Reviving Georgia’s Western Dream by Ghia Nodia – a PASOS/Project Syndicate op-ed
News Source: Project Syndicate/PASOS
published, 2-6 January 2008, in Die Welt (attached) and dozens of other media outlets across the world
Georgia’s recent protests and resulting government clampdown have dealt a blow to its international reputation as a new democracy, and pose a challenge to both Georgia and the European Union. Claiming that the protests were part of a conspiracy to bring down the government masterminded by a Russian-Georgian tycoon, Badri Patarkatsishvili, President Mikheil Saakashvili closed down the main opposition-leaning private TV company, Imedi (owned by Mr Patarkatsishvili), and introduced a state of emergency, which lasted for nine days, before announcing that presidential elections would take place on January 5.
Ever since Saakashvili’s inauguration in January 2004, the Georgian government has placed EU flags alongside Georgia’s on official occasions. It appears that Georgians believe they can succeed as a country only within Europe, and a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in September 2007 indicated that 81% supported joining the EU.
So Saakashvili’s drastic steps, and the forthcoming election, should prompt an examination of the level of EU engagement in the development of democracy and security in Georgia. Despite Georgia’s geo-politically strategic location on the Black Sea, bordering Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey – and on a key trade route between the EU, Iran, Russia, and Central Asia – Europe has dragged its feet on the country’s most enduring political problems. These include military and energy security, and the Kremlin-backed breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.
It is well understood – at least by the political elite – that EU membership is a distant prospect at best. This weakens the political importance of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), an initiative developed in 2004, with the objective of avoiding the emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged EU and its neighbors.
Georgia signed an agreement on an EU-Georgia ENP Action Plan in November 2006. The ENP puts relations between Georgia and the EU on a higher level, but what are the chances that the resulting expectations will be met?
The ENP comes a poor second to co-operation with NATO as a priority for Georgia, in part because Georgians, feeling threatened by Russia, crave security above all. But the principal attraction of NATO is that the carrot of membership is within reach. While the recent state of emergency was a serious setback, unlike EU membership, NATO membership is still an option that can be discussed. This makes all the difference.
The interests of Georgia and the EU coincide least when it comes to the so-called “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and it is no accident that “Promoting Peaceful Resolution of Internal Conflicts” ranks only sixth among priorities in the ENP Action Plan. Georgia wants a reluctant EU to be more engaged, but the respective parties understand EU involvement differently.
The EU supports confidence-building measures that are politically uncontroversial but can reap results only in the long term, if ever. The Georgian government is impatient, and considers the unresolved conflicts as the principal threat to its security and impediment to its development. It expects bolder political moves from the EU, such as an explicit blessing for the Georgian-Ossetian working group, which includes the alternative, pro-autonomy South Ossetian government of Dmitri Sanakoyev, but is boycotted by the pro-Russian separatist government in Tskhinvali. The EU has avoided any such gesture, seeking to avert another source of conflict with Russia.
On the other hand, there are better prospects for strengthening the EU’s role in democracy development. “Strengthening the Rule of Law, Building State Institutions, Protecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” proudly occupies first place in the ENP Action Plan. Saakashvili’s government has increased the efficiency of the civil service, improved public infrastructure, fought corruption, reduced crime, and created an attractive investment environment, though judicial independence and protection of human rights remain conspicuously weak.
A further problem is the opposition’s shortcomings. The government’s opponents may occasionally mobilize public protests, as in November, but they are much less capable of formulating distinct alternative policy agendas and attracting support for them. There is no internal system of checks and balances in Georgia – the only way to sustain democratic institutions. Under these circumstances, the international community becomes – albeit to a limited extent – a compensating actor, with the EU well placed to take the lead.
The current crisis in Georgia has exposed the structural weaknesses of Georgian democracy and came as a shock to many who held exaggerated expectations of the 2003 “Rose Revolution.” The Saakashvili government’s controversial decisions showed its readiness to sacrifice Georgia’s democratic image to the implementation of its own state-building agenda.
But the aftermath also showed that Georgia’s national poject of joining the West remains intact, and the government understands that it cannot afford serious deviations from democratic norms. The EU’s special representative in the South Caucasus, Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby, played a crucial role in resolving the most controversial aspect of the crisis – bringing Imedi TV back on air in time to restore media balance ahead of the presidential election.
In fact, this may have been the first time that the EU took a leading role in seminal political events in Georgia. This episode was not part of any prefigured Action Plan, but it shows that, given the political will, the EU can play an active role in promoting democracy and stability in Georgia.
Ghia Nodia is Chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/PASOS, 2008
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.