Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Reaching The Summit: Implications of Vilnius for Georgia

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By Stephen Jones (the 11/12/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The November 29 initialing of Association Agreements (AA) in Vilnius between the EU on the one hand, and Georgia and Moldova on the other, have been interpreted almost exclusively in geo-political terms. The reasons for this are at least twofold: Armenia’s and Ukraine's withdrawal from their initial commitment to sign under pressure from Russia, and Russia’s own intervention in the process. Russia, behaving like something between a regional hegemon and a Cold War remnant defending its sphere of influence, framed the Vilnius Summit as a stark choice between East and West. 

BACKGROUND: But Moscow, it seems, miscalculated; its antagonism to the Eastern Partnership along with threats of retaliation against Ukraine should it sign the AA, galvanized open opposition to President Yanukovych on the streets of Kiev, and reinforced Moldova’s commitment to European integration. It has made Europe a touchstone of domestic politics, although the Ukrainian government’s decision to withdraw was based largely on economic calculations, and on an unwillingness to introduce reform that could threaten its survival. Yanukovych, dealing with a shrinking economy and widespread corruption, is thinking about the tough battle ahead in the 2015 presidential elections.

Russian behavior continues to jeopardize its own relations with the EU, with its potential 500 million consumers and combined economic clout of 12.9 trillion Euros. Whatever credit Russia accrued from its involvement in the Syria agreement, it lost in November as it showed what most populations in the former Soviet republics have long known: Russia behaves differently abroad than with its neighbors – at home Russia is the big bully on the bloc.

Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani, a member of the Georgian delegation to Vilnius, declared the agreement “irrevocable.” For Georgia, it represents further consolidation of the country’s long-stated ambition to join Europe, a direction underlined by the pro-Western policies and rhetoric of former President Saakashvili. Georgia’s decision to sign the AA should at last end accusations that the new Georgian government’s pragmatic approach toward Russia can only be achieved at the cost of its European commitment.

However, irrevocable is a strong word – and it is worth remembering the Agreement’s limitations. It is the beginning of integration, and far from being the last stop on the road to “consolidation.”The Agreement will not protect Georgia from global recession, which almost tore the EU apart and continues to threaten Georgia’s recovery; it will enhance Georgia’s security but not prevent continuing threats from Russia. Currently the EU is only willing to commit 200 unarmed observers to the post 2008 administrative border between South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the one hand and Georgia on the other. Irrevocability, when it comes, depends on the EU moving beyond the AA to permitting Georgia (and Moldova) more realistic integration into the EU, including greater participation in the decision-making process (this could be achieved without full membership). Georgians should not be handed another disappointment after the Vilnius hype. Too often, EU agreements are a way to postpone the difficult negotiations and costs of meaningful integration and engagement.

IMPLICATIONS: Yet Zalkaliani gets somewhere near the truth. The AAs are civilizational documents. The EU has always represented itself as a community of values, and the long negotiations with Georgia which led to Vilnius were based on the core ideas of better governance, in spite of remaining deficiencies within the EU, more accountability, more transparency, and improved civil rights. The agreements vary in their demands and commitments from partners – some include an offer of EU membership (as with the Western Balkan states), others like those signed with Moldova and Georgia, do not, although the Agreements do not specifically exclude membership either. Some articles in the agreements are binding, others are only recommendations.

Western analyses of the AAs almost always focus on trade benefits, and these are extremely important. Both Georgia and Moldova initialed a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU as part of the Association agreement. But the DCFTA means more than easing tariffs and customs duties; it commits Georgia and Moldova to EU legislation in consumer protection, environmental regulation, and employees’ rights. There are at least 350 EU laws which will have to be passed by the new Association partners within ten years. This will have a powerful influence on domestic structures, though the quality of political practice may take more time. In Georgia, it will reverse the lean American model of state minimalism and introduce regulation that will enhance consumer rights and protections. This will make Georgia “European” in a way it has not been until now, despite Saakashvili’s brash rhetoric. In this sense, the AAs, and the economic convergence they bring, will have major political implications for the new partner states.

AAs are more concrete than the broad instruments of European soft power, such as the European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. The AA is a step significantly higher than simple cooperation. In Georgia’ case, the AA will, when the visa-free regime is signed, simplify travel for Georgians to the EU; it will provide greater access to European markets (including EU support for Georgia’s small businesses), will intensify Georgia’s participation in EU programs, encourage foreign investment and refocus attention on the South Caucasian transit corridor. The AA is also an opportunity for the EU to integrate its new strategically placed partners into expanded energy, telecommunication and transport networks that reach eastward to markets in China and Japan.

The Agreement will ultimately stimulate social change which goes beyond shallow institutional reform.  Article349, chapter 14, of the Agreement, for example, calls for greater gender equality and an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. This does not mean sexual equality for Georgian gays, but it could provide a platform for NGOs and activists in the field, and give them support and protection.

Much depends on the EU’s own courage. This is, after all, a partnership, and the EU must go beyond technical measures to make the AA effective and real for Georgians. As yet, the EU has failed to convince most Georgians that it will bring tangible benefits to them as citizens, employees, and consumers. The AA presents a new opportunity to do this.

CONCLUSIONS: At Vilnius, only two of the six Eastern Partnership members initialed the AAs. In the South Caucasus, Armenia chose the Russian dominated Custom’s Union and Azerbaijan is still in the process of negotiation. This could be seen as a failure, or yet another demonstration that the EU never offers enough to clinch the deal (“integration without membership” provides limited incentives). But in other ways, the summit was a success, most certainly for Moldova and Georgia who see the AAs as milestones in their advance toward Europe.

In the medium-term – provided the EU stays focused on monitoring, supporting, and improving the status and privileges of its new partners – there will likely be a “demonstration effect” on regional neighbors too. Five years of stability, security, freer travel, and legal protections for citizens in Georgia will impact neighboring citizens in Azerbaijan and Armenia. The EU, for all its failings, still represents privilege and status for South Caucasians, and it may not be too long before we see the same elemental demand for “Europe” and all it represents in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as in Ukraine.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Jones is a Professor at Mount Holyoke College.

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