The Brexit vote has fuelled discussions in Georgia about the country’s hopes of joining the EU. Tbilisi has consistently assured the bloc that the country’s European choice is irreversible. But Georgia’s European bid still faces serious exams, writes Zaal Anjaparidze.
Zaal Anjaparidze is a freelance analyst in Georgia.
Recent research on the Georgian public’s attitude towards the EU detects noteworthy symptoms, which should neither be overlooked nor underestimated. Georgian opinion polls demonstrate some discord between Eurosceptic and pro-EU groups who represent conservative-traditionalist and modernist – cosmopolitan elements of society.
It appears that the milestone statement “I am Georgian and therefore I am European,” made on behalf of the Georgian nation by the late chair of the Georgian Parliament Zurab Zhvania in Strasbourg in 1999 when Georgia became the 41st member state of the Council of Europe (CoE) has depreciated.
Opinion polls measuring “Europeanism” in Georgian show that those preferring to keep their national identity significantly outvote those identifying themselves as Europeans. Moreover, the polls found that increased understanding of the requirements, which Georgia must meet within the AA, have bred Eurosceptic sentiment in a sizeable part of society.
The same people who support integration with the EU overall demonstrate alertness about preserving national self-identity in this process. For example, the research carried out between 2009 and 2015 and implemented by the Europe Foundation showed that the number of people thinking that deepening Georgia’s integration with the EU jeopardises Georgian customs and traditions had increased from 31% to 45% during 2013-2015.
Georgian citizens largely view EU integration as a way to address the country’s most pressing issues. Only a small segment of Georgian society shares what generally might be termed as European liberal values.
Georgia increasingly finds itself as an arena of competition between the EU and Russian integrationist projects, such as the Eastern Partnership Program and the Eurasian Economic Union, which logically includes the competition of values.
Striving to strengthen its foothold in Georgia, Russia proactively tries to instil Russian paradigms as a counterbalance to the western through the instruments of “hybrid war” and “soft power”. When targeting conservative and traditionalist segments of Georgian society, Russian propaganda successfully employs the narrative that Russia is the sole bulwark of traditional Christian-conservative values.
The reasons behind sluggish instillation of European values in Georgian society are various, ranging from poor knowledge of European languages, and the inability of most Georgian citizens to stay in Europe to gain personal experience of the European way of life, to poor access to international information.
Only 35% of Georgian citizens have constant access to the Internet, according to the latest figures. Hesitance on the part of the EU to send Georgia tangible signals on its European perspective, including granting visa-free regime, aggravates the situation further.
The Georgian elite, with their tremendous influence on the public mood, have yet to support whether or not European values represent a common ground for consolidation of the society. While Georgian elites are in the process of searching for the centre of ideological and value equilibrium, Russia tries to grab the moment and deepen anti-European sentiments in Georgia by using the Russia-leaning, nationalistic and orthodox-minded elites as proponents.
They include some well-known Georgian opinion makers and media outlets which involuntarily play into the hands of Russia when making consistent calls to show vigilance in relations with the EU, which as they assert, are set on undermining national identity. The well-planned attacks against what they term as the “harmful influence of Western liberal values” are becoming increasingly vociferous in galvanising the support of the underclass in poorer areas.
EU-supported efforts for raising Georgian public awareness and understanding the bloc are slowly but steadily bearing fruit. Opinion polls show persistent public support for the policy of integration into the EU. However, deeper analysis is needed to clarify intrinsic motives making the Georgian public vote for joining the EU on the one hand, and show fear for the consequences of this move, on the other.
The EU is recommended to support more frequent and well-publicised unbiased research in this field, in order to make EU-supported awareness-raising campaigns in Georgia more people-centered, mobilise trustworthy domestic implementers and avoid “check the box” activities.
The existing approach of some local pro-western groups to isolate and alienate anti-western elites looks counterproductive because it leads to further social-political fissures. The engagement of these groups through the multi-party floors of discussion and the opportunities of immersing them into the European political culture look like a better alternative.
On 1 July, the Association Agreement (AA) between Georgia and the EU fully entered into effect and propelled Georgia-EU relations to new heights. The current EU attitude is that Georgia should focus on making the AA work, and that mere acknowledgement of Georgia’s European aspirations is apparently insufficient and even risky.
Given present circumstances, perhaps the time has come for EU leaders to consider formal issuance of European prospects for Georgia at the 2017 EaP summit? This could be a strong underpinning for Georgia’s European bid.