Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Georgia Better Positioned Than Ukraine Ahead of Vilnius EAP Summit

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By Alexander Beck (the 13/11/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On November 28-29, six post-Soviet republics will convene in Vilnius for the Eastern Partnership Summit. The “Vilnius Summit” will bring together leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine with the EU’s high officials to discuss the current state and future objectives of these six potential EU states. Two countries in particular – Georgia and Ukraine – hope to sign trade agreements with the EU, which they trust will further their ambitions to one day enter into the European Union. Both nations, however, enter the Vilnius Summit under significantly differing political situations, despite their similar recent political histories. The political trajectory of both nations, moreover, suggests that Georgia is more likely to sign an economic agreement with the EU than Ukraine this November.

Georgia has recently been celebrating free, fair, and peaceful democratic elections, held last month, which witnessed the Georgian Dream party’s Giorgi Margvelashvili oust the former administration’s United National Movement party from the presidential office. While some political tensions remain in the country – primarily surrounding the possible arrest of former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, over allegations regarding his involvement in the deaths of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and the deputy mayor of the Kvemo Kartli region in 2005 – international commentators and national governments alike have praised the election as recognition of the former Soviet republic’s continued strides towards democracy since its Rose Revolution of 2003.

According to the Freedom House’s democracy ratings, since its Rose Revolution in 2003 Georgia has rooted out much corruption throughout national government, continued its progress towards legitimate democratic governance, and pursued a consistently pro-EU, pro-NATO foreign policy. President Margvelashvili hopes to have his country’s long-term democratic progress and European ambitions realized at Vilnius, stating at a press conference on October 28 that “we assign paramount importance to the Vilnius summit because we expect a confirmation and recognition of our European choice by the partners there.” If the country continues on its Western-centric path, especially if the ruling administration refrains from jailing Saakashvili, it can approach the Vilnius Summit confident of signing a trade agreement with the EU.

Unlike Georgia, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004 has had little to no effect on the democratic legitimacy of the nation’s current government, and it has come under increasing scrutiny, both domestically and internationally, for some of its policies and practices. While Ukraine initially witnessed improvements in a variety of democratic indicators, conditions in the nation have since declined:  corruption has increased since 2004, the country’s democratic legitimacy has deteriorated, and Freedom House downgraded Ukraine’s freedom status from “free” to “partly free” in 2011.

One issue in particular which has drawn widespread criticism from Western observers is the continued imprisonment of one of the main Ukrainian opposition party’s leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko. The EU, among numerous other international organizations, considers her imprisonment politically motivated, calling it “justice being applied selectively under political motivation.” Ukraine’s capacity to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, by many accounts, hinges on Tymoshenko’s release. President Viktor Yanukovych, however, remains steadfast in his resolve to keep his opponent under his control – seen by many as a tactic to prevent Tymoshenko from running in Ukraine’s 2015 presidential election – and his continued inability to reach an agreement to secure her release may ultimately cripple his nation’s ability to integrate with the EU. 

While the future of Georgia and Ukraine’s relationship with the EU is as of yet unclear, the outcome of the Vilnius Summit will certainly bear significant implications for nations across Europe. Both Georgia and Ukraine currently sit at critical geopolitical positions between the Western European-led EU and the Russian-dominated “Customs Union” (CU). Each nation’s decision to join one of these two economic unions will align the state with either Western Europe or the coalition of former Soviet states.

Russia’s posturing ahead of the summit – banning the largest Ukrainian confectionary exporter and a variety of Moldovan liquors, threatening to ban exports of Belarusian and Lithuanian milk, making official visits to Azerbaijan and Armenia, and erecting barbed wire fences along the administrative boundary lines of South Ossetia in Georgia – suggests it is trying to intimidate its neighbors into reconsidering their flirtations with the EU. Georgian-Russian relations, however, have recovered somewhat of late, and the two nations remain important trading partners.

Ultimately, despite the imperfect political records of both Georgia and Ukraine, it is in the best interest of both these states and the EU to continue strengthening their bonds for the foreseeable future. For the states, stronger economic ties with the EU, as well as the possibility of reformation of political structures demanded in the EU’s acquis communautaire, promise lasting prosperity and stability. Despite economic sanctions and possible hikes in energy prices from Russia, Georgians and Ukrainians alike would reap long-term benefits from association – and possible integration – with the EU.

For the EU, signing economic agreements with these two states would effectively wrest the transitional democracies from Russia’s sphere of influence, and promote Western ideals throughout Eastern Europe. The Vilnius Summit, then, will prove a defining event for the future of key political alignments in the region. It is now up to the reigning administrations in Georgia and Ukraine to remain strident in their commitment to democracy, and avoid practicing selective justice for short-term political motives. Georgia remains politically well-situated to have its European ambitions realized at the Vilnius Summit. Ukraine, however, must find a solution to the imprisonment of Tymoshenko before it can sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

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