Over the past seven to eight months, I was travelling repeatedly to Georgia, supporting fellow academics setting up a new Masters programme on EU foreign policy (EUFP) and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) at one of the main universities in Tbilisi.
During my first visit, Russia annexed the Crimea and became a party to the war that is currently ravaging eastern Ukraine. Whereas the Georgian government hesitated for quite some time to unequivocally condemn Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, my Georgian students and fellow professors were more outspoken. They saw Russia’s unlawful actions as yet more proof of the widely-held belief among Georgians that Russia, and President Putin in particular, does not tolerate the Western-oriented modernisation efforts of its former Soviet satellites. They all pointed to Russia’s occupation of the two secessionist Georgian republics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus reminding us of clearly emerging patterns in Russian foreign policy.
Returning to Tbilisi during the spring, I was, once more, taken aback by regional instability. On 27 May 2014, Raul Khajimba, the former vice-president of the Georgian secessionist republic of Abkhazia and former KGB officer, together with a gang of pro-Russian followers, and drawing on the support of Russia’s envoy Vladislav Surkov, staged a coup and ousted separatist president Alexander Ankvab. This development, widely ignored by the international media, served as a powerful example that underneath the surface of what are often considered to be frozen conflicts, evolutions do, in fact, take place even though not to the extent that policy-makers in Brussels, EU member states’ capitals and Washington, may wish for.
Just as I was about to lecture on the basic principles and objectives of the ENP, developments in Sukhumi and their implications for Georgia and the ethnic Georgian minority living in southeastern Abkhazia forced me to recognise the view of my Georgian audiences that Normative Power Europe, as both a conceptual and practical political tool to categorise the EU and its actions beyond its external borders, is flawed and rather inadequate to capture realities such as the one that was unfolding before me in the South Caucasus.
Underneath the surface of what are often considered to be frozen conflicts, evolutions do, in fact, take place
By the time I arrived for my third cycle of trainings and lectures in Tbilisi this autumn, I thought I had already learned my lesson. I had prepared lectures on EU policies towards the South Caucasus, linking them to the ENP and its objective to contribute to democratic development and conflict resolution, trusting that on this occasion I had anticipated everything that could possibly touch upon the theme of my talks. Having worked on the EU’s neighbourhood policy for years, I should have known better. In an attempt to capitalise on Khajimba’s rise to power in secessionist Abkhazia, and exploiting the international media’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, Russia on 20 October silently ‘presented’ to the new de facto Abkhazian leadership the Treaty on Alliance and Integration. Since then, this document was amended and, on 24 November, now entitled Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership, signed by Putin and Khajimba in Sochi. Labelled ‘treaty,’ this document, foreseeing the integration of Abkhazia into Russia, represents nothing but a euphemistic circumscription of Moscow’s intention to go beyond its practice of military occupation, and to annex next Abkhazia and then, in a second step, South Ossetia. This fits with the Kremlin’s increasingly cynical view of the post-Cold war order, but it also raises serious doubts about the international community’s awareness of, and concerns about, what is happening in other parts of the EU’s neighbourhood, which covers more than Ukraine.
For Georgia, this changing situation could not have come at a worse moment: only a few days later it plunged into a domestic political crisis the true fallouts of which are yet to emerge. In early November, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili dismissed Defence Minister Irakli Alasania, following a statement of the latter that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic course is in danger. This statement came in response to the prosecutor’s detention of several high-ranking defence ministry officials over the alleged embezzlement of funds, and it triggered the resignation of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, her deputies, and Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Alex Petriashvili. What do these developments mean for Georgia, the current government, the process of democratic consolidation, its Euro-Atlantic orientation, and the resolution of its territorial conflicts; and thus its relations with Russia?
First, it is necessary to stress that while the EU has remained surprisingly silent, with respect to the dismissal and resignation of three of Georgia’s most important ministers, the US has repeatedly voiced concern that the judiciary is being used for political purposes, and that the latest developments have the potential to endanger domestic political stability. This perception corresponds well with Georgian realities. Two years after parliamentary elections were held in 2012, political polarisation is on the rise, and observers have already started to speculate about the half-life of the ruling coalition. This is very much linked to the informal powers of Georgian billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili who is not only running the Georgian Dream coalition from behind the scenes, but who is also omnipresent in the daily political discourse. For example, when the political council of the coalition, formally led by prime minister Gharibashvili, met to discuss the implications of the ministerial resignations, Ivanishvili, who does not hold any political office, was present and chaired the debate. Alasania left the meeting in protest and shortly thereafter announced the departure of the Freedom Party from the coalition. For now, Georgian Dream does still have a majority in the parliament and can count on the support of some independents. But should the Republican party, whose president, speaker of the house Davit Usupashvili, attended the Free Democrat Party congress on 8 November, decide to leave the government, it would no longer be able to push through legislation without the consent of at least some members of the opposition. In a country where politics is a highly interpersonal matter, given that relations among the political elite often date back to common student times or are marked by close family ties, this is a real possibility.
Observers have already started to speculate about the half-life of the ruling coalition
Second, even if the ruling coalition will survive and stay in power for another two years, the current situation is undermining the credibility of state institutions further. While previous governments were already criticised repeatedly for not having tackled sufficiently the ongoing prevalence of high-level, elite corruption, the current government has similarly failed to root out corrupt practices. Regardless of the extent to which the state prosecutor’s allegations vis-à-vis the detained defence ministry officials eventually turn out to be fabricated, the defence sector has long been criticised both domestically and internationally for its opaque practices in particular as far as procurement procedures are concerned, and for having escaped parliamentary scrutiny on several occasions. At the same time, many in Tbilisi look with growing suspicion towards the office of the state prosecutor itself and the ministry of justice, for their interference in domestic politics; and towards the ministry of interior, which is considered by many in the opposition as being exposed to irregularities even more than the ministry of defence. These ministries are prone to political interference and are regularly used as tools for political retribution.
