Located at the edge of Europe, the Caucasus country is determined to work its way to the heart of the continent. Suna Erdem visits to find out how it is faring on that path
“One thing we do not understand is what Great Britain is doing (on Brexit),” said the president of Georgia earlier this year. “We will be very happy to take the place left by them.”
Salomé Zourabichvili’s comments at the time of the European elections were tongue in cheek. On the other hand, she probably meant it too.
The French-born Zourabichvili became the first woman president of Georgia last year on a ticket that is as pro-European as it gets. She even framed her victory – against, among others, a former Soviet diplomat who had Russian citizenship until 2010 – as a sign that the country is firmly rejecting its recent past as part of the USSR in favour of western alliances, including NATO and the European Union. Offered EU membership today, Georgia would accept it like a shot.
Yet, look at a map. Georgia is perched above the northeasternmost corner of Turkey. It is sandwiched between Russia to the north and east, the small ex-Soviet states of Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south, and the Black Sea to the west. Its history is entwined with the Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires, as well as the Soviet Union.
So why on earth does this small Caucasus republic think it should join the EU? It doesn’t even have a border with the bloc. It’s far away, it’s fairly poor, it’s small. Ask anyone in Georgia, though, and you will be guilty of an insult.
President Zourabichvili, who has promised to “knock on every door” until EU membership is secured, is pragmatic, but determined. When I inteviewed her last month on the fringes of a classical music festival in Tsinandali in eastern Georgia, she told me that she felt her country was already “European” in terms of history and culture, and spoke of “returning” to and “rejoining” the European family.
“We are ambitious,” Zourabichvili said. “At the beginning we were told we couldn’t even be part of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy. But there has been a constant movement towards Europe since.”
Georgia, part of the USSR until 1991, launched a radical economic and political reform agenda of modernization and openness after its Rose Revolution in 2003, which has brought it ever closer to the west.
The country has been part of an EU partnership and cooperation agreement since the 1990s and in 2016 signed an Association Agreement with the bloc that envisages closer political and economic integration.
It is a leading member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, which supports reforms in member countries and aims for greater mobility of people, as well as collaboration in areas such as transport, energy and the environment. There is also a comprehensive trade agreement between Georgia and the EU, and Georgian citizens have been able to travel visa-free to Schengen countries since March 2017.
Georgia has been an aspirant country for NATO membership since 2011 and conducts joint military training exercises as well as contributing to peacekeeping in Afghanistan. All this is not just to Georgia’s advantage. From the point of view of Western-led international alliances, it seems like a good idea to have as many eastern countries as possible on board as the power balance threatens to shift eastwards.
A Christian republic with an 8,000-year history of wine-making, a varied, verdant landscape littered with ancient monasteries and churches, its capital Tbilisi a picturesque maze of European-style buildings, opera house, art galleries and bars, Georgia can put on a good European face.
The Tsinandali festival, which brought leading lights of classical music, such as pianists Yuja Wang and Andras Schiff, and young musicians from across the region and beyond for a fortnight of concerts and masterclasses in a winemaking estate, was one of the many cultural initiatives backed by the state to showcase exactly that.
The arguments about Georgia’s unique yet European culture are well rehearsed, and offered up by many people, from the president down. Zourabichvili – who, as a former career diplomat for France who entered Georgian politics as foreign minister in 2004, is herself Exhibit A in Georgia’s European project – was on hand to open the festival, a pleasing showcase of European arts and culture in an aesthetic Georgian setting. “It perfectly encapsulates our foreign and trade policies,” she enthused.
In fact, the arts have joined tourism as part of the strategy of boosting Georgia’s GDP while demonstrating to all comers that this is a country on the up, a country with class, and one that should definitely be part of Western groupings. It’s working, in the sense that tourism is booming – nearly seven million visitors last year – and the gushing column inches devoted to Georgia have increased exponentially.
Yet, a cynic might suggest that it’s easier to put on lovely classical concerts and open an art gallery than it is to reform democracy. And while the EU’s reports on Georgia have been positive overall, there are some deep-seated problems still to tackle.
“One of the key challenges that Georgia has faced since its independence is the rule of law and the lack of an independent judiciary,” wrote Vano Chkhikvadze, EU integration programme manager at the Open Society Georgia Foundation, in a report last month. Georgia’s court system is subject to legislative and executive interference and the public trust in it is commensurately low, he added. Elite corruption remains stubbornly high.
Others point to a sluggishly improving democracy. Even more than quarter of a century after independence, a Soviet-style political system that rewards loyalty and patronage over merit and skews access to financial resources can affect the prospects of new political faces – including members of the returned diaspora and young local reformers – according to Cristina Gherasimov, author of a research paper for the Chatham House think tank on Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.
Then there are social issues,and high up on the list come minority rights. Georgia prides itself on its tolerance as a nation, not least towards its deep-rooted Jewish community. Yet there is still a seam of intolerance.
Tbilisi may have gay bars and a vibrant LBGTQ community, but it has struggled to set up even the smallest of Pride marches, due to opposition mainly from Orthodox priests and ultra conservatives. This year, finally, a postponed march managed to parade for 30 minutes through the streets of the capital before abandoning ship amid security worries and threats.
