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Letter from Tbilisi

In the post-Soviet period, the South Caucasus has never been as heterogeneous as it is today writes Nino Lejava. New dividing lines have gradually emerged on the political map of the region—lines that, along with boundaries resulting from ethnopolitical conflicts, have had a significant impact on societal and cultural values. In the South Caucasian complex of different political ambitions and expectations, Georgia tries to distance itself from the rest of the region through a protracted process of integration with the West.

Georgia tries to distance itself from the rest of the South Caucasus through a process of integration with the West. But that process is far from plain sailing. In 2000, when the first decade of Georgia’s post-Soviet independence came to a close, political analysts Theodor Hanf and Ghia Nodia published an important book whose first part was entitled Georgia Lurching to Democracy: From Agnostic Tolerance to Pious Jacobinism: Societal Change and Peoples’ Reactions. The title proved to be one of the most elegant and telling depictions of Georgia’s democratic transition toward Europe.

Simultaneously, several spatial metaphors emerged against the background of the energy pipeline projects initiated and established during the 1995–2003 administration of former president Eduard Shevardnadze. Since the late 1990s, Georgia has often been represented as a corridor linking East and West. Another conceptual depiction has been of Georgia as Europe’s balcony, an image that has become firmly ingrained in English-language tourist guidebooks.

These metaphors are very telling when it comes to describing Georgia’s status and position on the geopolitical map. The sense of constant anticipation while the country is positioned on this balcony or in that corridor has been increasing in the collective imagination of Georgian society.

There is very real anticipation in the waiting rooms of the European consulates in Tbilisi, with their long lines of visa applicants often spilling out onto the street. These are not particularly pleasant places in which to spend time. Irrespective of the outcome of the application process, visa hopefuls are left with an unpleasant aftertaste of emotional frustration toward the European country whose consulate they were visiting or toward Europe as a whole.

Visa liberalization is a key element of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, a hefty and complex document that will surely become a tangible reality for the citizens of Georgia once it takes hold. This is an important expectation in both Georgia and the EU.

Georgia tries to distance itself from the rest of the South Caucasus through a process of integration with the West. But that process is far from plain sailing. To realize its ambitions, Georgia has had great support from Poland and Estonia. These countries have proved to be important allies for Georgia as it seeks accession to NATO and rapprochement with the EU. However, Georgia also faces a threat of isolation: its western edge borders the Black Sea, and its geographically and politically westernmost neighbor, Turkey, has been trapped in the waiting room for EU membership for decades.

Over the past twenty years, Georgia’s society and successive governments have confirmed their choice in favor of closer ties with the West. In a country where politicians and journalists continue to confuse the European Union with the Council of Europe, 61 percent of the population supports the country’s objective of becoming an EU member, according to a survey by the nonprofit National Democratic Institute.

By contrast, 31 percent of respondents claimed that Georgia should pursue membership of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Advocates of the EEU justified their choice mainly with the prospect of economic benefits rather than any improvement in terms of policies and governance. Only 7 percent of EEU supporters claimed that membership in this organization would advance democratic development in Georgia, while 21 percent of EU backers believed that accession to the EU would have the same effect.

These figures partly reflect the ambiguity of the EU’s neighborhood policies, which suffered from weak monitoring during their initial implementation stage. Since the 1990s—and especially since the launch of the European Neighborhood Policy in 2004—the EU has provided Georgia with comprehensive financial and institutional backing in the area of democratic transition. Subsequently, within the framework of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, this cooperation was supplemented by structural support for Georgian civil society and the strengthening of NGOs in the international arena.

From the outset, the European Neighborhood Policy has been a significant tool for democratic development in the countries near the EU. It is important to remember that this tool was originally conceived for a stable environment. The reality proved very different. Various complex processes have developed in the political life of the region at a high and intense pace, and the EU’s foreign policy departments were often unable to offer a timely reaction.

There have been any number of recommendations on how to improve the EU’s foreign policy, with most emphasizing the need for a stronger, country-tailored approach for the EU’s Eastern neighborhood. That’s all very well, but at a time when the EU is becoming increasingly inward-looking and its borders are closing, these recommendations should go much further, precisely because they are of vital importance but don’t receive the attention they deserve. Several policy areas stand out.

The first is education, the significance of which cannot be overestimated. Georgia’s education system represents the foundation of all major institutional and societal reforms. This system has been in dire need of reform, however this has not been adequately addressed either by the Georgian government or by its Western partners.

The insignificant number of postgraduate students and the even smaller number of doctoral students sent to study abroad with one- to two-year scholarships cannot provide sufficient expertise, experience, and resources to turn Georgia into a modern state or strengthen the rule of law. Given Georgia’s need for a fundamental sociocultural transformation, support for in-depth structural reform of all stages of the education system is of great importance.

The second priority should be a strategy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A modus operandi should be identified for modernizing and integrating Georgia’s breakaway regions into the European space without international recognition of their independence. This could weaken the influence of the regions’ nondemocratic neighbor and patron, Russia. It could also undermine Russia as a destabilizing factor in the Caucasus and mitigate security challenges for Georgia—challenges that have obstructed the country’s winding path toward NATO membership.

The third key issue is energy. Support should be provided for sustainable and environmentally sound concepts of energy independence. Joining the Energy Community, which brings together the EU and a number of countries in Southeastern Europe, could be a spur to harmonize standards with the EU’s energy legislation. These should be top priorities, particularly to establish Georgia’s energy independence from Russia and Azerbaijan, two of the region’s authoritarian and—in the long run—unstable states.

Finally, the map should be clearly delineated: What is Europe? Are the easternmost parts of Europe still Europe? And is it at all possible for Georgia, which has been lurching and stumbling along a challenging road for over twenty years, to finally arrive in Europe?

Nino Lejava is the director of the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. This article was first published by Strategic Europe under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. More info can be found at .


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