Friday, January 13, 2017

Thousands Leagues through Georgia with the EUropean Quest

(Photo: Flickr|whereisemil, licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Somebody much wiser once said – “you need to physically leave the territory of the EU in order to hear something nice about it”. This is very true especially now in the post-Brexit reality, when one might think the EU is in a constant crisis – internal, migration, growing extremism… Sometimes you need to leave the “EU bubble” in order to appreciate it more from the outside. The best is to visit a candidate or aspiring country, and perhaps the most optimistic amongst them pertaining to the EU is Georgia. This small South Caucasus country – an island of “positive deviation” – against all odds decided, it will earn its position in the “political West” through memberships in NATO and the EU. Currently the only truly pro-European and visibly performing country from among the European Eastern Partnership countries. With the country’s EU membership approval rate traditionally high (currently around 72% as of June 2016[1]) it ranks among the most pro-Euro countries that aspire to EU membership (candidate’s status not yet granted).
Throughout 2016 in Georgia the GLOBSEC Policy Institute oversaw the project “Georgia on European Way”, whose main objective was to speak with people in regions of the country about practical implications of implementation of the Association Agreement (AA) and the Agreement on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between the EU and Georgia. This task among other things meant dispelling a number of myths, that the EU is somewhat concealed in Georgia and at the same time to face the anti-EU and anti-West propaganda that is slowly being spread throughout the country. Not a single country of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is immune to this phenomenon.    
To achieve this goal we literally travelled through Georgia from East to West, driving almost 3.000 kilometres on a traditional South Caucasus minibus – “marshrutka”. During the pre-planned route we stopped to discuss the EU, the Slovak experience and at the same time to understand better why Georgia is so specific on its European way. On our “speaking tour” we’ve visited cities Marneulli, Rustavi, Telavi, Akhalkalaki, Tianeti, Mtskheta, Gori, Zugdidi, Mestia, Tsalenjikha, Chkhorotsku, Kobuleti, Lanchkhuti, Sachkhere and Chiatura. The commonality cross-cutting all discussions was the strong will of citizens of Georgia to improve their living condition to the level of standards of EU citizens – coupled with strong hope, Georgia will eventually belong to the family of European nations also formally. In reality Georgians already feel like a European nation and base this on solid grounds of culture and history. All discussions were lively and engaged, led within the friendly and traditionally hospitable Georgian atmosphere wherever we stopped. Experience of the “new” EU countries from the Central Europe and the Baltics was especially valued in Georgia due to similar shared circumstances as Slovakia was part of the same Eastern block.   
Georgia has been through a lot in its recent turbulent history - a damaging civil war in the 90s, uneasy transition, war with the big neighbour Russia - but also ambitious reforms fuelled by the strategic decision to belong to the West. In 2012 the country saw its first peaceful transition of power through the ballot box and this year confirmed this trend by holding another free and fair election. The result of the vote was strong confirmation of the pro-Western orientation of the country with its main government party “The Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia” and one opposition party “United National Movement” both strongly pro-NATO and pro-European making it into the Parliament. With them, however, narrowly passing the 5 per cent threshold was also a nationalistic and slightly anti-Western opposition party, “Alliance of Patriots of Georgia”. This serves as a warning sign for the government that Georgia is not immune to the rise of populist parties and politicians such as in the West.  
At the closing workshop of the project which was organized in Brussels, Georgia was praised by the representatives of the EU institutions as the best performing - “best pupil in the class” - among the EaP countries aspiring to the EU membership. This is of course true and a deserved result of Georgia’s effort, but we still must be very cautious with such labels. Just over two years ago Moldova was considered the best “pupil” in the EaP class, but since then a lot has changed. Moldova experiencing internal political problems, with a population distrusting so-called pro-European politicians and voting for pro-Russian populists with the aim to punish those who lost their confidence. Let this be the warning sign for both Georgia as well as the EU, that a) no effort shall be spared in continuation of reforms and delivering on promises and b) the “more-for-more” principle rewarding those performing well on the EU implementation path to support the “open-door-policy” should be supported with credible deliverables. With that goes hand in hand understandable and frank strategic communication on the part of the Georgian Government with the support of partners and the EU, that would articulate achievements, mitigate over-hyped expectations and debunk myths, false information and propaganda. This could ensure that the pro-Western and pro-EU support will remain strong also in the face of criticism and EU’s own internal crisis.
An important step to strengthen the credibility of the EU in the eyes of common Georgians will be adoption of the visa-free-regime for short term travel to the EU. This is currently much desired by Georgians. This is not exactly due to the fact that the day after the adoption of the visa-free regime Georgians will flock to Europe; it will be still quite difficult for them due to high prices in Europe as compared to lower wages in Georgia and only very few people have the new bio-metric passports needed for the “free” travel to the EU. For Georgians this visa-free regime is more symbolic than anything, signalling that they will not be regarded as “second class Europeans”, that there will not be – at least formal – barriers preventing them from belonging where they believe long belong to anyway.       
Georgia is a victim of geopolitics because of its big neighbour to the North and the recent history, everybody in the EU and NATO tend to tread lightly when it concerns Georgia now. Everybody expects it will walk an extra mile to go above and beyond, more than other aspiring countries. This could be actually beneficial for Georgia in the long run as it will be motivated to truly reform and keep on delivering, but on the other hand also the EU should deliver on its promises and thus remain credible. Otherwise the perception of the EU membership could be seen as the light at the end of the tunnel too far and the reform/transformation effort might dwindle in face of the public opinion.
There are simple rules to keep Georgia motivated and on the EUropean way:
  1. To praise the reform and transformation progress, but do not over-praise it.
  2. But just praising is not enough – when delivered a reward is needed (within the more for more principle”).
  3. Support the transformation process through sharing know-how, projects, experts’ exchanges and finances.
  4. Georgia must not lose its target continue to progress on the EUropean way despite all odds. 
Ján Cingel
 Research Fellow and Project Manager
European Neighbourhood Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

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