By Eka Janashia (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In mid-November, Georgia’s PM Irakli Gharibashvili visited Brussels to discuss the country’s progress on Euro-Atlantic integration, after former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania’s publicly expressed doubts regarding the irreversibility of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path. The EU praised Georgia’s progress in implementing the Association Agreement (AA) but also aired warning signals about “political retribution, confrontation and polarization.”
On November 17, the Georgian delegation led by PM Gharibashvili along with European colleagues, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn, attended the first EU-Georgia Association Council (AC), the highest body in charge of supervising AA implementation.
The Council confirmed the European Commission’s October 29 report, stating that Georgia had successfully dealt with the first-phase requirements of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) envisaging a set of benchmarks for the EU short-term visa free regime.
VLAP involves a wide range of issues such as anti- corruption and organized crime policies, protection of human and minority rights, border management, document security, money-laundering, migration, mobility, asylum and anti-discrimination polices.
Since the European Commission’s first progress report on VLAP, issued in November 2013, Georgia has approved a new law on status of aliens and stateless persons as well as an anti-discrimination law and made extensive legislative amendments including legislation on protection of personal data.
The first phase of VLAP has applied to the overall policy framework reflected in the adoption of relevant legislation and the next phase will focus on effective and sustainable enactment of defined measures and adopted laws.
The AC also reviewed the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), a substantial component of the AA. Hahn said the DCFTA preparations are going “smoothly” and “Georgia continues to be in the forefront of the Eastern Partnership.”
To maintain the country’s efforts, the EU will allocate EUR 410 million in the period 2014-2017, enabling Georgia to continue adapting to the AA demands. The foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament issued recommendations for the European Parliament to ratify the AA with Georgia in December.
Despite the successful completion of the first phase of VLAP application, paving the way for the second one, EU representatives noted their concerns regarding the firing of Defense Minister Alasania and the resignations of Georgia’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs and European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Mogherini talked about the need for an improved political climate and “space for opposition and cross party dialogue.” She accentuated the necessity of continuing judiciary reform and avoid “any form of instrumentalization of the prosecution for political purposes.”
PM Gharibashvili pledged to substantiate Georgia’s further steps to meet all second phase criteria of the VLAP by the next Eastern Partnership summit in Riga 2015, where Tbilisi hopes to get the EU’s approval for a visa-free regime with Georgia.
After the AC’s inaugural session, Gharibashvili discussed with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg the implementation of the “substantive package” granted to Georgia at the Wales summit in September.
Stoltenberg stated that the establishment of a NATO-Georgia Training Center and the deployment of trainers to strengthen the country’s defense capabilities are the essential components of the package. Their implementation should start at the NATO defense ministerial meeting in February, 2015. Stoltenberg also said he has “no reason to doubt” Georgia’s NATO integration commitment.
PM Gharibashvili’s visit to Brussels also aimed to disperse the allegations voiced by former Defense Minister Alasania that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration is under threat. Many officials and analysts in Brussels and Washington assessed the PM’s decision to sack Alasania as an attack on Georgia’s strategic direction.
Gharibashvili thus had to convince Georgia’s foreign partners that the incumbent government remains firmly on its chosen course. He presented the newly appointed Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Davit Bakradze, Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze to European colleagues and expressed their readiness to make Georgia a “success story in the region” by galvanizing the process of European integration.
Gharibashvili also made tough statements about Russia’s destructive policy. He condemned Moscow’s “attempt to annex” Abkhazia and South Ossetia and expressed hopes that “Georgia’s occupied territories will remain on the radar screen of the Alliance.” Moreover, Gharibashvili dubbed the Kremlin’s steps in Ukraine as a continuation of the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008. Such hardline language is new for the PM who has otherwise subscribed to the soft and cautious policy towards Moscow endorsed by his predecessor Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Alasania’s dismissal from government compelled Gharibashvili to reassure counterparts in the EU and NATO that there is no drift in Georgia’s strategic direction. To restore the confidence among Georgia’s Western partners, he is also portraying the criminal cases against former Ministry of Defense officials as exclusively based on corruption charges, in an effort to disperse perceptions of political retribution.