Georgians worry that their passion for Europe isn't being reciprocated. And Russia is ready to step in.
Note: This article is an abridged version the Legatum Institute's longer case study, "Revolutionary Tactics: Insights from Police and Justice Reform in Georgia."
On June 27, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a trade agreement with the European Union that includes Georgia and Moldova, bringing the economies of the two countries closer to Europe than ever before. The agreement's backers hope that the deal will help Georgia remain independent of Russia's imperial ambitions. But despite their optimism, Russia is making gains. The current government, elected in 2012 and backed by the richest man in the country, Bidzina Ivanishvili, seeks to improve economic ties with Russia, not the EU.* (The photo above shows Georgian dancers performing at a ceremony to celebrate the new Association Agreements.)
Georgians feel disappointed by the West. Their wish for greater integration -- 77 percent of Georgians want EU membership and 72 percent NATO membership -- has been frustrated. NATO membership has been shelved, and last year, when the government initialed an Association Agreement with the EU, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), the Georgians had to agree to adopt some 350 EU laws in relation to trade, consumer protection, and environmental regulation over a 10-year period.
Russia, meanwhile, is making ideological inroads into the country. The Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the most potent symbols of Georgian nationhood during Soviet times, has historical ties with Russia, and many of its elite were educated in Moscow. Though it claims to be geopolitically neutral, the church's opposition to some EU principles puts it on a de facto collision course with EU integration policy. In 2011, the church opposed legislation that would give equal legal and tax status to other religious groups. Church officials have been outspoken in saying Georgians should not study abroad. In May 2013, tens of thousands of demonstrators, led by priests and Orthodox activists, threw rocks at a small pro-LGBT rally. The patriarch and senior church figures have regularly called for warmer ties with Russia, especially if they result in the return of breakaway regions (whose separatist ambitions have been sponsored by the Kremlin).
Though the Georgian intellectual tradition regards the country as an integral part of European civilization, the reputation of Western powers has been damaged in Georgia by a perception that both the United States and the EU were too uncritically supportive of the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM). There is, indeed, much to praise in the reforms of former president Mikhail Saakashvili. In one effort, his government decided to clean up corruption by reforming the traffic police, a small but highly visible section of the police force, which had a reputation for bribing officials and collecting bribes from drivers. In July 2004, the traffic police department was disbanded, and for one month there were no traffic police at all on Georgian roads. The reformers then launched a very public and media-friendly campaign to find new recruits, touring the country with celebrities and auditioning new recruits on TV. They focused especially on hiring attractive officers, a conscious response to the widespread public image of traffic police officers as ageing men with beer guts. In August 2004, the new patrol police began work, operating out of purpose-built glass buildings whose open-plan design was intended to express a new transparency.
Mikhail Saakashvili's pro-market economic reforms boosted investment and growth, led the World Bank to vote Georgia the world's top reformer in 2006 and 2008, and put it in a remarkable 9th place on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index. But the reforms failed to create jobs or reduce poverty. Unemployment remained at approximately 15 percent, and almost half of all households in Georgia lived below the poverty line. Georgians came to associate the Saakashvili regime with economic hardship.
Although the EU and other Western bodies regularly published critical reports on the excesses of the Saakashvili government, these were rarely translated into political pressure or high-level criticism. Now the West has chosen to criticize the ruling party's arrest of UNM officials on the grounds that they are politically motivated -- a move that Georgians believe stands in the way of justice. "People feel the EU and United States are protecting their own protégés, instead of thinking about justice," says Dodo Shonava, general producer of Channel 2, the Georgian public broadcaster.
Approval for the idea that Georgia should join the Russian-led Eurasian Union has been inching up over the last year, from 11 to 16 percent. Some say this support is likely to increase if Russia promises to return the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia. "Returning the breakaway regions is so important in the national psychology that many would abandon other aims, such as joining NATO, just to have them back," says Shorena Shaverdashvili, publisher of the independent magazine Liberali.
At the same time, the West's inability to give Georgia any meaningful security guarantees has made Georgians understandably nervous. The annexation of Crimea and the more recent conflict in other parts of Ukraine have made Georgians more fearful than before: Could they be next? They are right to worry. Although the Ukraine crisis has raised awareness within the EU of the failures of its current approach to the Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia), there is no consensus on what should change. There is still no immediate plan for these countries to join the EU as members, nor can the EU facilitate the kinds of rapid cash transfers -- and bribes -- that Russia can.
If the EU is not prepared, realistically, to extend membership further east, then both Georgia and Europe should adjust. Europe can help Georgia to stay focused on its reform process in three ways. Brussels should continue to build Association Agreements. It should strengthen the Eastern Partnership program, which is designed to expand ties with the EU's eastern neighbors in a variety of ways that stop short of full membership in the Union. And it should eventually give Georgia the same kind of privileged access to the EU that Norway and Switzerland enjoy. Other help should also be made available, such as support for infrastructure construction and a path to visa liberalization. At the same time, Georgians need to rethink their own motivations and their own reform dynamic. Georgia needs politicians who argue for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, not because it will speed up EU access, but because it will be good for Georgians.
*Correction, June 30, 2014: Bidzina Ivanishvili is not the president of Georgia, as an earlier version of this article mistakenly stated. He was prime minister from October 2012 to November 2013. (Return to reading.)
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