Opinion: Georgia and the EU – more challenges ahead

By Raimonda Miglinaite

A sizeable crowd gathers in the Deademis Park in Tbilisi on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There is music, hot wine and several tents tended by university students who are handing out brochures about travelling in the EU, its visa and education policies.


The crowd is predominantly young, a Facebook generation that assembled to an event organised by the European Alumni Association – a recently established NGO – to show their support for Georgia initialling an Association Agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.


EU flags are waved beside Georgian and, occasionally, Ukrainian flags, and the spirits are high, albeit earlier in the week the news about Ukraine’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement in Vilnius came as a shock to many Georgians.


With Ukraine succumbing to Russian pressure Georgia finds itself in a neighbourhood that is slowly but surely swerving Eastwards: Armenia has recently set its sight to the Eurasian Customs Union and Azerbaijan keeps strengthening its ties with Moscow, leaving Georgia to stand alone on its pro-Western path (with a possible exception of a tiny Moldova). It is not a situation that Georgia favours, as few have illusions about Russia not using every tool in a box to halt Georgia’s integration in the EU.


This was made clear several weeks ago as Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of the defence affairs Dmitry Rogozin asserted in Brussels that countries signing Association Agreements will effectively lose their access to Russian markets, reports Carnegie Europe.


However, it should be made clear that in Georgia unlike in Ukraine Russia has fewer strings left to pull. Georgians buy most of their natural gas – Russia’s favourite tool of political meddling – from neighbouring Azerbaijan, while seven-year ban on Georgian wine and mineral water that was lifted just recently forced Georgians to diversity, so now a trade war would not be that effective. Granted, the big neighbour still has its grip firmly on two occupied regions – Abkhazia and Samachablo (also known as South Ossetia) and jurisdiction over a considerable Georgian diaspora living in Russia.


Nevertheless, as the last-year elected Georgian government toned-down its rhetoric regarding the occupied regions and started to take steps in normalising bilateral relations, Russia has few justifications for hostile behaviour. That is, of course, if the international community remains vigilant.


Finally, unlike Ukrainians, Georgians are not spilt regarding the course their country should take. Pro-EU attitudes dominate public discourse just as EU flags dominate government buildings – right next to the Georgian ones.


However, trouble on Georgia’s way to deeper integration with the EU lies not only with its unsympathetic neighbour. Despite the euro-enthusiasm that Georgians share, few of them actually realise what it will take for the country to be able to associate itself closely with the EU. While most celebrate Georgia initialling the Association Agreement in Vilnius, there is very little discussion about the road that lies ahead.


Signing and implementing the Association Agreement and, especially the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) will require relocation of labour and capital between economic sectors and upgrade of production standards – all of which will mean socio-economic adjustment of Georgian society.


The DCFTA impact assessment study ordered by the European Commission predicts that around four per cent of Georgian labour force will have to move from one economic sector to another, a transition that can potentially be difficult for less skilled workers. Additionally, although general consumer prices are expected to decrease, food prices will rise – a change that will most affect less affluent families that tend to spend the biggest part of their income on food.


Georgia and EU flagsOverall, the DCFTA will benefit Georgian economy bringing a 4,3 per cent GDP growth in the long term and raising the standards of living. However, adjustment period and policies developed by the Georgian government throughout it will be of crucial importance – and yet there is very little information about it reaching the Georgian public.


Georgian euro-enthusiasm may have something to do with it – media simply avoids dwelling on potentially difficult questions related to Georgia’s European path, as they tend to bring down the ratings. Politicians might have a similar rationale: navigating a complicated geopolitical terrain is easier with unwavering public support.


However, if the public remains uninformed about the challenges ahead there is a real danger of falling-out with the European dream, which would likely bring more complications to what is already expected to be a challenging process.


But the European Union is not only about the economy. Europeanization is closely related to a set of liberal democratic values that will undoubtedly permeate Georgian society. And while most Georgians appreciate democratization of the country, liberal social attitudes might prove problematic, especially in terms of LGBT and women rights.


The symptoms of potentially divisive issues became apparent in May 2013, when a handful of activists who organized a small protest against homophobia were chased by an angry mob of several thousand. This was followed by an open letter signed by a broad spectrum of prominent members of society and published in a Georgian daily ‘Kvilis Palitra’ which protested equating sexual minority rights with those of ethnic and national minorities and accused the United States and Europe of trying to impose an alien ideology. This is compatible with broader trends in Georgian society, which, as Caucasus Research Resource Centre reports, sees LGBT rights being of foreign origin and thus incompatible with Georgian traditions.


Georgian Orthodox Church plays a big role in this context. In a country where around 80 per cent of the population consider themselves to be members of Georgian Orthodox Church its opinion is highly influential. The Church has not only been vocal against alien values espoused by the LGBT movement, bus also more mundane matters, such as yoga, which can supposedly lure people away from God, or studies abroad – a goal of many young Georgians – which allegedly has a detrimental effect on Georgian children.


So far it seems that the perceived benefits of closer cooperation with the EU – economic growth as well as prospect of visa liberalisation – outweigh any perceived threats to national values. Nevertheless, if the society remains unaware of challenges ahead and the Georgian government is unable to ensure effective mitigation of potentially negative aspects of the DCFTA, the situation might change for the worse.


Hence the EU has an important role to play both in the level of “high politics” – assisting Georgia to implement necessary reforms associated with the Association Agreement and the DCFTA – as well as “low politics”, in supporting public education and information initiatives that might prove as important to Georgia’s future as the geopolitical developments.


Raimonda Miglinaite is currently conducting research in Georgia that is supported by a Marie Curie International Research Staff Exchange Scheme Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Programme.