Thornike Gordadze is a Professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies; he served as Georgia’s State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.
Annalena Baerbock, the German Foreign Minister, made an unexpected visit to Tbilisi on March 24. Her arrival illustrates the urgency and gravity of the moment: it was not planned in advance, and it was tacked onto the previously scheduled trip to the Balkans. Baerbock will not be visiting other countries in the South Caucasus: neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan. So this is about Georgia. And it should really be about seeking clarity.
There is some confusion among European diplomats about the situation in Georgia. They see the solid pro-European aspirations of the society, which was emphasized in the official statement of the German Foreign Ministry commenting on the visit, but they also observe the mounting anti-EU and anti-Western statements of the government. Moreover, the government has clearly accelerated its Russophile tendencies since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At the official level, the government continues to declare that it is pursuing the goal of rapprochement and eventual membership in the EU. At the technical and administrative level, officials continue to claim that they are working to meet the 12 conditions set by the EU. But at the same time, the government is promoting laws and practices that are incompatible with the fundamental principles of the Union. Their slogan en vogue is “To Europe with honor,” – meaning without adapting their behavior.
There is every indication that this ambiguity is deliberate and part of the government’s strategy. It allows the “Georgian Dream” to avoid too sharp reactions from the West and to retain at least part of its pro-European electorate, which represents the vast majority of the population. This practice resembles Viktor Yanukovych’s behavior in Ukraine during 2010-2013.
This is why clarity should be the key word for this visit and other upcoming visits by European officials.
Clarity is absolutely fundamental at this stage of relations between the West and Georgia. It works both ways. For the Europeans, it means an end to double-talk and mixed messages. Every failure, every step made backward on the road to democracy and on Georgia’s European path, has a concrete responsible party who must be named without ambiguity and who must take responsibility.
For example, while the critical signals from Brussels were multiplying, Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, during his visit to Georgia in November, introduced ambiguity by praising the actions of the Georgian government and refusing to comment on the main problematic political issues. Such an attitude completely blurs the lines of responsibility and contributes to the deterioration of the situation. The U.S. authorities fare no better: while strongly criticizing the law on “foreign agents,” the U.S. agencies continue to finance the Georgian GONGOs [government-organized NGOs].
The Europeans should make it as straightforward as possible that Georgia will not become the candidate for EU membership unless concrete conditions are met, unless concrete reforms are implemented, or at least initiated. Public opinion will support these demands, and the government’s blame game, accusing Brussels, Washington, or other capitals of attacking Georgia’s national sovereignty, will fail.
The ambiguity of the messages allows the government to blame everyone but itself for the failure of European integration: the EU, the opposition, and civil society. With clear messages and clearly assigned responsibilities, the GD will risk losing part of its still pro-European electorate every time it plays foul.
This part of the GD’s electorate is not negligible. If the European institutions clearly assign responsibility for the failures of European integration, the fear of losing the loyalty of the GD’s pro-European voters, including among civil servants, will increase the pressure on the party’s leadership.
The ambiguity so skillfully maintained by the Georgian government’s contradictory messages has distracted Europe from taking the necessary decisions to counter Georgia’s progressive slide into Russia’s orbit.
On the one hand, Georgia has real advantages over the other countries of the Eastern Partnership: a population with a vast pro-European majority (in Moldova, it is 50/50), administrative capacity and bureaucracy more efficient than in Moldova and Ukraine (thanks to the reforms after the Rose Revolution, which the current regime describes as a “revolution of foreign agents”). But on the other hand, unlike Moldova and a fortiori Ukraine, Georgia now has a government that turned openly pro-Russian.
Bring back the political reflexes
The lack of political vision in Europe after the signing of the Association Agreements and DCFTAs with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia and the delegation of the Eastern Partnership dossier solely to bureaucracy and technical cooperation has damaged the process. This logic put political reflexes to sleep, to a disastrous result.
While the EU continued to pour hundreds of millions in EU aid and funding, the Georgian government gradually moved closer to Moscow. Eight years after the DCFTA came into force, it is Russia, not the EU, that has become Georgia’s leading economic partner, thanks to the government’s deliberate policy. Today, there is talk of restoring air links with Russia and introducing visa-free travel, which would complete this process.
All the while, the government attacks the EU and the U.S., the government-affiliated media are adopting Russian narratives, and radical pro-government groups burn the European flag at the Parliament. No message could be more telling.
The EU’s biggest mistake would be to continue its current policy towards Georgia. A change in the long-established modus operandi would require significant efforts from Brussels. But against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrel rightly proclaimed the need for a geopolitical Europe and we are – finally – seeing some progress in that direction, with sanctions against Russia, shifts in energy and security policies, etc.
But the clarity generated by the same geopolitical thinking should help Brussels to question the GD government’s sincerity about EU integration, seeing how consistently it has been sabotaging the process. It is difficult for bureaucracies to overcome inertia since they carry the natural tendency to prioritize the process over the end result.
This is why politicians should take the lead. The European Parliament, more political than the Commission, has begun to issue warnings. The impetus should now come from the member states, and if it comes from a heavyweight like Germany, the chances of success of Georgia’s European project will increase dramatically.