Georgia’s EU alignment: Regional repercussions

In the wake of Georgia’s Association Agreement with the EU, the regional landscape of the South Caucasus is shifting.

Posters promoting the upcoming Georgian trade deal with the European Union are seen in central Tbilisi [AFP]

In a long-awaited move, Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) on June 27, cementing the country’s political and economic ties firmly with the West. In a signing ceremony in Brussels, Georgia joined Moldova and Ukraine in finalising their countries’ alignment with the EU, in spite of rising tensions and tough rhetoric from Russia.

While the formal signing of the agreements was symbolically significant, the course of each country’s European trajectory was never easy nor assured. For Georgia, the move reflected a widely held commitment to the West and, ever since the 2008 war with Russia, represented the country’s only strategic option. And with little leverage, Moscow could do little to halt the process.

For Moldova as well, the Association Agreement with the EU was a bold but risky attempt to resist being drawn into the Russian orbit. Yet in some ways, Moldova was able to divert and distract from any real Russian reaction amid the more profound Russian annexation of Crimea and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine.

And for Ukraine, the stakes were even higher. Clearly, Russia’s choice to dismember the Ukrainian state only meant that Moscow may have gained control of Crimea, but lost Ukraine in return.  

The Association Agreement was the trigger for a wave of demonstrations last November protesting against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject the agreement at that time. In fact, the potent “people power” that later became known as the “Euromaidan” movement succeeded in removing the Yanukovich government in February.

Facing a new kind of challenge

For each of these three countries, the newly signed Association Agreements now poses a fresh challenge. No longer serving as a catalyst for strategic change, the agreements with the EU must now serve as a driver for deeper reform. And the coming challenge will now centre on the implantation of reforms as mandated in the EU agreements. And each country remains vulnerable to a possible fresh onslaught by Russia.

In the case of Ukraine, Russia’s approach has been both bold and brutal, with little sense of strategy or subtlety. Moscow continues to wage an undeclared war by proxy against the Ukrainian central government by inciting unrest and provoking armed hostilities throughout eastern Ukraine.

For each of these three countries, the newly signed Association Agreements now poses a fresh challenge. No longer serving as a catalyst for strategic change, the agreements with the EU must now serve as a driver for deeper reform. And the coming challenge will now centre on the implantation of reforms as mandated in the EU agreements. And each country remains vulnerable to a possible fresh onslaught by Russia.

Russian policy toward Moldova may also shift to a more confrontational approach, relying on a combination of economic pressure, through renewed trade restrictions, and direct military provocation, perhaps by seeking to incite unrest over the status of the disputed Transdniester region or invite instability in the country’s autonomous Gagauzia region.

For Georgia, despite the lack of real leverage, Moscow may seek to undermine stability within the country by focusing on two tactical moves, with each focusing on undermining the Georgian government from within.

The first tactic may be to increase pressure on the Georgian government by exploiting public opinion. Although the country’s strategic orientation towards the West is widely embraced, there is a degree of misunderstanding of both European ideals and values among the population.

And in light of the inherently conservative nature of Georgian society, it would not be difficult for Moscow to manipulate public opinion given the lack of understanding and awareness of European ideals. Such a move would find aid and comfort among many in the Georgian church, and could succeed in promoting a wave of intolerance against the freedoms and liberties espoused by Europe.

This effort would also be bolstered by the emergence of several dubious, yet destructive pro-Russian NGOs recently established in Georgia.

Even more troubling, Russia may also pursue a second tactic to weaken the Georgian government by focusing on the well-entrenched vulnerability in Georgia’s minority-populated southern districts. This would involve a fresh bid to promote and provoke dissent among the majority-Armenian population of Samskhe-Javakheti, for example. And there have been some early warning signs of such an attempt, including reports of a concerted Moscow-directed campaign offering local ethnic Armenians Russian citizenship, as well as several allegations of the recruitment of local Armenians by the Russian security services.

In an equally destructive move, Moscow may also try to incite unrest between ethnic minorities, pitting the local Armenians in Javakheti against the ethnic Azerbaijanis in neighbouring Marneuli.

Regional repercussions

As Georgia has now signed the Association Agreement, the regional landscape has already begun to shift. The regional repercussions for the South Caucasus are potentially profound, if not divisively destructive, for several reasons.

First, in a geopolitical context, Georgia has now re-emerged as the regional centre of gravity, surpassing its neighbours not only in the areas of political and economic reform, but also in terms of regional security, as both a NATO aspirant and as a front-line state in the new post-Ukraine security environment. This is more than a test for Georgia, however, but more importantly, will be a test of European resolve and commitment. And the West was largely seen as failing a similar test in August 2008. In this context, Georgia has returned as a priority element in the broader relations between Russia and the West.

A second specific repercussion is as much geographic as geopolitical. Specifically, for a region that has long been a prisoner of its geography, Georgia now seems to be leaving the South Caucasus, moving much closer and farther to Europe than its neighbouring states. For Azerbaijan, this is a helpful way to leverage Georgia as a key transit state for its energy exports; an avenue only bolstered by Turkey’s role as an energy hub.

But for tiny, landlocked Armenia, which seemingly sacrificed its own Association Agreement with the EU under pressure from its own strategic partner Russia, its options are only fewer and its future more uncertain. Long excluded from any and all regional development programmes, from energy to transport, Armenia may suffer the most.

Regional divides

And the third significant repercussion for the region is the most serious for Armenia. Although the likely reliance on Armenia by Russia to undermine broader regional stability may be a real concern, the more pressing challenge stems from the onset of new divisions and divides within the region.

Regardless of the future of Armenia’s state bid to join the Russian-dominated Customs Union/Eurasian Union, Georgia’s new Association Agreement will already necessitate a change in the terms of bilateral trade between Armenia and Georgia. And with two of its four borders closed (with Azerbaijan and Turkey), Armenia will become only more dependent on Georgia as its primary trade route.

But the even more serious danger for regional stability stems from Russia’s reaction. Over the last few years, Russia has been actively courting Azerbaijan, and by becoming the largest arms provider to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, may be tempted to use the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to only expand and enhance Russian power and influence in the region. And given the Armenian necessity for stable and reliable relations with Georgia, it may be that Armenia once again is relegated to the role of sacrificial pawn in a fresh Russian attempt to divide and conquer the South Caucasus.

Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.