Thursday

17th Jan 2019

Opinion

Putting an end to the EU autopilot on Georgia

  • 'Most citizens favour closer integration with the EU but believe the Union to be distant from the reality of their everyday lives' (Photo: Thomas Depenbusch)

The outcome of last October's parliamentary elections has sent Georgia on a bumpy road of political transition.

The political situation looks even more polarised than it was before the election took place, whilst economic difficulties and public expectations of significant improvements to living standards are placing additional pressure on the new government.

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If it is to successfully complete the democratisation process started by the Rose Revolution almost a decade ago, and cement its place as a partner for the European Union in a difficult region, Georgia will need the EU’s helping hand more than ever.

The new government has been formed by the “Georgian Dream” coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, which defeated President Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).

The difficult politics of transition are complicated by the fact that the losers of the parliamentary elections now have to co-operate with the winners: Saakashvili will remain the head of state and exercise his substantial powers until October.

The government needs the President’s consent on a number of issues, but the process has already become fraught with tensions, mutual verbal attacks and bellicose rhetoric.

Little wonder that most Georgian politicians already use the word “cohabitation” largely with negative undertones.

Many Georgians have high hopes for the new government: tackling the vulnerabilities in the country’s economy; expanding employment opportunities; improving social services; and addressing the misuse of both the judicial system and the police by the previous administration.

But so far, the administration does not seem to have a clear plan for how to do it.

Learning the ropes of government always takes time, but it also looks like the coalition was unprepared to govern (a few scant initiatives do not amount to a well-thought strategy).

The EU should lend expertise to Georgia in vital areas, to go with its already substantial financial assistance.

Meanwhile, the government has launched numerous investigations of current and former UNM officials.

Although most of them seem to be following due process, there are suggestions that political scores are being settled. Government officials have already accused the previous administration of being “criminals” without a single trial taking place.

Several UNM councillors in the regions have resigned as a result of what they say was pressure from Georgian Dream activists, and the coalition has also failed to prevent the resignations of local executives linked to the UNM.

For his part, Saakashvili has been dragging his feet when it comes to approving various ambassadorial nominees submitted by the new government.

Although both the UNM and Georgian Dream have, after three months of political wrangling, unanimously adopted constitutional changes stripping thePpresident of his power to dismiss the seating government even without parliamentary approval, political tensions remain. Reform of the High Council of Justice, a body that oversees the country’s judicial system, has become another bone of contention.

Despite the rancour, so far the new government has mostly maintained the course set by its predecessor on key economic reforms or the country’s pro-European foreign policy.

Simply put, for now, Georgia is not turning into a Caucasian Ukraine.

This should reassure the European Union, despite the tricky position Georgia’s rocky politics are putting it in during this time of transition.

Previously, the EU’s support for Georgia’s European path was barely distinguishable from its support for President Saakashvili and his party.

Its policies were running on autopilot: just like elsewhere in the region, they aimed at promoting convergence with the EU’s own acquis without paying much regard to the impact this would have on Georgia’s economy.

This should change: the EU needs to step up its engagement and gain a more impartial foothold in the country.

Instead of backing personalities or political factions, the EU should take at face value the new government’s statements about its determination to come as close to the EU as possible, and use them to build trust within Tbilisi.

This means aligning EU assistance more closely with Georgia’s needs and supporting more short-term growth-oriented initiatives. Outside expertise in areas like agriculture or regional development could contribute significantly to generating sustainable growth in Georgia.

Europe should also not shy away from criticising the government if there are grounds for it: investigations of former officials and possible future trials should all be monitored and taken into account when discussing the future of Georgia-EU relations.

But the EU should also extend its reach to Georgian society, as most citizens favour closer integration with the EU but believe the Union to be distant from the reality of their everyday lives.

Georgia’s political forces face a choice: either they learn to coexist and adopt a democratic political culture or they continue their zero-sum approach to politics.

The former would bring Georgia closer to the EU, the latter risks alienating not only the country’s society but also its Western allies. By stepping up its involvement in Georgia, the EU can help make this choice easier.

Jana Kobzova works at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think tank

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