Georgia finds itself embroiled in a series of interlinked domestic and foreign policy crises which have become more pronounced as the country navigates its ongoing European Union (EU) accession process.
The pending decision by the EU on whether to grant Georgia the long-awaited candidate status — expected by the end of the year — has further heightened internal political tensions.
The current mood between Georgia and the West is sour, if not bitter. On September 14, the US imposed sanctions on Otar Partskhaladze, a former prosecutor and oligarch accused of ties to Russia’s FSB and believed to be closely connected to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling party, Georgian Dream. Western analysts and the Georgian opposition hold Ivanishvili “largely responsible” for Georgia’s anti-Western turn.
In retaliation, the Georgian government amended National Bank regulations which ensured the institution adhered to Western sanctions. Georgia’s Western partners argued that the move jeopardized the bank’s autonomy, with the decision drawing particular criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and putting existing financial programs at risk.
The latest imposition of sanctions comes after an earlier decision by the US to penalize four current Georgian judges. These actions highlight a major shift in Georgia-US relations and signal the US’s growing concern over its ability to maintain its influence in Georgia.
It also suggests the extension of sanctions to other former Georgian officials. Bilateral relations have been also marred by recent allegations made by the country’s state security service on October 2, and backed by the prime minister, accusing USAID of funding a trip by Serbian activists to discuss non-violent protest. Georgian Dream officials said the US was trying to foment revolution, an accusation the US embassy rejected.
With critical elections approaching in 2024, political tensions are expected to escalate further. The ruling party is now in a state of open opposition to the country’s president, Salome Zourabishvili. In what might evolve into a full-blown political crisis, impeachment procedures against the president have been initiated. In addition, the government’s anti-US stance appears at odds with the population’s pro-Western outlook — Georgians strongly favor EU and NATO membership (81% and 73% respectively.)
Yet despite the ongoing battles, Georgian Dream remains confident. The political opposition is fragmented and there seems to be no significant political leader able to unite the disparate forces. Similarly, the opposition struggles to offer attractive policies.
Much of the population seems disengaged from political affairs. Latest polls show that more than 50% of younger people have no interest in the political processes. This plays to the ruling party’s advantage; it possesses significant resources to secure another four-year mandate in 2024.
Georgia’s tensions with the West have now become a hallmark of bilateral relations. The internal political situation has surely influenced Tbilisi’s external behavior, but geopolitical challenges in the wider Black Sea region have likewise had a bearing.
Although Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have progressed towards EU integration, Georgia remains slightly behind, only securing an EU “perspective” in 2022. Though this has caused political strains between the EU and Georgia, there are signs of hope. The EU’s commitment to integrate Georgia was shown by the recent visit of High Representative Joseph Borrell to Tbilisi, coupled with a more considered approach from Georgian officials and hints at a potential thaw in bilateral relations.
Georgia’s diplomatic efforts, with its officials visiting European cities seeking support, demonstrate a re-invigorated commitment.
Given the geopolitical significance of the region, the EU has compelling reasons to enhance its engagement in the eastern Black Sea and South Caucasus. Trade disruption due to the Ukraine conflict and sanctions on Russia have spotlighted the South Caucasus as a critical trade corridor. The EU recognizes Georgia’s strategic importance along this route and its central importance for the pipelines bringing energy from Central Asia and Azerbaijan.
Following the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Georgia also has a big role to play in the EU’s ambitions to foster stability in the South Caucasus. The country’s progress could also set a template for Armenia and Azerbaijan, both looking to broaden their foreign policy options. This is particularly so for Armenia, which is now badly isolated amid its intensifying disagreement with Russia and its defeat by Azerbaijan.
And yet a failure to achieve candidate status might inadvertently bolster Russia’s influence in the region. Because the Kremlin is experiencing a decline in its ability/willingness to help its ally Armenia, it would likely be ready to exploit anything that bolstered its position in the South Caucasus.
As the decision approaches, the EU should evaluate the South Caucasus region’s growing geopolitical significance. The current climate underscores the need for the bloc to choose between the possibility of expanded European influence or the risk of ceding its position to Russia. Grey zones on the European continent don’t work, and should finally become a relic of the post-Soviet period.
Of course, this won’t solve the problem in relations between Georgia and the West. Regional geopolitics, as well as a chronically unstable internal political situation, will remain complicating factors. But while the ruling party’s determination to expand relations with other powers, including China, continues to be an irritant, the alternative of Western abandonment is a worse option.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.