TBILISI, GEORGIA—Four years ago, Georgia lost a brief war with Russia. That defeat and the continuing insecurity caused by Russian troops on the small nation’s borders hung over the latest anniversary of the conflict.
The Saakashvili government continues to look to the West for its prosperity and security. In fact, in his commemorative remarks, President Mikheil Saakashvili argued that Moscow had wanted to block Georgian integration with the European Union and NATO, but had failed.
However, Tbilisi has yet to join either organization. The EU is suffering from “enlargement fatigue” after adding ill-prepared nations such as Bulgaria and Romania. The alliance does not want to create the possibility of a new war by adding Georgia.
Tbilisi should focus its ambitions on joining the EU. Fear of a renewed military confrontation with Russia will continue to shadow Georgia’s NATO application. With America and Europe both cutting back their armed forces, alliance members do not want to expand military commitments.
The EU arouses lesser opposition from Moscow and Georgia’s membership would not threaten a military confrontation with Russia. The most important benefits of joining the EU would be economic: allowing full participation in the continental market and spurring capital flows into Georgia.
However, membership would have important political and even security benefits. While the EU offers no military guarantees, attacking a member of the organization would be a serious matter, forcing other member states to respond in some way. Possible rupture of ties with the rest of Europe would encourage Moscow to proceed more cautiously. That might not be as helpful as the dispatch of an American carrier, but the latter step is unlikely in any case.
An emphasis on the EU also would set Georgia apart from Ukraine, another potential EU and NATO aspirant. Kiev has just ratified a free trade zone with the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most importantly means Russia. Although Ukraine continues to pursue ties with Europe, the Yanukovych government appears to be settling into a middle position between the West and East. Georgia has unreservedly sought to associate with America and Europe.
Tbilisi would help its case by relaxing the government’s sometimes-harsh domestic hand. Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili has avoided the criticism which rained down upon Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych after his government’s prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. However, disquiet over the Saakashvili government’s more dubious political practices could provide Europeans with another reason to rebuff Georgia. With rising resistance to adding poorer, more distant, and less liberal states to the union, Tbilisi needs to make as strong a case as possible for membership in the EU.
Georgia has acquired many friends in Washington, but Europe remains the former’s best hope for enhancing its prosperity and security. The path ahead is long but passable—if Tbilisi demonstrates that it would be a good partner for the rest of Europe.