Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Georgia's Post-Vilnius Challenges

Published in Field Reports

By Archil Zhorzholiani (the 11/12/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

At the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit on November 28-29, Georgia’s Foreign and Economy Ministers, Maia Panjikidze and Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht initialed the EU-Georgia Association Agreement (AA),including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

As the next step, the foreign ministers of the EU member states will define several key areas on the basis of which the European Commission will develop precise benchmarks. The EU will monitor Georgia’s performance in each of those areas and determine its eligibility to sign the AA, which in turn requires ratification in the legislative bodies of the EU member states and the European Parliament. Some DCFTA provisions, including phytosanitary measures, intellectual property rights and competition policy regulations as well as some parts of the agreement, related to sectoral cooperation, will go into effect before ratification.

Although the Georgian government aspires to sign the AA/DCFTA by September 2014, several technical and political challenges must be overcome to reach this ambitious goal. Technically, the government must ensure a comprehensive modification of Georgian legislation. Whereas this task is certainly important, the main factors affecting Georgia’s AA perspectives are certainly political. Due to the expected pressure from Kremlin, the period after the Sochi Olympics and before the actual signing of the agreement will likely be critical for Georgia.

Although Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili insists that Russia holds no levers to derail the country’s European integration and prevent it from singing the AA, it remains to be seen whether a small country with unresolved conflicts and limited economic resources will prove able to withstand Moscow’s pressure better than Ukraine did.

Whereas the volume of bilateral trade has not reached a level that could be used adversely by Russia, the reopening of the Russian market to Georgian goods has boosted turnover between the two countries. According to the Georgian national statistics office, in January-September 2013 Georgian exports to Russia grew by three times compared to the same period of last year. Russia is now Georgia’s fourth largest trading partner while it was the sixth largest in 2012. The tendency suggests that a further increase of bilateral trade could well imply a possibility for "trade wars” against Georgia.

However, even without a resumed embargo on imports from Georgia, Russia possesses a wide range of instruments to provoke tensions in the country. An intensification of the process of so-called “borderization,” reflected in the installation of barbed wire fences across the administrative boundary line of breakaway South Ossetia, is one of the most effective devices at the Kremlin’s disposal. Recently, signposts warning people not to move beyond the marked point as it represents “the state border” of South Ossetia, emerged in the middle of cultivated land in villages of the occupied Tskhinvali region.

On December 4, the Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ironically stated that the fences protect the borders of a “sovereign state” and will no longer be required after “hotheads cool down” in Georgia. Continuing detentions of local residents for “illegal border crossing" and separation of their lands, plots, and cornfields can easily ramp up the protest and trigger turmoil locally. The Kremlin could also stimulate disorder by fanning separatist and anti-Muslim sentiments in Georgian regions populated by ethnic and religious minorities.

Another effective manipulative tool is Georgia’s heavy dependence on labor remittances from Russia. The introduction of a deportation policy against ethnic Georgian migrants will certainly harm the country’s economy and may compel the government to make political concessions.
Efforts will likely be made to cement ties between the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches to avert the distribution of “corrupt” Western values foreseeing the protection and promotion of sexual minorities’ rights. This sort of “defense policy,” intending to encapsulate orthodox society from Western influence, is largely shared by the Georgian Church which enjoys the highest confidence among political and social institutions. 

In this perspective, it is uncertain how irreversible Georgia’s European course will be in the immediate future. This course is likely about to tested by increased Russian support not only for pro-Russian but also Euro-skeptic political forces in Georgia, which will prop up “multi-vector” and ultra-nationalistic policies respectively, in efforts to shake the proclaimed indispensability of Georgia’s European direction.

A thorough application of these extensive leverages could eventually force Georgia to make a foreign policy U-turn. At an initial stage, Moscow can continue to stir tensions around the occupied territories to weaken the Georgian government domestically. Against this background, indirect support for ultra-nationalistic groups against ethnic and religious minorities will on the one hand strengthen anti-European sentiments in Georgia, and on the other hand demonstrate to Brussels that Georgia remains politically immature and “non-European.”

Whereas it remains an open question whether this negative scenario will actually materialize, the Georgian government should remain vigilant of Moscow’s ability to use it.

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