Georgia’s diplomatic activity is hotting up. After hosting Nicholas Sarkozy in October, President Mikheil Saakashvili is due to visit London on 11 November. The visit will be full of irony: Georgia’s libertarian revolutionaries are still popular amongst the UK’s Eurosceptic Conservatives, but the main purpose of Saakashvili’s visit is to bolster support for Georgia’s EU ambitions – albeit at the same time as keeping Georgia’s NATO ambitions alive and maintaining focus on the “occupied territories” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In truth, NATO no longer has the primary importance for Georgia that it did before the war in 2008, when George W. Bush was still US President. It has made perfect sense since then to foster partnership with the EU as well. An Association Agreement has been under negotiation since July 2010; the Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw in September promised that negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) “could” (not “would”) begin by the end of the year – after almost three years of “pre-negotiations”.
Tbilisi still shows an underlying impatience with the process, however. The EU reform process is often crticised as “too slow”. Georgia’s government still believes that more bureaucracy means more corruption – and in post-Soviet societies that is often a fair point. Under EU pressure they have re-established the Food Safety Agency, but have kept it small and keep a watchful eye on officials who used to sell food licenses in the past. Tbilisi believes that its standards on personal data protection are better than the EU’s. Georgia also argues that it needs to go slow on cracking down on illegal software or DVDs, given the potential political backlash in what is still a relatively poor country.
Nevertheless, in most areas 80-90% of chapters are already closed. After the lengthy pre-negotiations, Tbilisi also hopes to fast-track through the DCFTA. One reason the DCFTA with Ukraine got into trouble is that there were no such pre-conditions with Kiev at the start. Georgia is undoubtedly less corrupt than Ukraine, and has fewer problems areas like mining. And if the Ukrainian process stalls (see my next blog), the EU will need a success story in the east. An opinion poll taken by the National Democratic Institute in October recorded 76% of Georgians in favour of membership of the EU.
Parallel visa negotiations resulted in two agreements on Visa Facilitation and on Readmission coming into force in March.
After a period when it seemed almost to be enjoying its power to block Russia’s membership of the WTO (Georgia has been a member since 2000), Georgia agreed in October to a Swiss-brokered compromise. Tbilisi originally wanted to have the power to monitor trade in and out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. First, however, it agreed not even to mention them by name but refer to “trade corridors” instead. Second, it has accepted Russia’s proposal that an independent company do the monitoring, albeit one answerable to a third party country (though Russia has tried to keep the links vague). Tbilisi has also offered “status-neutral” travel documents to residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Real hard security issues remain more difficult. Georgia is confident it has not been “downgraded” by NATO like Ukraine, where one of the first acts of the Yanukovych administration was to drop NATO aspirations in 2010. Tbilisi would still like a Membership Action Plan, but is open to exploring other instruments and paths before the Chicago summit in May 2012. Russia has no right to object, but will; particularly if there is any hint of substantial Georgian rearmament.
Politics is still important, however. Reform will be more difficult to drive forward once the campaign for the parliamentary elections begins in March/April. The elections are doubly important because constitutional changes agreed in 2010 will shift power to parliament and prime minister.
The EU may well hold off on the DCFTA until the 2012 elections are out of the way. Until recently, due process was all that mattered. Saakashvili’s United National Movement was assumed to be heading for victory – one poll in September put it on 44 percent, while the four biggest opposition parties combined only rated at 22 percent. But the surprise entry of Georgian super-oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose reported wealth is $5.5 billion, into the race complicates the picture. It may also tempt the authorities to play dirtier against a stronger opponent. There have already been arguments over his citizenship and over funds impounded in Ivanishvili’s Cartu bank.
The EU could even wait till the presidential election is over in 2013. The youthful Saakashvili’s (born in 1967) two terms are up in 2013. With so much unfinished business, he has been rumoured to be contemplating a life after the presidency as prime minister. His intentions may become clearer by the middle of next year, by which time his old adversary Vladimir Putin will be back in the Kremlin.
This week in the East is a weekly commentary by Andrew Wilson for New Eastern Europe.