Thursday

2nd Feb 2023

Georgia to EU: Don't neglect eastern neighbourhood

  • Russia continues to block the EU's monitoring mission from entering Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Photo: Nir Nußbaum)

The EU should move faster on free trade agreements and negotiations for visa-free travel with Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, which are 'inexpensive' policies that can be pursued in times of austerity as funding priorities shift to the southern neighbourhood, a Georgian minister has said.

"Obviously the African and Mediterranean neighbours are important for the EU. But we argue that it's in EU's own interest to make Europe whole and free. And this cannot be without finishing business in the eastern part of Europe," Georgi Baramidze, Georgia's minister responsible for EU and Nato affairs, has told EUobserver.

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Following his trip to Brussels before Easter break, Baramidze said that giving Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova a 'roadmap' for visa-free travel and kicking off negotiations for a 'deep and comprehensive' free trade area (DCFTA) were promised through the Eastern Partnership policy and do not require much funding.

"There should not be any competition with the Arab world, because it's a different type of neighbourhood," the minister added.

The EU is reconsidering its funding strategies towards the southern neighbours, so as to respond to the democratic uprisings. With austerity budgets in almost all member states and the strong likelihood that EU's next multi-annual budget will reflect that, the Georgian official admitted that prospects for more money for his region are dim.

"A lot of things can be done without financial resources. It's a matter of political will as well not only to encourage these countries, but also give them chance to get closer to the EU quicker. I'm talking about DCFTA, visa liberalisation – these things don't require a lot of financial resources from the EU side," he said.

Ukraine has already started negotiations on a so-called roadmap for visa liberalisation, something Georgia is also trying to "catch up" with by the end of this year, the minister said.

According to the Georgian official, his country is the only one in the region having put in place a "consolidated and integrated border management system" and has started issuing biometric passports - a precondition for being granted visa-free travel. Being small and having no land borders with the EU may also be considered advantages, he noted.

As Moscow is also pressing the EU for visa liberalisation and has "some important member states" on its side in this endeavour, Baramidze stressed that it would be wrong if Georgia or any other eastern European neighbour were granted visa-free travel after Russia.

"We are not complaining. But we are warning our friends that it would be very unwise to give Russia visa liberalisation before us - not because we are against it in principle, but because of Russia's illegal passportisation. It would be very damaging for EU's policies in support of Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty," he explained.

Following the 2008 war over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Russia's invasion of Georgia, Moscow has recognised the independence of the two regions and issued Russian passports to some of its citizens.

Tbilisi does not recognise these passports, but the minister said his government is now working with the EU on a compromise formula - "status-neutral travel documents" - which would allow the inhabitants from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to travel abroad.

"South Ossetia and Abkhazia are territories under the effective control of Russia, manifested in the illegal presence of Russia's military troops and spies on the ground, but we still have our obligations - these are our regions and the people there are our people," Baramidze said.

An unarmed police mission, the so-called EU monitoring mission (EUMM), is still present in Georgia three years after the war, but Russia continues to deny them access to the two regions.

"The [importance] of the mission, which is the only international mission in Georgia working on security and human rights issues, is that they represent a sort of a security shield for Georgia in order to prevent further Russian aggression," the minister said.

He added that the EU's improved relations with Russia, following an US-Russia 'reset' and reflected also in Nato's policy towards the big eastern neighbour, means that Moscow feels comfortable about the status quo in Georgia and its breach of the ceasefire agreement.

"The EU should put more pressure on Russia, because Russians are mocking the EU-brokered ceasefire agreement in a very cynical way. We only ask to reflect the reality objectively. Call a spy a spy. Call occupation occupation. Call ethnic cleansing ethnic cleansing," he said.

A joint meeting in February between the Russian government and the EU commission, matched only by a similar session with the Chinese executive, is a format so far not envisaged with the Georgian leadership.

"We don't want to say that only big countries are attractive for the EU, decades of enlargement have proved the contrary, but we understand who we are and we want to be realistic and work as hard as we can," the Georgian minister said.

Asked what he would advise commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to tell Russian premier Vladimir Putin about the situation in his country in any future meetings, he said:

"I think the EU has quite a competent leadership and they know how to say the right things, difficult things with difficult partners. Without recognising the problem, we cannot solve it. We understand that it will take time and we should be ready to be patient."

EU rewards Georgia with 'deep' free trade talks

After having lifted its veto against Russia joining the World Trade Organisation following a Swiss-brokered deal, Georgia will start "deep" free trade negotiations with the EU in December.

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