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How the partnership with the West shaped Georgia’s COVID-19 response

The COVID-19 pandemic may see the expansion of the strategic partnership between Georgia and the West to include sectors that were previously outside of traditional understandings of security.

April 22, 2020 - Irakli Sirbiladze - Articles and Commentary

The new state of the art pediatric emergency room at Iashvili childrens central hospital in Tbilisi. Photo: USAID

A new era of uncertainty has been ushered in amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak has forced states to pause traditional international policy-making, which is often dominated by geopolitics, spheres of influence and conflict. Patterns of conflict and cooperation have also been reshaped – states, for now, compete not in terms of waging war but rather by securing vital medical supplies needed to fight the pandemic. They also cooperate in order to provide support to each other through various crisis response mechanisms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone – rich and poor nations – indiscriminately. Yet those with better economies and healthcare systems are going to emerge stronger. That said, small states and weaker economies will not only experience health-related issues, but also a significant reshaping of their social, political and economic lives.

For these countries, their success in fighting the pandemic largely depends on various new and pre-existing international partnerships. There are many factors that determine why some governments have responded better than others, but, especially for small states, who your partners are matters.

Georgia – a small state and weak economy – has so far been rather successful in its response to COVID-19 pandemic. This is clear if one looks at the number of infected, recovered and deceased COVID-19 patients. Georgia’s first patient was admitted to hospital on February 26th and even after more than a month of fighting the pandemic the number of confirmed cases has only risen above 400. Recovered patients are said to number around 98, while the number of deaths stands at five. Georgia’s timely restrictive measures are believed to have contributed to keeping the numbers low. Despite this, models do suggest that the number of confirmed cases will rise and that Georgia will experience its peak in the coming weeks.

With this rather successful domestic response, the extent to which Georgia’s foreign policy choices have helped shape decision-making is worth exploring. It is also important to look at the international assistance that Georgia is receiving or is asking for at these times of pandemic. It remains to be seen, however, what role future partnerships will play in mitigating the social, economic and political impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health cooperation with the United States: Mirroring traditional security collaboration?

Georgia’s relations with America are at an all-time high in many sectors, among others education and military and security affairs. The ‘United States-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership’ provides a framework for these relations as well as potential new avenues of cooperation. Although the Charter, which was signed in 2009, does not single out health as a priority area (compared to other aspects of interstate relations), Washington has committed to assist Georgia in achieving “sustained improvements” in healthcare and other sectors.

Bilateral health cooperation does, however, take place through USAID, which has created Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) in order to outline specific priority areas for collaboration. Current CDCS planning covers the  2013-2020 fiscal years and has prioritized objectives such as promoting democratic development, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and a stable, integrated and healthy society. In order to achieve the final point, one of the goals is to strengthen the country’s individual, institutional and systems capacity building.

It is precisely this commitment to institutional and systems capacity building that has helped Georgia respond positively to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the objectives of the CDCS has been to enhance the capacity of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control, which is now leading the Georgian government’s response to the pandemic. The Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research has proven to be an invaluable part of this response. The center was built in 2011 to “promote infectious disease detection, epidemiological surveillance, and research for the benefit of the United States, Georgia, the Caucasus region, and the global community”.  It has not only enabled Georgia to perform COVID-19 diagnostics on time, but also to contribute to international research on the virus’s genomic epidemiology.  

Apart from equipping Georgia with sufficient human and technological resources that have made it easier to fight public health outbreaks, American assistance has continued during the pandemic. Through USAID, the government of the United States has so far allocated 1.7 million US dollars of emergency health assistance to help the country fight coronavirus. This assistance is focused on “infection prevention and control, case-finding and event-based surveillance, technical assistance for response and preparedness, strengthened risk communication, and more”. USAID Georgia is also helping local businesses to increase their production and delivery of necessary medical equipment.

Over the decades, Georgia has received around 139 million US dollars of health assistance from different US agencies. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, health cooperation between Georgia and America has proven to be as important as a conventional ‘strategic partnership’, which often focuses on traditional security.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic may see the expansion of the strategic partnership concept to include sectors that lie outside of traditional understandings of security. Global health cooperation is likely to be further advanced and small states in particular should make that an immediate security priority.

Partnership with the EU and NATO: partnerships that deliver

Since the collapse of the USSR, Georgia has aimed to integrate into Western security, political and economic institutions. These efforts intensified in early 2000s, when Georgia started to voice aspirations to join NATO and the European Union.

The extent of these partnerships has deepened significantly over the last decades, even though realistic prospects for membership remain remote. Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU and enjoys free trade and free movement with its member states. With NATO, Georgia enjoys aspirant state status and has expanded practical cooperation in order to strengthen its calls for membership. NATO and Georgia hold annual military exercises and are stepping up efforts to enhance maritime cooperation with the aim of ensuring security in the Black Sea region.

These partnerships have also proven to be effective during the COVID-19 crisis. In particular, the EU’s funding assistance has helped Georgian business increase the production of necessary medical equipment. Immediate and short-term financial assistance has also been allocated to Georgia (over 183 million) and other Eastern Partnership partner countries as part of the EU’s global COVID-19 crisis support initiative.

The role of military forces in assisting civilian efforts has also been an important part of countering the COVID-19 pandemic elsewhere. Whilst armed forces in NATO nations remain largely engaged in local efforts, the organisation has utilised its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) to provide support for allied and partner nations alike during the pandemic. Like other crisis-hit nations, Georgia has already submitted its request to the EADRCC to provide its armed forces engaged in countering the pandemic with necessary equipment. However, the EADRCC does not directly oblige member states to provide assistance and simply functions as a coordinating body. It is up to individual member states to commit assistance to those in need. To that end, Poland has already committed its support to strengthen fire services in Georgia.

Civil preparedness and resilience is an integral part of NATO’s ability to respond to different kinds of crises, including global public health outbreaks. Enhancing the resilience and civil preparedness of partner nations is also part of NATO’s policy to project stability in its neighborhood. Georgia and NATO have in the past enjoyed such practical cooperation, with civil preparedness experts being deployed in support of Georgia. In 2019, experts from the United States’ Civil-Military Emergency Preparedness Program conducted workshops with the aim of creating Georgia’s National Exercise Program. This mainly involved examining the country’s resilience and national preparedness at times of disasters or emergencies.

Despite the absence of actual membership in the alliance, Georgia is receiving support and assistance from NATO member states in order to better withstand both civilian and military challenges. Global health issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead to the realization that more cooperation, planning and civil preparedness exercises are necessary to increase resilience in times of emergencies.

What does the future hold?

Georgia’s response to COVID-19 is a clear demonstration that both in aspiration and in practice Georgia is part of Western policy-making processes. Georgia’s capability for conducting laboratory diagnostics of the virus has been strengthened by cooperation with America. Georgia’s ongoing efforts to fight the coronavirus are being supported by the EU and the US, particularly with regards to the production of medical equipment.

NATO’s civil emergency response mechanism is there to provide support for Georgia and other NATO allies and partners. The EU has already allocated near to 1 billion euros to assist the Eastern Partnership states, with Georgia and Ukraine getting a higher share of the funding.

COVID-19 is going to redefine many rules of interstate relations. What remains unchanged, however, is Georgia’s (and indeed Ukraine’s) attachment to Western policy planning. As the world fights against the COVID-19 pandemic, no one in Georgia expects Russia to help. That says a lot.

Irakli Sirbiladze holds MA degree in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. His research interests include International Relations Theory, Russian Foreign Policy and Georgian Foreign Policy.

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