In 1999, the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania declared before the Council of Europe: “I am Georgian, and therefore I am European.”
Zhvania’s statement came just eight years after independence from the Soviet Union, and foreshadowed the South Caucasian country’s European Union aspirations and pro-Western foreign policy.
Following vigorous efforts by former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to forge closer ties with the West, Georgia initialled an “Association Agreement” on Friday with the European Union at its Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Among other things, the agreement will make Georgia a member of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which will remove many trade barriers with the EU. The initialling is a preliminary step towards signing the Association Agreement, which is expected to take place next year.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili called the move a way of “returning to the European family”, and stressed that integrating with the EU would give the country a chance to once and for all establish itself as a European state. According to a 2012 survey, almost three in four Georgians support the idea of eventual membership in the EU.
EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, praised Georgia for withstanding pressure from Russia – its former patron – and looking towards the West, while other post-Soviet states such as Ukraine and Armenia declined to sign similar agreements with the bloc, worried that the benefits would be outweighed by the economic difficulties that the Kremlin may cause for them.
“When you see how, in part, pressure is being exerted on these countries through trade restrictions, then I also simply say that it [Georgia’s move] is a very brave step,” Merkel said.
Nothing to lose?
The Kremlin has been accused of bullying Georgia in the run-up to the summit. In recent months, Russia has been putting up barbed wire along the border it drew between Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, which supports Russia, and the rest of the country.
Russian troops have been occupying about 20 percent of Georgian territory since the civil war that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, and some Georgians fear that Russia will ratchet up pressure using its influence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian region that is de facto independent.
However, Tedo Japaridze, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Georgian parliament, argued that “there is little that can happen to Georgia that has not happened yet”. The country already lived through a war with Russia in 2008 that ended with Russia and several of its allies recognising the breakaway regions as sovereign states. Georgia has also learned how to survive without access to Russian markets after Putin’s government imposed an embargo on many Georgian products in 2006.
Yet others believe that Georgia should brace itself for more pressure from Moscow. “Russia will not give up its former ‘slave’ so easily. Putin is bound to find time for aggression against us after it is done with Ukraine and the Sochi [Winter] Olympics,” said Natia Beridze, a 31-year-old history teacher in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.
The EU and Georgia will have at least one year to ratify the deal while Georgia meets the agreement’s demands. “This period will be quite tense for us, because exactly in this period Russia will try to exercise such pressure on our country that will give it [Russia] a chance to derail [Georgia] from the road of European integration,” said Mamuka Kudava, Georgia’s former ambassador to France, at a news conference in Tbilisi.
Although Prime Minister Gharibashvili said at a press conference on the eve of the Vilnius summit that the “European path” was “an irreversible process”, some Georgians expressed concerns that angering Russia by moving closer to the EU would have negative economic effects.
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Gogi Topadze, a veteran politician and businessman, said Georgia – a country of 4.5 million people with a gross domestic product of less than $16bn in 2012 – stood a better chance of economic growth through an alliance with Moscow rather than Brussels.
“Europe is so developed, it has such high technological advancements… What are we exporting to Europe? Nuts, scrap metal, what else?” he said, expressing scepticism that the free trade agreement with the EU would do much to develop Georgia’s economy. “We would export more to [Russia-led] Eurasian Union than to the EU,” Topadze told news website Netgazeti.ge.
Some ordinary Georgians shared similar views, but acknowledged that although partnership with Russia could be an economic boon, it could also be harmful politically.
“Russia is on the one hand a very profitable market for us, but unfortunately Russian politics are the opposite,” Anri Zoidze, a 26-year-old business administrator from Tbilisi, told Al Jazeera. “If we could exclude Russia’s imperial political structure, it [ties with Moscow] would bring gains to the Georgian economy.”
However, Georgia’s leadership insisted that the country is headed where it belongs. “We, Georgians, know that we are Europeans. But because of the reasons of history and geopolitics, we had no chance to take part in the European integration process from the stage of inception [of the EU],” Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia’s new president, told EU leaders at the Vilnius summit.
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