The Eastern Partnership: the view from Georgia

Commentary



For Georgia, the main issue is the lack of awareness of the opportunities that the EU represents.

Food-for-thought paper: GEORGIA (by Tornike Sharashenidze)

 

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) was widely welcomed in Georgia mostly because it was officially launched shortly after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and therefore was viewed as an EU answer (in a typical EU way) to Russian aggression.

However, EU integration has never attracted as much interest in Georgia as NATO integration has. Popular support for it remains strong, but NATO is still viewed as the guarantor of security and is thus more attractive. The EU had to wait to receive its share of popular attention until 2013, when the Association Agreement (AA) between Georgia and the EU was initiated. It looked as if Georgia’s efforts were finally being appreciated by the EU as well. Thanks to the AA, the EaP started to look rather successful from Georgia’s perspective too.

As the AA is a milestone for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, there are some less grandiose but still quite important achievements that should not be overlooked and that have made the AA itself possible.

For example, Georgia has restored its food security agency. Maybe there still are some issues related to food security in Georgia, but the fact itself is quite symbolic. Under the Saakashvili administration, Georgia made many reforms but often at the expense of ignoring EU procedures. The former government viewed EU regulations as an obstacle to rapid reform. It was thought that reforms needed strong political will and free markets, not regulatory bodies. However, the agency reappeared in 2011, under the Saakashvili administration, which meant that Georgia was adopting a more balanced approach, taking the EU perspective much more seriously (no doubt, partly due to the fact that the NATO integration process was stalled after the 2008 war).

The AA was initiated in November 2013 under the new government (and signed in June 2014). This was a quick and unexpected success made possible by several factors:

  • The new Georgian administration made some concessions during negotiations with the EU (on issues where the Saakashvili administration had been intransigent).
  • Despite being rightly accused of having failed in some reforms, it has to be admitted that the new administration demonstrates more commitment to EU standards and regulations than the old one.
  • The EU itself was shocked by developments in Ukraine and Armenia. As Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych slipped away at the very last moment and as Armenia was “convinced” by the Kremlin not to go ahead with the AA, Georgia (and Moldova) had to be rewarded.

As for other achievements, Georgia has passed an anti-discrimination law. The draft of the law has been modified in order to pacify conservatives who are still quite powerful in the country. Moreover, after the transfer of power in 2012 there were some cases of violence against minorities which alarmed many human rights activists. But since the law was passed, the situation looks to be much better than before.

In general, human rights issues have been widely addressed thanks to the EaP. Namely, a Personal Data Protection Inspector’s office has been created. The office has ambitious plans and vast resources. Now it is up to Georgia’s citizens to benefit from this novelty. Moreover, Georegia also now has a labour inspection office. This office is still quite weak (it has no executive authority) but it collects facts and cases of abuse. The real problem is still a lack of information in society; people are not aware that the opportunities they have are thanks to Georgia’s rapprochement with the EU.

A border-management strategy has been developed which has already given some tangible results. A “green border” has been introduced at most checkpoints (meaning improved infrastructure and living conditions for border guards). This is one of the achievements that distinguishes Georgia in the region.

Despite these reforms, the prospect of visa liberalisation still looks rather remote for Georgia. It could be a problem since a visa-free regime with the EU is something that Georgian society aspires to. It could be a real, tangible breakthrough and a great success story. Of course, there is the Moldovan scenario, but this is not really relevant for Georgia since Moldova is a unique case thanks to its ties to Romania. In fact, over the last few years Georgia has had the worst record for rejected Schengen visas among EaP countries. That is a problem that stems from severe economic and social conditions in the country. No matter how many innovations Georgia introduces and how many laws it passes, the EU may remain reluctant to commit to visa liberalisation.   

As for the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), it is both an opportunity and a challenge for Georgia. Georgia exports mainly beverages and agricultural products which are destined for former Soviet republics. After 2012, Russia reopened its market to Georgian products and this was too tempting for Georgian entrepreneurs to turn down. The main challenge for the DCFTA will be not so much standard and quality control on the part of Georgian producers as the lack of awareness of the opportunities that the European market represents. Few Georgian business owners have used the trade privileges provided by the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP). The DCFTA is far more publicised than the GSP and therefore Georgian entrepreneurs should have a much bigger interest. But it will still take some time to make them shift their interest towards the EU market. 

So the main issue is a lack of awareness of the opportunities that the EU represents and this issue was not really addressed in the past. However, in 2013, under the auspices of the Office of the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, the Information Centre on NATO and the EU was created (based on the old NATO Information Centre set up in 2005). The creation of this new agency demonstrates Georgia’s new priorities.

Tornike Sharashenidze is professor at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs (GIPA) where he lectures on the history of diplomacy and intelligence theory and practice.

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