Countering Russia? Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Choice

DR TRACEY GERMAN

Events in Ukraine are likely to transform the presence and role of Western institutions such as NATO and the EU across the post-Soviet area. The crisis has starkly revealed the limits of their influence within Russia’s ‘zone of privileged interest’, as well as the lack of internal unity within these organisations vis-à-vis relations with Moscow and future engagement with the area. This will have long-term implications for the South Caucasus state of Georgia, whose desire for integration into the Euro-Atlantic communities remains a key priority for its foreign and security policy-makers. As a small state in an unstable neighbourhood bordering Russia, Georgia faces significant external challenges. Much of Georgia’s policy-making, both domestic and foreign, is governed by its generally negative relationship with Moscow and the tensions resulting from its Euro-Atlantic orientation. Georgia is the most pro-Western of the three South Caucasus states and, since independence in 1991, has sought to maintain a foreign policy that removes it from the Russian sphere of influence and develops a prosperous democratic state in line with Western values and standards, under the protection of a Euro-Atlantic security umbrella.

Georgian foreign policy has been consistent since the start of the 21st century in the pursuit of integration with the West, particularly NATO and the EU, in spite of intense pressure from Moscow. In a recent piece in International Affairs, I analyse Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path and its foreign policy stance, focusing on two aspects of Georgia’s desire for integration with European and Euro-Atlantic structures: its desire for security and the belief that only a Western alignment can guarantee its future independence and prosperity, and the notion of Georgia’s ‘European’ identity. Georgia’s national strategic narrative identifies the country as a ‘European’ state, an ancient part of western civilisation that was separated (against its will) from its natural path by ‘historical cataclysms’. It is determined to recast itself as a modern state that is part of the European family from which it was estranged hundreds of years ago, as well as one that shares common values with the West and is capable of contributing to international security. However, the more Georgia seeks to emphasise its ‘otherness’ and present itself as a ‘European’ rather than a ‘post-Soviet’ state, the greater the pressure it comes under from Moscow. Furthermore, the very reason it is seeking integration into the Euro-Atlantic community – the perceived threat from Russia – is the very reason why its aspirations are so problematic for many European allies: the perceived threat from Russia.

In addition to the emphasis on the ‘Europeanness’ of the country, the Georgian political elite also tends to accentuate the issue of choice. Successive governments have been keen to stress that it is their choice as a sovereign state to seek membership of Western security organisations in an apparent attempt to counter the Russian narrative that the West is seeking to ‘drag’ countries such as Georgia into its orbit. During a visit to the US in 2014, the prime minister Irakli Garibashvili emphasised the need for ‘constant messaging to Russia to respect Georgia’s European choice’, going on to affirm that the country will not compromise its ‘European future’, which ‘is the choice of the government…backed by the will of the Georgian people’. There is very little opposition to the country’s Western alignment and polls on the issue demonstrate consistently high levels of support for further integration: according to a survey conducted in May 2015, 65 per cent of those questioned agreed with the government’s stated goal of joining NATO and 68 per cent agreed with the country’s signing of an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014.

Georgia’s ambitions of achieving deeper integration with the West were again highlighted during the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit held in Riga in earlier this month (May 2015), which focused on the organisation’s relations with states in the post-Soviet space, against the backdrop of continuing instability in eastern Ukraine. Georgia was hoping that the EU would endorse a visa-free regime as a ‘tangible reward’ for reforms: on May 5 2015 the Georgian leadership sent an open letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, urging the organisation to demonstrate that the European agenda brings ‘tangible benefits’. The letter hinted at an emerging sense of disillusionment with apparently vague promises of future partnership, reflected in growing popular support for the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Georgia’s aspirations are undermined by the fact that significant Euro-Atlantic engagement with both the South Caucasus and broader post-Soviet space continues to be deterred by Russia’s sustained influence and there is a lack of consensus or clear long-term vision about how to contribute to security in the region. Moscow’s zero-sum approach to its neighbours developing closer relations with Western organisations such as the EU and NATO has led to the drawing of new dividing lines across the European subcontinent, despite constant reassurance from these organisations that their intentions are benign, that they do not seek to undermine Russia in its own ‘backyard’. Russian behaviour in the post-Soviet space has not been deterred, only encouraged, by Western procrastination since 2008, and its actions in Ukraine threaten the stability and security of both the Euro-Atlantic area and Europe. Abandoning states such as Georgia to the Russian sphere of influence would not only undermine efforts to stabilise the European periphery by encouraging the development of stable, accountable democracies, it would also weaken the credibility of these organisations, signalling that relations with Moscow are ultimately more important than the realisation of challenging reforms in the eastern neighbourhood and that ‘promises’ are nothing of the sort.

Image: “Georgian Army ends mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan 05” by Sgt. Jessica Ostroska. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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