Georgia’s Mixed Signals and the Eastern Partnership’s Future

The events of the last five months have brought home the dangers of a blase attitude for Europe. It is something of an open question as to whether that lesson has been learned. Georgia may be putting the question to the test.

As everyone has once again learned, Georgia lost control of its two longtime breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, during a Russian invasion in 2008. The actual sequence of events is muddier than most remember — Georgia clumsily tried to finish its nearly two-decade-old effort to retake the provinces over Russian “peacekeepers,” triggering a clumsy Russian attack marked by the main Russian army outrunning its miserable supply lines — but the recent annexation of Crimea and Russian threats against eastern Ukraine have brought attention back to this strategic and at times clumsy Caspian nation, and its bids for NATO membership and an Association Agreement with the European Union.

It was of course an Association Agreement that drove Russia to flex its muscles at Ukraine, driving then-President Viktor Yanukovych to beg for EU aid to complete the agreement, to no end — except that of his government and Ukraine’s possession of Crimea. Georgia, keenly aware of this, has been playing a very close game, continuing forward with its efforts for an Association Agreement while encouraging closer diplomatic work between the EU and Russia to avoid seeing Moscow annex its breakaway provinces altogether.

Thus, figurehead President Giorgi Margvelashvili has been pushing forward with the NATO and EU initiatives begun by his predecessor, while still calling on the EU to reassure Russia that everything will be fine in the end. In this, Margvelashvili has clearly learned from the EU’s clumsy handling of Yanukovych’s entreaties, and is trying to ease his strategically-important country into a firmer alignment with the West that will not prompt a Russian armored division to drive to Tbilisi (this time without the logistical problems — Vladimir Putin took the Georgia war as a call to modernize his military). Over the course of the last ten days, Margvelashvili has made the circuit of every major Western wire service, extolling the virtues of the West and reassuring Russia that everything will be just fine.

Margvelashvili is largely irrelevant. The head of his party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has resigned from official politics but is widely understood to be the power behind the throne of both the presidency and prime minister of Georgia. His party and his movement are about closer ties with Russia (where Ivanishvili made his fortune) while still paying lip-service to the return of the breakaway regions.

It is with Ivanishvili that Georgia’s future rests — him, and Brussels. For the test fast-approaching the European Union will be a lower-stakes version of the one they failed beginning a year ago, as Russia again and again threatened Ukraine, and the EU again and again yawned and presumed history had already come to an end. In June, Georgia and Moldova are set to sign their respective Association Agreements. For months, Russia has warned against this. For months, Russian agitation in the two nations’ breakaway provinces has increased.

Very soon, Russia’s long game will enter a new phase. Hopefully, this time, Brussels is ready to play, instead of being an aggrieved spectator.

Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons