“I am looking at it with attention and we are studying it. At this stage we have no position at all. If in perspective we see that it is interesting for the strategy of our country, then why not; but at this stage we have no position,” Bidzina Ivanishvili said.
The statement drew much attention especially in light of Armenia's decision, announced a day earlier, to join the Customs Union with Russia, which will come at the expense of an Association Agreement with the EU. The Georgian PM later explained that his remarks did not imply a revision of Georgia’s foreign policy, of which integration with the EU and NATO remains a cornerstone. To buttress his words, Ivanishvili announced on September 8 that the government aimed to accelerate the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU, including provisions on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), in spring 2014.
Government officials have sought to diminish the implications of Ivanishvili’s remarks, insisting that Ivanishvili only suggested that developments surrounding the Eurasian Union should be observed, not that Georgia should join it. Some Georgian analysts have translated the PM’s remarks as a diplomatic effort intended to contribute to Georgian-Russian rapprochement. Advocates of such an approach assert that by not excluding participation in the Kremlin’s Eurasian initiative, Ivanishvili attempted to moderate Georgia’s official stance towards Moscow.
By contrast, the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party sharply criticized Ivanishvili’s remarks, arguing that they constituted a threat to Georgia’s sovereignty and security. President Mikheil Saakashvili asserted that over the past ten years Georgia’s pro-western foreign policy course had never been questioned by any major political force, whereas Ivanishvili’s recent statement risked reversing this record. “The government explores a Eurasian Union membership perspective… but there is no need for studying and analyzing the possibility of returning back into the fold of the occupying power,” he said.
Giga Bokeria, Secretary of the National Security Council, termed the Eurasian Union Putin’s tool for halting the European integration of Russia’s neighboring states and denounced the PM for failing to offer a clear position on the issue.
The UNM’s presidential candidate David Bakradze claimed that the upcoming presidential elections would not be only about voting for a candidate, but the manifestation of a Georgian choice before the world and whether the country’s struggle for freedom and European values will continue.
Bakradze said that Georgian Dream’s candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili would incrementally bring the country under Russia’s influence while the former speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze would do it immediately, implying that the UNM remains the only political force truly following the European path.
Although the UNM has deftly used Ivanishvili's statement to boost its election campaign, its criticism has been well-grounded. In fact, it is impossible to reconcile participation in the EU’s free trade zone with membership of Russia’s Custom and Eurasian Unions, as each provide different custom regimes.
What exactly Ivanishvili's government intends to explore is unclear since on July 22 the EU and Georgia successfully ended negotiations on a DCFTA, the efficiency of which was detailed in a Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment between the EU and Georgia, forecasting that the DCFTA has the potential to increase Georgia’s exports to the EU by 12 percent and imports by 7.5 percent.
Moreover, Ivanishvili’s statement came immediately after Yerevan’s decision to reverse its European course, underlining its potential implications. Since Armenia does not share a physical border with Russia and its frontier with Azerbaijan is closed due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Georgia remains the only potential state to serve as a transit country. In this context, Ivanishvili’s previous talk about reopening rail traffic between Russia and Armenia through Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia, obtains increased significance (see the 02/03/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union risks strengthening the rationale for such projects to the detriment of the interests of Azerbaijan, which will seek to discourage Tbilisi from taking part. Thus, Moscow’s pressure on both Baku and Tbilisi is likely to increase.
Since no other country engaged in the EU’s Eastern Partnership is as strongly dependent economically and politically on Russia as Armenia, it might be harder for the Kremlin to force Tbilisi to replicate Yerevan’s move. However, Moscow possesses many other instruments to exercise influence on Georgia.
The Orthodox Church, which has tremendous clout in Georgian society, does not welcome the process of European integration and condemns the EU’s support for the rights of sexual and religious minorities (see the 05/30/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). Thus, apart from ethnic tensions, Moscow could seek to stimulate provocations along these lines, which would discredit Georgia in Brussels and undermine the prospects of signing an Association Agreement between the EU and Georgia.