An associated cause for concern has been the increasingly visible growth of the far-right – announced forcefully by an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant march in July 2017 on the streets of the capital Tbilisi by protesters chanting “Georgia for the Georgians!”
A rising far-right is hardly unique to Georgia these days. But for EU officials looking at enlargement, the threat of another ‘Orban scenario’ looms large: When Hungary joined it did so as a leading reformer but, once in, was able to reverse years of democratic gains under self-proclaimed “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orban, with the EU looking on in despair. There is likely to be much more caution towards aspirant countries. The same goes for populism.
It’s also easy to miss, among the travel brochure images of the place, that Georgia’s economy is still far below EU economic standards. Look closer, and even on a glossy trip to see some top-class classical music, the signs are there.
The drive from Tbilisi to Tsinandali was glorious with its winding mountain roads, tree-lined streets and endless, green countryside, but many settlements along the way had the air of peasants’ homes in a Tolstoy novel. As an inaugural event, the festival was a popular success, but even though the ticket prices had been set low by international standards, there were concerns among organisers that some might still have been too expensive to fill the venues – a reminder that the economic reach of the average Georgian is not very far.
The GDP per capita of Georgia is around half that of Bulgaria, the poorest EU country (although it is not that far off EU aspirant Albania), while youth unemployment remains high. Statistics show that despite the freedom of movement accorded by the visa agreement, just 10% of Georgians had ventured to an EU or Schengen country since the agreement came into force. Many could not afford to.
Yet not all Tbilisi’s problems are of its own making. Georgia has looked on while Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia joined the EU, even Muslim Turkey and Kosovo controversially joined the list of potential members, and Serbia and Montenegro are expected to be ready in the next decade.
As Georgia made progress towards its goals, it found the EU in an introverted mood, as it juggled with Brexit, the refugee crisis, global financial difficulties and populism. Its fingers burned by the behaviour of existing, new and candidate members, Brussels appeared to all but shut the door on expansion for a long time.
Alongside this, there is the EU’s problem of how to deal with Russia, especially after it annexed Crimea and, through pro-Russian separatists, occupied part of Ukraine, another country that has had European dreams. The EU cannot get too close to Ukraine for fear of upsetting Russia, yet to allow Georgia to leapfrog Ukraine would create upset in Kiev.
Russia also looms large in Georgia. The two countries fought a war in 2008 over the regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia, which led to their occupation by Russian troops – a situation that continues today. How can Georgia hope to join the EU with its borders disputed by its most powerful neighbour – effectively bringing a belligerent Russia actually inside the EU walls? This also affects Georgia’s prospective NATO membership.
Moscow has been a barrier in other ways to Georgia’s hopes. After street protests erupted in June over the touchy subject of a Russian MP addressing a meeting in the Georgian parliament in his own language – and while sitting in the speaker’s chair – an angry Vladimir Putin instituted a ban on flights to and from Georgia as well as wine imports. Most tourists in Georgia are from Russia, while most of its wine is exported to its vast neighbour.
But in a sense these are mere details at the moment, since Georgia isn’t even on the list of potential members, let alone a candidate. Some worry that the current agreements are running out of road. Georgia has been making progress, but without a clear framework for further rapprochement and a better explanation of the benefits for the ordinary Georgian citizen, how can reform and enthusiasm keep going?
While Georgian politicians have been emphasising the need for caution and patience, there is a danger that if they wait too long, the right moment to apply could be missed.
Georgian politicians looking to Europe have public opinion on their side – more than 70% want to join the EU and approve of the club.
But approval ratings can easily reverse, as Georgia’s other vast neighbour illustrates. At the time when Turkey started the EU accession process, pro-Brussels sentiment there stood at around 80%. That figure has collapsed in the intervening years, for reasons ranging from president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bolshy populist rhetoric, a back-tracking on promised reforms and the weakening rule of law, as well as negative feedback from abroad.
Interestingly, people I have spoken to in both countries have a seam of resentment stemming from comments by Angela Merkel, who has at one time or another suggested that neither should become a full member, instead accepting a less comprehensive formula. “Why did she do that?” cried one music director, nearly spluttering over an otherwise amiable lunch in Tsinandali. “If they don’t want us, I don’t want them.”
Yet, despite the misgivings of the past few years, EU expansion is on the move again. So when does Georgia strike?
Looking back at the country report, it’s easy to see that even with the right mood in Brussels, Georgia is far from complying with the so-called Copenhagen Criteria of social, political and economic standards for membership.
But, in a sense, this highlights a way for Georgia to overcome the other barriers – it could shame the EU into admitting it if it reformed enough to comply with all the criteria. Not allowing a fully compliant Georgia in would lead to accusations that the decision was then political.
Hang on though, this sounds familiar. When a dispute over Cyprus led to the early freezing of Turkey-EU Talks, Erdogan vowed to ignore Europe’s lack of engagement and adopt the Copenhagen Criteria without help. “We can call them the Ankara Criteria,” he announced blithely. We all know what has happened since then, as Ankara has drifted so far off course that the very fact of its candidacy is being questioned.
Georgia seems like a different kettle of fish at the moment. Georgians will hope that, in their case, the story has a happier ending.