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24th Feb 2020

EU and Georgia to nibble at Russian occupation

  • Fuele (l) and Ivanishivili in Batumi on Friday (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The EU and Georgia aim to extend free trade perks to Georgia's rebel regions in a bid to win hearts and minds.

Speaking at a conference in Batumi, Georgia, on Friday (11 July), EU diplomat Gunnar Wiegand said a future political association and trade pact with Georgia should be rolled out to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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He said: "The association agreement can be partly applied to the breakaway entities, in particular, the free trade part … [But] it depends, of course, on an agreement between Tbilisi and the de facto authorities."

Keti Tsikhelashvili, Georgia's junior minister for reintegration, endorsed the idea.

She said EU support for Georgia's territorial integrity "gives us the confidence to take some bold steps in terms of ending the isolation of these regions."

For her part, Sabine Freizer, an analyst at the Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, said the EU could do for Georgia what it did for Kosovo and Serbia.

EU-mediated talks recently saw the Balkan enemies normalise relations.

Instead of wrangling over status, they focused on day-to-day issues, such as co-operation on phone lines or customs points. They also opened "liaison offices" in each other's capitals.

The big difference in Georgia is Russia, however.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Russia cemented the split after its war with Georgia in 2008 by putting more troops in the regions and by recognising them as sovereign states.

Georgia-Russia relations have improved in the past year.

But there is no sign Russia will relax its grip on the two territories, which form a strategic block on Georgia's EU and Nato membership plans.

Russia does not allow EU ceasefire monitors in Georgia to cross the boundary line.

It is building trenches and barbed wire fences to stop people going back and forth.

Georgia's defence minister, Irakli Alasania, also told the Batumi conference that Russian security services recently "tightened" control on local politicians.

He said Russian forces currently have a "defensive posture." But he added: "They have all the capabilities to change this very quickly."

Show me the carrot

Going back to the Kosovo-Serbia model, EU diplomats say the Balkan talks worked only because the Union promised them future membership if things go well.

There is no such incentive for Georgia and its rebels.

Meanwhile, even the association and trade treaty is not a done deal.

Brussels and Tbilisi hope to initial it in October or November, but political turmoil in Georgia could upset the plan.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili lost control of the country last year to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshivili, a real-estate billionaire.

In events reminiscent of Ukraine, pro-Ivanshivili prosecutors have put several of Saakashvili's top men on trial.

One of them, former PM and former interior minister Vano Merabishvili, ran a prison system which saw routine torture of inmates and deaths in custody.

But Saakashvili has friends in high places.

His party, the UNM, is a member of the EU's centre-right political establishment, the EPP group, which has damned Ivanshivili for "selective justice," putting the association deal in doubt.

EU neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele sent a mixed message at the Batumi event.

He said in his keynote speech it is "a myth, which needs to be dispelled" that Georgia has abandoned its pro-EU course.

But he added: "This process [the trials of ex-ministers] matters a great deal to us in Europe. European standards and values must be upheld for us to advance together … [Justice] cannot be used for political purposes, let alone revenge."

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