Issue 5, 2013. October-November



Since July of 2010 Georgia has actively pursued closer ties with the European Union through the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and Eastern Neighborhood Policy. These programs have given the mechanisms for Georgia to simultaneously create change within its own borders while also fulfilling requirements set by the EU. The anticipated signing of Georgia's Association Agreement in November is the culmination of this intersection, and it may begin to set the path for Georgia's relations with the trade union in the years to come.

Cordelia Ponczek

Georgia is a country with forward momentum. It is also a country developing within two different spheres of policy—domestic and EU, the two intersecting like a Venn diagram. The overlapping qualities of each set Georgia apart from its peers in the Eastern Partnership, and EU leaders are taking note. Perhaps these qualities are the reason European Commissioner Stefan Fule said that the European Commission will stretch its legal boundaries to ensure a signature before its term expires on October 31, 2014.

Perhaps this is also the reason Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili spent so much time at this year's Riga Conference hobnobbing over the topic with other EU heads of state like Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski. Such statements and conversations mark an intersection of Georgian and EU policy and crystallize Georgia's growing status in both.

Georgia is primed to put its initials to the agreement during the November Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. Once signed, the Association Agreement will mark the continuation of Georgia's ascent to strengthen political and economic ties with the EU.

The Association Agreement represents access to programs and mechanisms that favor partner countries and help them build their own infrastructure—programs like the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA)—that have huge potential for Georgia's budding market. In an interview with RFE/RL on September 9, 2013, Ivanishvili commented that he believes an EU-partnership is vital to Georgia specifically because it has programs that promote European values like human rights, a competitive market, and the absence of corruption. "Europeans are the most successful and interesting people...People always strive for a better life," he said, adding that Georgia needs these programs not only to develop its foreign policy, but to bolster its domestic policy, as well.

Expectations are high, indeed, from Georgia, which began negotiations for its Association Agreement in July 2010. These negotiations included benchmarks set by the EU—a critical aspect in which the EU required measureable progress in Georgia's political and economic development. In response, Georgia adopted a series of normative policies, and for three years aggressively implemented reforms designed to show quantifiable advancement consistent with EU standards.

Be it the optimistic publicity or the momentum of long-awaited change, Georgia's metamorphosis has been largely successful. This intensive process has included, among other things, an overhaul of the country's judicial and police systems. These reforms publicly emphasized a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and accountability to the rule of law in Georgia.

The political restructuring started by Saakashvili and continued under Ivanishvili has put Georgia in the top strata of Transparency International and Freedom House ratings. In an analytical piece, Rafał Sadowski of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, Poland, wrote that among EaP countries, Georgia is a positive political example of success after undergoing peaceful democratic change of government in its October 2012 Parliamentary elections.

Yet, for all its lauded achievements, Georgia sees a disconnect in expectations:What exactly will Georgia become to the EU once the Association Agreement is signed and ratified? Will it be simply a neighbor to Europe? Or, as Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze wants to put it, a "European neighbor"? And if, as it has done, Georgia continues to adopt and implement policy reforms, what can Georgia expect in return from the EU for Georgia's continued dedication?

These broader questions can be mirrored in a smaller sampling of raised concerns. For example, there is general consensus that the political ties Georgia shares with the EU are not proportionally represented by the economic ties between the two countries. During his two-day visit to Tallinn in September, Prime Minister Ivanishvili remarked to Estonian Prime Minister Ansip that although political relations between the EU and Georgia are strong, their economic cooperation could be better.

"Regrettably levels of economic cooperation are not at the same level with existing excellent political ties," said Ivanishvili to his Estonian counterpart on September 9.

This comment is reinforced by Sadowski of the OSW. "Interestingly, the EU's shares in the trade of Ukraine and Georgia, the two countries, which along with Moldova have made the greatest progress in political rapprochement and free-trade area negotiations with the Union, are smaller than its shares in the trade of the other EaP countries," he wrote in his July 2013 OSW Point of View Report, "Partnership in Times of Crisis: Challenges for the Eastern European Countries' Integration with Europe."

At €2.63 billion per annum, the EU may be Georgia's largest trading partner, but the country, ever mindful of the future, asks, where can we go from here? How can we make this better?

In my opinion, it seems that no matter what form policy takes, it is vital that Georgia and the EU become reliable partners, and so, as Georgia embarks to finalize the Association Agreement, there are two guidelines it should keep in mind.

First, in Georgia's relationship with the EU: Georgia should send a cohesive message to the EU about what it expects in return for its continued commitment to EU principles. Working out an approach with an ambiguous (and somewhat skittish) EU can be a challenge, especially for a country that is still constructing its narrative as an independent democracy and for a trade union that is recovering from a divisive worldwide recession. Georgian leaders must agree on the future trajectory of their country and stick to it. Comments like Prime Minister Ivanishvili's hint at consideration of the Russian-led Customs Union do not lend themselves to a unified policy. Such comments lend themselves to duplicity and doubt, especially when the two competing factions appear to be mutually exclusive.

Second, in Georgia's relationship to itself: While Georgian leaders should endeavor to continue meeting EU-guidelines for political and economic cooperation, they should not hurry to implement reforms that could either undermine stability by too swift a change, or dampen public opinion with unpopular for-show policies. Change does not come overnight, and if Georgian leaders want reforms and a mentality that will last, it will take time. Georgia has been extremely successful with implementing high-profile reform campaigns, and it needs to ensure that those go deeper than just currying public popularity. It is here that Georgia will enjoy the long-term benefits that EU-sponsored programs can offer. Rushing things might get a faster nod from the EU, but Georgian policies on EU paper offer a different reality than Georgian policies on Georgian ground.

The promise of a better tomorrow comes with the signature of Georgia's Association Agreement. There, too, is sensitive probing of expectations for what such an agreement could and should mean for Georgia's future. In September, Foreign Minister Panjikidze commented that because Georgia has fulfilled its end of EU reform policies, the country has merited a clear statement in Vilnius that the European perspective can be opened for countries like Georgia.

Panjikidze is not alone. There is general consensus among Georgian leaders that the EU should vocalize confirmation that Georgia will be rewarded for its perseverance, an extrinsic affirmation, in contrast to the intrinsic benefits democracy has afforded. Many EU member states have been quick to show Georgia support. At the Riga Conference, countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia's long-time staunch ally—Poland—were first in line to offer words of support and promises that the EU will recognize Georgia's efforts. Most recently, this has meant the possibility of an earlier Association Agreement signature.

Assuming Georgia initials the Association Agreement in November 2013, the anticipated date of signature should be at the next summit—a full year later—in October 2014. Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski says Georgia may not have to wait that long. "There was a readiness within the EU to consider signing of the agreement earlier if Georgia fulfills the conditions." This, Sikorski says, is a motivating message for Ivanishvili to bring home to Georgians as encouragement to continue the sacrifices that Sikorski considers "necessary to modernize the Georgian economy and to make it fully compatible with the largest free market on earth."

He speaks, of course, of the EU.

Cordelia Ponczek is a graduate of Miami University in Ohio where she earned her B.A. in Political Science, specializing in post-Soviet development and energy geopolitics. She has spent a year in Georgia teaching and researching energy transit policy.