Left dangling by EU, some Georgians eye return to Russia's embrace

The fledgling democracy on the fringe of Europe is still waiting for the EU to admit it – and are starting to doubt if the bloc ever will. That has some Georgians calling for a turn back to Moscow.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters
Latvian President Andris Berzins (r.) welcomes Georgia's Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia, last month. Though Georgia hoped to be granted visa-free access to the European Union's Schengen area at the summit, it was not – which may further foster Georgian doubts about joining the EU and NATO.

When Gocha Makishvili wakes up every morning, the first thing he sees is a concertina wire fence slicing through his village of Khurvaleti. It was erected overnight two years ago by Russian troops to demarcate the South Ossetian border. Tbilisi’s assurances that the country’s path towards European and NATO integration is unwavering do not resonate deeply with Mr. Makishvili.

“I look at this border every day. I don’t know if it would be better to join NATO or anybody else,” he says.

Makishvili is not alone.

For many years, Tbilisi and Brussels have negotiated Georgia's integration with the West, bringing a country that many see as the quintessential post-Soviet eastern European democracy into NATO and the European Union. But Georgia has little to show for it – prompting Georgians to wonder whether they will ever be embraced by Europe.

And if Europe is not going to accept Georgia, some Georgians argue, perhaps it's time to end the bad blood with and once again embrace the Russian bear.

A not-so-sure thing

In theory, Georgia's eventual accession to the European Union should be inevitable. Of the various post-Soviet nations still outside the EU, Georgia is exemplary as a democracy: The nation successfully transitioned between opposing political parties after its 2012 parliamentary elections. Its marks in rooting out corruption are so high, that the Ukraine has recruited former Georgian officials to implement the same kind of reforms in Ukraine. And the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Suma Chakrabarti, calls Georgia a "star country" having the best investment climate in all the countries the bank operates in.

NATO membership is further off since Russia occupies the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That followed Georgia's brief war with Russia in 2008. NATO membership requires control of the entirety of a member's territory. Nonetheless, Georgians still aspire to joining the military alliance.

But while Georgian support for Western integration is still very high, it appears to be ebbing. In an April poll conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, 65 percent of respondents approved of the government’s stated goal to join NATO. Last year, the number was 72 percent.

Moreover, support for joining the Russian-­led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a trade bloc formed to challenge the EU's shared market, jumped from 20 percent in 2014 to 31 percent this year.

Archil Karaulashvili, first deputy minister of Euro-Atlantic integration, says there is growing public frustration over a lack of recompense after all the EU benchmarks the country has met. Georgia made integration a state project. Yet at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May, Georgia failed to get a long awaited visa-free travel regime with Europe's Schengen countries.

“We are the second largest contributor to the NATO force in Afghanistan and have lost 30 soldiers there and we still don’t have a promise about the Membership Action Plan," Mr. Karaulashvili says. "Moldova has visa-free travel in the EU and we don’t. Moldova is not more advanced than we are.” 

Karaulashvili doubts the actual numbers of pro-EEU integration are as high as the poll indicates. But he says that many Georgians are vulnerable to Russian propaganda, which promotes anti-Western messages through “dozens of organizations” in Georgia.

Populists like Nino Burjanadze are sending a similar message. Figures like her could possibly derail Georgia's aspirations altogether if they win seats in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Michael Cecire, Black Sea regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, calls Ms. Burjanadze's platform “Eurasianist.”

“The crux of [her platform] is, Georgia will never get into the EU and NATO anyway and it will obviously never regain the separatist regions by force with Russia there, so the country might as well cut its losses and accommodate its policies to Russia," Mr. Cecire states. "As a result, Georgia will receive economic benefits and at least some return of the separatist territories. If you ask me, that is a pretty compelling message.” [Editor's note: Mr. Cecire's comment was clarified to make clear he is not speaking as an advocate for Ms. Burjanadze. The original version also misspelled his last name.]

Non-confrontational relations

US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland recognizes some people are susceptible to the argument that EU and NATO membership are illusions and they should be realistic and deal with Russia. But that doesn’t necessarily make them “pro-Russian,” he says.

“It’s very clear the majority of Georgians want Euro-Atlantic integration. The fact is, it takes time. I understand people can be disappointed, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to support their desire to get there,” Mr. Norland says. “Maybe Georgia’s achievements haven’t been translated into terms the average Georgian sees are benefits, but it will happen.”

The trick is translating that message to Georgia's outlying regions, where ties to Russia are stronger. Irakli Alasania, former defense minister and leader of the Free Democrats opposition party, says there is a lack of understanding in rural Georgia about what Western integration means.

But with Russia occupying 20 percent of Georgian territory, he thinks most of the population sees Russia as an existential threat to Georgia’s independence.

“I’m not threatened by any increase in pro-Russian sentiments. Most of those polled just want non-confrontational relations with Russia. They don’t want to go back to the USSR,” Mr. Alasania said.

In Khurvaleti, where Georgians face Russian presence daily, the expectations are more visceral. “The most important thing is that there will be peace,” Makishvili says. “For the most part, people don’t care who is going to provide it. They don’t care anymore.”

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