Op-ed | Groundless Criticism of Georgia Defies Logic, Weakens Our Common Cause

Shalva Papuashvili is the Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, speaking to the panel at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava said that one of the reasons why Russia invaded Ukraine was Ukraine’s desire for NATO membership. The comment caused uproar and elicited many mistaken or deliberately distorted interpretations, even though the next day President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen reiterated: “For the first time in our history, a country is under attack because of its desire to be part of the European family.”

Georgia has the right to have a say when it comes to Russian aggression, regional and international security, and Mr. Garibashvili’s words should ring a bell both for our partners and for foes.

Before Ukraine, there was Georgia. Hence, Georgians understand better what Ukrainians feel and think than anybody else does. This is why Georgia’s policy has been in the limelight ever since Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Georgian government supported Ukraine, and Georgians supported their Government’s policy towards Ukraine. Yet, oddly, Georgia’s policy has been the subject of criticism. We do not accept this criticism, and below is an explanation as to why.

To start with, Georgia has neither diplomatic relations with Russia nor protection from the Russian threat. Since 2008, Russian occupation military forces have been stationed only 30 km away from Georgia’s capital and only a few hundred meters away from the country’s main strategic highway.

Moreover, for our desire for independence, Georgia has suffered the greatest human and material losses per capita since the demise of the Soviet Union. Georgia’s independence and security were jeopardized even before Georgia gained statehood: first by Soviet and Russian-incited separatism and then during the direct Russian invasion in August 2008. The invasion continued with illegal borderization, kidnapping of Georgian citizens, and creeping annexation of Georgian territories, which constitute up to a fifth of Georgia’s area.

Until very recently, Georgians could not travel to Russia without visas, and the land border has been closed and direct flights banned for years. Georgian exports came under Russian embargo from time to time as an instrument of Russian political pressure. Thus, for decades, Georgia was the most ravaged and sanctioned country by Russia.

In the last fifteen years since the Russian invasion, Georgia practiced strategic patience, as advised by our strategic partners. For many years, we did our utmost to be a responsible actor in the face of the Russian threat, resilient so that to preserve our democracy and institutions, and also active internationally, lending a helping hand to our partners wherever needed. Most notably, under PM Garibashvili, Georgia contributed the largest per capita military personnel to NATO peace operations in Afghanistan, among others.

With all this in mind, we have the right to question the duplicity of some of our partners-cum- critics’ attitudes towards the Georgian government because many times now, Georgia has been subject to unfair, almost hypocritical treatment. This hypocrisy has been thrown in especially sharp relief after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Despite Georgia’s decades-long rather precarious existence under foreign occupation and daily experience of foreign threat and harassment, the West remained largely unfazed for a long time. Western countries imposed a de-facto arms embargo on Georgia immediately after the 2008 war and soon declared the ill-fated ‘reset’ with Russia. In subsequent years, many of these countries increased foreign trade with Moscow to unprecedented levels and wrapped some major economies into a Russian energy straitjacket. Some European countries, even to this day, are afraid of calling Russian actions in Georgia its proper name – occupation. And this happens despite numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, recognizing Russia’s effective control of Georgia’s occupied territories.

For all these years, Georgia did its best to become a member of NATO and get into the EU, despite the real and present danger of Russian reprisal for doing so. Despite becoming fully interoperable with NATO, developing democratic institutions beyond the Alliance’s entry-level standards, and codifying European and Euro-Atlantic integration into its Constitution, Georgia has been left out in the cold ever since NATO committed itself to make Georgia an Alliance member in April 2008, at the NATO Bucharest Summit.

The EU story has been a somewhat greater success. Under the Georgian Dream administration, Georgia signed the Association and Free Trade agreements and achieved a visa-free travel regime with the EU. Georgia’s successful democratic transformation in the last decade made the country a clear frontrunner among the members of the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood, vividly demonstrated by the European Commission’s 2023 analytical report on Georgia’s alignment with the EU acquis, among others. And yet, when the real decision was to be made about Georgia’s EU candidacy, the EU reneged, granting Georgia a mere European perspective instead of the EU candidacy status. 

The repeated Russian invasion of Ukraine dramatically changed the geopolitical situation and, with it, the Western attitude. Now the West really opposed the Russian policy. Despite its security predicament, Georgia supported Ukraine as much as possible. We co-sponsored and supported all international legal efforts at all international forums. Georgia also accepted several tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, on top of our own 300,000 internally displaced persons from the Russian-occupied territories.

Given our dire geostrategic situation, all Georgia could do is hold on to the responsible policy of strategic patience towards Russia, scrupulously practiced for many years now. This policy, which, for years, was strongly advocated and supported by our strategic partners, implies not imposing bilateral sanctions on Russia. It also warrants not sanctioning Russia back for the latter’s recent decision to resume direct flights to Georgia. However, even though our policy has remained steadfastly pro-Ukrainian and pro-EU, and pro-NATO oriented, Georgia has now been, inexplicably, criticized for being ‘pro-Russian’.

Georgians perceive such inconsistent and groundless criticism by our Western partners negatively. Consider this: those who were squeamish towards resisting or rolling back Russia for years appear now righteous in their anti-Russian zeal and reprimand Georgia for not throwing itself into the thick of confrontation over Ukraine. Everybody should remember that these critics remained unmoved after the Russian invasion of Georgia, which, for the Georgian people, was no less cruel and damaging than the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To our chagrin, almost no backlash followed Russian aggression at the time.

Second, despite Georgia having virtually no security guarantees from the West, our country is constantly called on to act ‘boldly’ now. This is strange because our strategic partners understand very well that Georgia cannot mount the same resistance to Russia as the allied countries, which enjoy the protection of NATO’s Article 5. These overzealous activists should ask themselves if they would encourage their own countries to do what they call on Georgia to do without NATO’s protective umbrella.

Third, some of our partners reproach us for not imposing bilateral sanctions on Russia. It is true that Georgia refused to impose bilateral sanctions, but we have never allowed Russia to circumvent the regime using Georgian territory or institutions. It is clear to everyone, first and foremost, to our own citizens, that Georgia’s imposition of bilateral sanctions on Russia would invite direct security threats and also decimate the Georgian economy, albeit inflict little if any harm on Russia. Russia’s likely retaliation would be detrimental to the Georgian economy and even to statehood.

Fourth, it is truly sad to see that the countries that have joined NATO and the EU relatively recently are the most vocal in condemning Georgia’s policies. These countries, once the most supportive of Georgia, now that they themselves have achieved geopolitical security, must recall how imperfect their democracies and economies were at the time of membership. Their swapping support for condemnation for ideological, sometimes even narrow political reasons, is unfair and damaging to our common cause.

Despite Georgia’s significant democratic transformation in the last decade and our best efforts to get into NATO and the EU, we never received the deserved reciprocal steps. Last year, when the real decision about Georgia’s potential EU membership was made, we, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, were left without the candidate status, even though we were the clear forerunners among the EU Associated Trio. This decision caused people’s bewilderment in Georgia, whose absolute majority adamantly supports EU and NATO membership.

With all this in mind, we call on our partners, instead of directing undue criticism at us, to help us to overcome our security predicament and achieve well-deserved membership in NATO and the EU. For over 15 years now, the ball is on the Western side, in both EU and NATO courts.

It is time for the EU, in particular, to invest in long-term peace by taking the next immediate step to support Georgia’s candidate status this year and to open negotiations for European Union membership without delay.

The views and opinions expressed on Civil.ge opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Civil.ge editorial staff.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)


Back to top button