A climate of intimidation
Third, Georgian politics is increasingly exposed to a climate of intimidation and fear. Post-Rose Revolution Georgia has already witnessed a number of unresolved death cases of formerly influential actors, the most prominent of whom is former prime minister Zurab Zhavnia. The recent death of Erosi Kitsmarishvili, former ambassador to Russia and co-founder of Rustavi 2, a private television company supposedly close to the UNM, marks yet another low-point in the country’s recent history of dealing with critical voices. Portrayed by the authorities as suicide, many in Tbilisi believe that Kitsmarishvili, who in recent years managed the opposition TV station Maestro TV, and who had recently run for mayor in Rustavi city, was murdered. This incident goes hand in hand with the assault on Nugzar Tsiklauri, member of the UNM, in March 2014; the politically motivated mass persecutions of former government officials; and an increasingly hostile and anti-democratic discourse by Gharibashvili, who is regularly attacking civil society organisations and anti-government movements. Even President Giorgi Margvelashvili, in private conversations, lately hinted at the increase in political violence, and expressed his concerns over the extent to which voices opposed to Gharibashvili and his political godfather Ivanishvili are increasingly intimidated or suddenly exposed to corruption charges or charges of abuse of power.
Some pundits have already declared that Georgia’s pro-Western, Euro-Atlantic orientation is in doubt
Pro-Western orientation in doubt
Fourth, as a consequence of the dismissal of Alasania and the resignation of Panjikidze, her deputies and Petriashvili, some pundits have already declared that Georgia’s pro-Western, Euro-Atlantic orientation is in doubt. To some extent, this is a premature conclusion, given that they have been replaced by relatively experienced, generally pro-Western diplomats and technocrats, most of whom have been working in the foreign affairs ministry for years, representing Georgia at the UN, NATO, or in the US and other western countries. The exception is newly appointed defence minister Mindia Janelidze, who is a close ally of Gharibashvili and who has mainly worked in the interior ministry, directing its counter-intelligence department.
Yet, it would be equally misleading to overestimate these appointments, given that all major power centres are run by individuals with mindsets that consider a rapprochement with Russia and thus the Kremlin as more appropriate than advancing the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. While the ministerial appointments, as well as declarations stating that the government continues to be fully committed to the generally pro-Western foreign policy course, are simply designed to ensure the continuous support of Washington and Brussels, the Georgian government has in the last twelve months displayed quite a lenient attitude towards the Kremlin’s subtle, yet growing involvement in domestic politics. Moreover, the government’s rather lukewarm response to Moscow’s blunt attempt to annex Abkhazia, to Moscow’s border practices around South Ossetia, and to its current attempts to restore parts of the Soviet railway network going through Abkhazia (potentially linking it with Armenia), in conjunction with the recent resumption of commercial flights between Russia and Georgia, are signs that Ivanishvili and his allies do not under any circumstances intend to antagonise the Kremlin. Seen in this light, it is clear that Alasania’s advocacy of the establishment of a NATO training centre in Georgia and his envisaged acquisition of air and anti-tank defence systems from NATO partners were considered an overstepping of a red line that could not be tolerated.
Ivanishvili and his allies do not under any circumstances intend to antagonise the Kremlin
Where does this leave the EU and its influence on Georgia? Almost two weeks after the domestic crisis in Georgia, the newly appointed High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, at the first EU-Georgia Association Council in Brussels, sent a mixed message to the Georgian authorities. On the one hand, she highlighted the need for an improvement in the domestic political climate. On the other hand, she praised the latter for ‘further important progress’ in the country’s democratic development. In spite of this rather friendly tone, caution should prevail. Even though the Georgian government signed the Association Agreement with Brussels in late June this year, this might, at the end of the day, not mean much, given Russia’s opposition to the actual implementation of the agreements by the Georgian authorities and, accordingly, the implementation of political and regulatory reforms. Fortunately for the EU, Georgian society is overwhelmingly in favour of closer integration into EU structures, and predominantly opposed to Russia and the current regime in the Kremlin in particular. Therefore, at least in the short-term, it is rather unlikely that the government could capitalise on anti-EU resentment and pursue more openly a ‘Russia first’ approach. However, in times of structurally high unemployment, widespread poverty, widening gaps between urban and rural areas, and stagnant foreign direct investment, the government might eventually feel inclined to hold the association process responsible and thus put the blame on the EU, not least to make sure that it will be re-elected in 2016. But even if it did not engage in such rhetoric, the looming threat of Russian punishment is likely to preclude the government from engaging in a fully-fledged implementation of the association accord.
In such a scenario, the EU, suffering from a considerable legitimacy crisis domestically and struggling to pursue a meaningful neighbourhood and conflict resolution policy in its ‘near abroad,’ is bound to be rather impotent. However, what it can and, in fact, should do to diminish such a scenario from becoming a reality, is to follow up on the declaration of the foreign ministers of the Weimar Triangle of 31 March 2014, and initiate talks with Georgia and Russia on the effects of the implementation of the agreement’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade stipulations, thus addressing both Georgian and Russian fears. Unfortunately, in light of Russia’s unlawful actions in the EU’s neighbourhood and the seemingly uncompromising tone coming out of some EU member states’ capitals towards Moscow, this does not, at least for the moment, seem to be a realistic option. Yet, Brussels and EU member states’ capitals would do well to remind themselves that, while working towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, the neighbourhood extends beyond the latter. It is never too late to learn a lesson and start acting strategically, even if, at first glance, this might be interpreted as a sign of weakness.