Georgia-EU – Keep Calm and Stay the Course

There has been much wailing and wringing of hands in Georgia`s socially networked policy community about the decision of Ukraine to abstain from signing the Association Agreement with the EU.

This decision, one argument goes, is tantamount to the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople in 1453 – the geographic gap with Europe has widened, with the buffer space having fallen prey to Russia`s imperial ambitions. More moderate, but equally pessimistic, view is that as the biggest and most economically attractive state goes, Brussels and Western European capitals will lose whatever little appetite and interest they had remaining for the European Neighborhood policy.

Notably, both current and former foreign policy officials in Georgia have taken a more sober – and a tad less fatalistic – view. It has been a while now, since the EU has grown weary of Kiev`s balancing act between Brussels and Moscow. Presented as a statesman-like attempt to navigate competing interests both within and outside the country, it started to look as a rather unsympathetic attempt to milk two cows simultaneously. As Josip Broz Tito`s shadow would attest, even the fattest and the most patient cows tend to eventually lose their temper. As Kiev made its decision, at least all sides know where they stand. (Some remark, cynically, that in a week that remains until the Vilnius summit, Kiev will change its mind…and change it back again).

As for the interest towards the European Neighborhood, it has not been stellar in the best of days. True, Berlin, London or Paris have little stomach for further expansion, however veiled. They go along with the likes of Poland, Sweden and Lithuania as long as their investment – political or financial – required for keeping the neighborhood afloat remains minimal.

Inadvertently, however, Moscow raising the stakes in this game might have touched the nerve. An uncharacteristically blunt statement from Chancellor Angela Merkel to the effect of Russia overplaying its hand has registered in the Kremlin. In the best traditions of Gromyko diplomacy, the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed Europe back for cold-war thinking. By making the Neighborhood a zero-sum game, Russia also created incentives for the Western leaders not to lose face.

Where does all of this leave Georgia and its policy?  In brief – in a very responsible place. Tbilisi can not expect to ride into the Association on Ukraine`s coattails. Neither can it gloss over the misgivings – long-standing or newly forged – that the European capitals have about Georgia`s readiness to associate closer. Georgia`s friends can only ensure that the "more for more" policy that the EU pronounced continues to stand. Tbilisi will have to work hard and true to demonstrate its willingness and ability to enter into (still) open doors.

Observers comment – rightly – that the coming year is likely to witness mounting pressure from Russia on both Moldova and Georgia, to complete their tactical victory over Brussels. Given Moscow`s short supply of carrots, Tbilisi must get ready for some imaginative and Kafkaesque sticks. Tbilisi`s new authorities had the chance to learn on their feet in the past year and lose some of the naiveté regarding Moscow`s methods and interests. Now, their skills will be put to a critical test.

But the more important ordeal is the ratification process of the Agreement in the parliaments of all EU members. Tbilisi would be well-advised to consult some of the EU aspirants on how seemingly domestic political slips, even one-time events, can transform into major obstacles when powerful political interest groups are concerned in the ratifying parliaments. The issues of justice and human rights are bound to be particularly minutely observed, not because of the particular problems Georgia has, but since equality before the law and predictability of justice are the core values which Europe identifies itself with.

It rests upon Georgia`s new President to first fully grasp and then impress upon Georgia`s politicians – MPs, governors, mayors – and civil servants that for the coming year no issue is only domestic, all statements and all actions must be weighed with country`s overarching interest in mind. The expert community, which receives re-enforcements now, as the former officials retire, should keep a sharp, calm and impartial ledger of progress.

You often hear a talk of "consolidation" in Georgia which many see as a perfect accord on one or more key issues. This is not an achievable ideal, especially with a coalition government and still raging passions between the governing and opposition politicians. The realistic expectation will be for the cacophony of political voices to come into unison on this one, crucial matter. The success will be ever more sweet and the effort will be ever more appreciated now, when all is truly in Georgia`s hands. 

Jaba Devdariani was the Director of International Organisations` Department at the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012-2013, he is one of the founders of Civil Georgia.