Is Georgia going towards European integration or friendship with Russia?

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An aerial view shows the city of Tbilisi, Georgia, December 11, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Following the endorsement of Georgia’s candidacy by EU leaders earlier this month, the attainment of full EU membership depends on Georgia’s forthcoming foreign policy choices, political cohesion, and the conduct of fair and transparent elections in 2024.

The Arguments

On October 18, the ruling party in Georgia, Georgian Dream, was unsuccessful in its attempt to impeach President Salome Zourabichvili. This impeachment endeavour was initiated due to Zourabichvili’s unauthorized meetings with European leaders, where she advocated for Georgia’s EU candidacy.

The Constitutional Court of Georgia determined that these meetings contravened the constitution, leading to a parliamentary vote on impeachment. However, only 86 lawmakers supported impeachment, falling short of the required 100 votes. The months of strain between the ruling party and the President mirror wider societal rifts in Georgia regarding the country’s Euro-Atlantic prospects.

Even though Zourabichvili avoided impeachment, the process significantly limited her ability to undertake future foreign diplomatic visits and dealt a substantial blow to her credibility. The consequences of the impeachment process go beyond the immediate context. Following the official approval of Georgia’s candidacy by EU leaders this month, full EU membership depends on Georgia’s upcoming foreign policy decisions, political unity, and the conduct of fair and free elections in 2024. Zourabichvili was one of the images of Georgian integration into the European Union. Her unwavering dedication to cultivating close ties with Western institutions and her outspoken criticisms of Russia and Putin align with the pro-European and anti-Russian sentiments expressed by the population during recent protests.

The benefits of Georgia officially receiving candidacy status outweigh the drawbacks of not doing so. A rejection would undoubtedly have had profound effects at both societal and political levels, impacting the pro-European sentiment, potentially strengthening Russia’s political leverage and influence in Georgia.

However, granting Georgia EU candidate status may be seen as a validation and reward for the government, despite its democratic regression. This raises questions about whether such a move potentially undermines the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy. Nevertheless, EU candidate status is extended to the people, and their aspirations should not be disregarded.

Optimistic expectations persist that candidate status may positively influence the government’s future decisions, and there is hope that the 2024 elections will bring about a transformative shift in the country’s political trajectory.

Of course, the fact that Georgia received the candidate status does not mean that it will become a member of the EU. With Georgian Dream in power, things can change in a very short period of time. Although it declares that it wants integration into the EU, the governing party is much closer to Russia and its way of governing.

The Facts

Over the last two decades, Russia has consistently employed soft power and initiatives to counter Western influence in Georgia.

Despite the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which led to the occupation of 20% of Georgian territories and significant political and economic repercussions, Georgia had steadfastly followed a pro-Western trajectory. However, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been a noticeable shift in Georgia’s governmental position.

Given Russia’s substantial military presence in the country and the recent explicit warning from former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev regarding the potential formal annexation of Georgia’s Russian-occupied regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there is a pressing need to prioritize territorial security and embrace the democratic opportunities offered by Euro-Atlantic integration.

Recent surveys conducted by the International Republic Institute in Georgia reveal substantial backing for EU and NATO membership, with 89% and 80% of participants expressing support, respectively. Nevertheless, the actions of the government suggest a contrasting stance, prompting questions about the disparity between official decisions and public sentiment.

While the government maintains its commitment to EU and NATO accession as outlined in Georgia’s constitution, emphasizing pro-Western activities, voting records on UN resolutions, and successful efforts to meet EU recommendations, a closer examination reveals an overall lack of genuine dedication to a pro-European trajectory.

Also, during a period of Western sanctions on Russia, the Georgian government abstained, stating its aim to avoid escalating tensions and potential Russian aggression within the nation. Georgian Dream supported the resumption of Georgia-Russia flights, endorsed Vladimir Putin’s visa changes for Georgians, and introduced the controversial “foreign agent” bill, leading to societal unrest.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili attributed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the country’s NATO aspirations and accused the European Parliament of trying to involve Georgia in the conflict.

Moreover, the government employed systematic propaganda, reminiscent of Russia’s tactics, by portraying liberal principles associated with Euro-Atlantic integration as derogatory and linking them to the erosion of traditional values.

The influx of Russian settlers and businesses, facilitated by the ruling party’s open-door policy, raises security concerns. The Russian concept of “Compatriots Abroad” has been previously exploited to advance foreign policy objectives through military means in both Georgia and Ukraine. In the broader geopolitical context, the planned construction of a Russian naval base in Abkhazia raises security concerns for the entire region.

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