democratic reforms because it’s relatively less likely to provoke Russia. Russia has been cautious about other powers’ involvement in former Soviet states. Georgia’s enthusiastic approaches to western democracies, particularly NATO, directly led to a diplomatic crisis with Russia and the subsequently Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Ukraine is another Russian intervention case that escalated into wars when the country attempted to approach the EU. The former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili criticized western democracies for inaction: “The weakness of international norms, of the rules-based liberal order which many in Washington and Brussels endorse but few dares to defend, makes Moscow look even stronger.” Due to Russia’s aggression, the EU is only willing to modestly engage in Georgian politics, such as promoting political dialogue.
The EU needs to be more assertive to involve in Georgian politics. Its current policies have little impact on the country’s democratic reforms and security concerns. It encourages political dialogue between polarized parties but makes no plans on where the dialogue will go and what the EU will behave in the dialogue. The best expectation for the EU’s involvement will be Nika Melia’s release, but this won’t change the country’s political landscape and polarization. Ukraine shows that any dramatic political change can provoke Russia. If the EU wants to see substantial reforms, it will need an action plan of how it should support the country and a reaction plan of how it will deal with Russia’s actions.
From Georgia’s perspective, Georgia has pushed itself too far in the centre of the great-power rivalry between Russia and western democracies. Indeed, Georgia has the right to pursuit a closer relationship with NATO and the EU, but it could do so more strategically. There are EU members states that enjoy friendly relations with Russia, such as Italy and the Czech Republic. Although territorial disputes are crucial, placing itself as an opposite to Russia hinders Georgia’s reforms and European integration. Georgia can seek to normalize its relationship with Russia and gradually get involved in NATO and EU affairs.
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