Later this year, Georgia expects a crucial European Union (EU) decision on whether to grant it the long-desired status of candidate for membership.
This had seemed unthinkable even in the recent past. The EU had close trade and energy ties with Russia, and Georgia simply seemed less important (as did Ukraine and Moldova.) Expansion fatigue across the EU, and relative disinterest in Russia’s continuing occupation of 20% of Georgia’s territory, left little room for the EU to chart a path to closer relations.
Everything changed with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For the collective West, and the EU in particular, the shutdown of Russian energy supplies required expansion of its interests into the wider Black Sea region and beyond, for example, to strike deals with energy-rich states like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Pipelines and other critical transportation routes run through Georgia, and these suddenly matter a lot.
This growing importance is well understood by Georgia’s government and may help explain why it has been a less-than-enthusiastic ally since the full-scale Russian invasion. It is now better placed to follow its own instincts, not all of which are pro-Western. At first sight, this may seem odd — Georgia and Russia fought a war in 2008 and the Kremlin continues to occupy 20% of its territory. But there are intimate links between the two countries.
The ruling Georgian Dream party was founded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and is now said to be worth $4.9bn and who claims there is no continuing relationship with the party he created.
Georgian Dream has refused to impose any sanctions against the Kremlin, while cargo transportation from Turkey to Russia tripled last year, much of it passing through Georgia. The ruling party says it is not pro-Russian but simply aware of the country’s vulnerability to its much larger neighbor.
Ordinary Georgians are much more pro-Western. Not only do they overwhelmingly support entry into the EU and NATO (89% and 80% favor admission), but they have also decked the capital with Ukrainian flags and even rallied to expel a wedding party of prominent regime-linked Russians from the country in May.
Yet relations with the West have been soured, not least when Georgian Dream backed attempts to pass a foreign agent law modeled on Russia’s repressive legislation. Only a rearguard action by mass protests and strong objections from Western powers helped to ensure it was dropped.
Relations between Brussels and Tbilisi remain difficult. Georgia’s internal political radicalization hampers the country’s westward march. In 2022, Georgia was marked out as a poor performer, when it was given a so-called European perspective rather than the candidate status offered to Moldova and Ukraine. The reason was intense political infighting, which occasionally spills over into criticism of the EU by Georgian officials.
Traditionally, EU expansion has been based on shared values of democracy and state-building, but it is also as much about geopolitics. Quite apart from energy links, a lot of Asia-to-Europe trade now moves through South Caucasus since the Russia route is largely blocked.
Georgia is also a bridge to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the EU is seeking to broker a deal over the long-running dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Improved connections for the two countries to Black Sea ports provide a clear incentive to strike a deal (most current transportation routes rely on Russia or Iran.)
Ultimately too, Georgia’s progress towards the EU acts as a positive example for its South Caucasian neighbors. Both have reason to dislike Russia’s excessive influence and seek alternatives in foreign policy. The EU’s more active involvement in the region would be welcomed as a powerful balance against Russia’s positions.
It, therefore, makes sense for the EU to look beyond the details of current disputes and consider the wider strategic picture. The vast majority of Georgia’s population hopes for a positive decision on candidate status and feels it would mark an acknowledgment of historically close ties to Europe. It should also be said that there is an underlying sense of resentment stemming from the West’s tepid response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. A sense of betrayal has lingered ever since, despite genuine enthusiasm for access to the Western clubs. A negative decision, therefore, carries its own risks.
The failure to grant candidate status would also have geopolitical ramifications. Russia, watchful and suspicious of EU advances in influence, would almost certainly try to exploit the divisions between Brussels and Tbilisi. It has multiple options. One is economic. Russia is already a big trade partner of Georgia and could easily foster even greater commercial ties and agree to investments in Georgia’s economy.
The Kremlin might also order the separatist regimes in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to offer some conciliatory gestures toward Georgia. That might create a semblance of potential conflict resolution. Of course, such gestures would be nothing more than symbolic (Russia has no intention of relinquishing its conquests) but they might give an impression of an alternative to agreements with the West.
Georgia’s best future, economically and militarily, lies with EU and NATO membership. It now has more to offer than in the past, and both sides should recognize this.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of silk roads.
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.