Georgia’s Importance for the European Union

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgia has maintained a strong pro-Western orientation since its independence from the Soviet Union, but its integration with Europe has been clouded by its ongoing feud with Russia. The PDU examines the EU’s relationship with Georgia. By Bilquees Daud

Georgia is a relatively young nation-state located in the Caucasus Mountains, at the border of Asia and Europe. Having experienced long years of Russian dominance, it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia’s strategic importance enabled it to become an active partner of Western countries. It became a full member of the Council of Europe in 1999.

Georgia has strived to develop a comprehensive relationship with the European Union. However, Georgia has not had the EU’s unconditional support. The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 resulted in two breakaway states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, achieving de facto independence from Georgia. The EU preferred to take a relatively balanced position on the conflict by blaming Georgia for starting the war and undermining international law, while also asserting that Russia’s military occupation and killing of civilians was illegal. The EU tries to avoid taking partisan positions on conflicts and places great importance on a stable European neighbourhood through developing friendly relations with east European countries, including Russia.

To this end, in 2009 the EU inaugurated the eastern dimension of its European Neighbourhood Policy. The EU’s Eastern Partnership includes six countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The six countries are newly independent and have weak political, economic and social structures. The EU wants to support these countries in order to prevent conflict, international crises and common security threats.

The Eastern Partnership seeks to strengthen EU-Georgia relations by assisting with post-war reconstruction and the development of agriculture, criminal justice, public finance management and civil society. The assistance is provided in consideration of Georgia’s geo-strategic importance in the Black Sea region. Georgia borders Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey.

Prior to the outbreak of armed conflict in 2008, the EU’s stake in Georgian political developments in Georgia was not seen as particularly high. Georgia felt let down by a lack of enthusiasm shown by the EU for Georgia accession. The EU’s position has to be understood in light of both its domestic and regional interests. Domestic opinion within EU member states is not particularly enthusiastic on the question of enlargement, as demonstrated by the 2005 referenda in the Netherlands and France, where the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty was grounded partly in opposition to enlargement.

There appear to be different strands of opinion within the EU on Georgia, primarily because of its relations with Russia. These divergent opinions arise from a mix of strategic interests and history. Germany, France and Italy are keen to have a dialogue with Russia because of their economic and trade linkages. Countries like Poland, Sweden and the Baltic States, weighed down by their past, still view Russia as an imperialist power and are not particularly eager to establish close ties. The division inside the EU follows the familiar pattern of being unable to agree on a coherent, proactive foreign policy before an international crisis escalates. Such divergent views within the EU on crucial matters have perhaps created a degree of disappointment in Georgia, which looks to the EU as a counterweight to the overwhelming economic and political dominance that Russia has long exercised over it.

At the global level, the US and the EU on the one hand and Russia on the other have competing interests in the South Caucasus. Competition over economic influence in the region, especially over energy supply routes, has been fierce because the South Caucasus is the only feasible non-Russian route to connect Europe with oil and gas and in the Caspian Sea. In 2008, NATO’s non-binding promise to eventually admit Georgia and Ukraine deeply angered Moscow. Moscow has traditionally viewed both countries as part of its extended neighbourhood and hence within its sphere of influence.

Georgia’s location in the South Caucasus makes it an important transit route for energy for Caspian oil and gas. A 2012 European Commission report stated that the EU’s dependence on energy imports increased from 43.2% in 1995 to 52.7% in 2010. It relied heavily on Russia and on transit through countries such as Georgia. The report revealed that Russia accounted for 34% of the EU’s crude oil imports and 35% of its gas imports. The proposed “White Stream” pipeline project in Jan 2013 indicates that Georgia’s importance as an energy hub for the EU is likely to increase. The project envisages the transportation of gas directly from gas fields in Azerbaijan and other Caspian countries through Georgia to markets in southern and south-eastern Europe and then onwards to central Europe.

In light of the EU’s considerable dependence on Russian energy imports via its immediate Eastern neighbours, it makes sense for the EU to invest in strengthening democracy, the rule of law, human rights and a developed market economy in Georgia. This would help enhance the EU’s overall energy security by ensuring a relatively high degree of protection and stability for its energy supply chain as well as greater stability in its immediate neighbourhood. Since the Georgian public considers itself European, the EU’s influence is more accepted and welcomed in Georgia than in other Eastern Partnership countries.

The EU, apart from securing its own interests, could prove to be a powerful force for change in its neighbourhood, especially for generating greater stability and prosperity. So far its record in this direction has been a mixed one. The political opposition and members of civil society in Georgia, particularly since the controversial 2008 Presidential elections, have become deeply critical of the EU for being lax in demanding stringent adherence to European norms by its partner states.

A significant factor shaping EU policy towards Georgia is its complex relationship with Russia. The EU needs to come up with a unified policy concerning its eastern neighbours, especially Russia. The EU and its member states should agree upon and employ a proactive foreign policy under a single umbrella, particularly in regard to Russia, in order to maximise the EU‘s influence in the region.

One way of doing this would be to supplement political and diplomatic efforts with an effective harnessing of the EU’s soft power potential in the form of cultural and economic cooperation. The EU’s emphasis on democratic values, human rights, the rule of law and social justice equip it with some very powerful tools to exert influence with its partners. Adherence to these standards brings with it the powerful incentive of closer economic integration with Europe, which has been an economic magnet attracting numerous migrants from the neighbourhood in search of better economic opportunities. [1]

 


[1] This article is based on “European Union’s Eastern Partnership in the Caucasus’s – The Case of Georgia” paper wrote by the author for “European Neighborhood Policy and Beyond (Review and Renew)” class in the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany

Image ‘Tbilisi, Georgia’ courtesy to G Travels via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0.

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