Georgia has been used to the EU being a concerned and sympathetic but relatively distant watcher of internal politics. The degree of engagement now – through Council President Charles Michel, mediation by special representative Danielsson, concern from all tiers in Brussels – has been surprising.
We have asked several Georgia and EU-watchers: how unusual is this degree of engagement in the Eastern neighborhood and what are its driving causes?
Laure Delcour, Associate Professor, International Relations and European Studies at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3
What we recently witnessed is indeed an unprecedented level of EU engagement not only in Georgia, but also in the region. It is the first time that the EU gets involved at such a high political level in a domestic political crisis in its eastern neighborhood. The difference in both the level and modes of EU engagement is especially striking compared to the Maidan protests and the political crisis in Ukraine in late 2013-early 2014. The EU’s current engagement only reflects how close Georgia has come to the EU in recent years, after signing the Association Agreement. Crucially, it testifies to the importance of the association process for deepening EU-eastern partners relations. It also signals how seriously the EU takes the implementation of commitments made by Georgia (as well as Moldova and Ukraine) as part of this process.
Jelger Groeneveld, Dutch Liberal party D66, Board Member International Cooperation Division
For Brussels, Georgia has been the EU Eastern Partnership’s last remaining darling. The Eastern Partnership now risks becoming a face-losing failure. The promise of democratic progression and European approximation has stalled and in some cases has taken a turn for the worse in recent years, despite the three front-runners sealing Association Agreements and visa liberalization.
Moldova experienced state capture with major corruption scandals along the way. Ukraine, as the largest partner, is struggling against both Russian military aggression and domestic oligarchy pushing back on democratic and rule of law reforms. Belarus, never having been interested in the Eastern Partnership, is out of reach for Brussels. Despite a new EU agreement, Armenia is heavily dependent on the Kremlin and even more so after the 2020 war with Azerbaijan. The latter, just like Belarus not interested in the Eastern Partnership reformist agenda, now hosts Russian troops on its territory as a result of that war – a first since the 1990s.
That leaves Georgia having progressed the most of the Eastern Partnership as the last beacon of hope for the partnership, and especially the South Caucasus. The Azerbaijan-Armenian war last year has been the wake-up call for Brussels it is losing influence in the region to Russia. The EU played no role at all in ending that war. If the EU wants to project itself as a geopolitical power, the crisis in Georgia is the ultimate case to push back and to not let Georgia slip out of its hands by just being an observer. That it has to claim an active role. Brussels seems to have realized it cannot afford Georgia to fall prey to both oligarchic state capture and Kremlin influence.
Silvia Stöber, Freelance Reporter
The EU has been heavily involved for years. As Georgia’s largest donor, the EU and the implementation of the EU Association Agreement significantly influence the formation of structures based on the rule of law. The EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) has been stationed along the administrative boundary lines since 2008. And the EU representative in Georgia was also involved in the mediation efforts between the opposition and the government before the parliamentary elections in 2020, along with other diplomats.
What has changed now is the open and personal involvement of Charles Michel and the special representative Christian Danielsson, who was appointed at short notice. This is only comparable to the involvement of the then French President and Chairman of the EU Council Nicolas Sarkozy in mediating the ceasefire in 2008.
The EU may have realized that support for the creation of formal rule-of-law structures alone is not enough if the political culture does not change and individuals like Bidzina Ivanishvili influence politics from the background. Personalized engagement by the EU could be an attempt to find a new way of dealing with Georgia’s political culture and at the same time show the EU’s commitment to the people of Georgia.
This is happening at a moment when at least long-time observers of the region within the EU understand that Georgia has fallen into a dangerous stagnation and at the same time polarization due to the conflict between the government and the opposition. The frustration of the population keeps the door open for influence from Russia. This deadlock must be broken, but this ultimately depends on the will of Georgia’s politicians.