One week after the European Parliament granted Georgia visa-free access to the European Union, the South Caucasus country has entered into a rivalry with Russia over laying a road to the EU for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament’s February 2 approval of the visa-free plan marks a big leap forward for Georgia in its long journey from the Soviet Union into Europe, and it wants its Russian-backed separatists to get Georgian passports and come along for the ride.
The separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s advances as wishful thinking, but it appears that Moscow, which recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and provides them with military and economic support, was put on guard.
It claims it can trump Tbilisi’s offer by convincing the EU to start accepting the breakaway regions’ own passports for travel.
In a February 7 remark, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin half-heartedly welcomed the EU’s decision to exempt Georgia from short-stay visas as a “positive act,” but advised that the EU should next start accepting visa applications from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and “abandon its restrictions” for their “citizens.” Moscow, he said, will raise the matter with Brussels soon.
This might be the emptiest promise Moscow could make to its protectorates, as the EU is fairly strict about its policy of not recognizing the statehood of the Russian-backed breakaway regions.
It also is hardly in Moscow’s interest to let go of the two territories’ tight ties with Russia, which has backed separatism – in Ukraine, as well – as a way to curb the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
The small, emphatically pro-Western country of Georgia is on tenterhooks after the European Union on December 8 finally came within a fingernail of scrapping its visa-requirement for Georgian and Ukrainian citizens.
A European Parliament committee has approved the mechanism for suspending the visa-free rule for Georgia and Ukraine, and agreed to put it to general parliamentary vote next week. A green light for this mechanism, which allows the EU to halt visa-free travel if somehow overcome by immigrants from these two countries, clears the way for approval of visa-free travel to the EU for Georgians and Ukrainians.
The breakthrough put Georgia’s European-integration-seeking government and its supporters within the EU in high spirits. The “EU is delivering” on its promise of visa-free access, tweeted Manfred Weber, chairperson of the European People’s Party.
Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
Brexit is seen as a win for Russia over the European Union in countries wedged between the two powers. The British decision to leave the EU may be primarily a European affair, but its repercussions have rippled into the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood, a longtime sparring ground for Brussels and Moscow.
“Great, now there is plenty of room for us,” many joked in Georgia, a longtime aspirant for EU membership and signatory of a 2014 Association Agreement with the bloc. For all the online giggling about the “United Yet Breakaway Kingdom” and how Georgia should sneak into the EU unnoticed while the door is still open, the South Caucasus country knows that the “out vote” was a blow to its EU hopes.
“The European Union… will be in a state of shock for some time and will not have time for others,” commented Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia, a former education minister, to Netgazeti.ge. “In Georgia, unlike Britain, but much like other continental countries, a Eurosceptic primarily stands for pro-Russian.”
“The biggest loser is the EU, as a project,” while Russia is the biggest winner, he added.
Sensing the risk, Georgian officials on June 24 were publicly silent on the Brexit topic, until Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a diplomatic statement late in the afternoon that “This vote will not change the fact that the European Union is [one of] the most important and powerful regional political and economic unions in the world, and its strength will continue to grow."
Amidst objections from France, Germany and Italy, the European Union’s ambassadors on June 8 opted to postpone discussions about scrapping EU entry visas for Georgian citizens. Their second thoughts are causing concerns in Georgia, where the government has long touted visa-free travel to the EU as a major leap toward Tbilisi’s ultimate goal of Western integration.
Increased public wariness toward immigrants appears to be to blame for the EU dragging its feet on the visa liberalization plan, which has been plodding along through various EU structures.
France, Germany and Italy appear to be the main European opponents to the visa-liberalization plans for Georgia.
Politico reported in late April that Germany and France had crafted a proposal that argues that the “current migration and refugee trends make it necessary to have an efficient mechanism in place to suspend visa liberalization.”
Refugee concerns apparently prompted Italy to agree with that position.
The EU’s row with Turkey, Georgia’s western neighbor, over Ankara’s refusal to amend its anti-terrorism laws in exchange for visa-free travel may well have soured France, Germany and Italy further. That spells trouble not only for Georgia, but Ukraine and Kosovo as well.
Germany, though, had a bit of its own concern. German officials have recently expressed worries that the easing of visa requirements for Georgia could somehow result in a hike in city burglaries by “[i]nternational traveling gangs.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been courting European Union officials in Brussels in the hope of bolstering Kazakhstan’s trade and economic ties with Europe as way of mitigating the funk back home.
In a conveniently timed development, Nazarbayev also talked human rights in Europe just as two activists jailed in Kazakhstan earlier this year were allowed to walk free by a court in Almaty. Many observers interpreted their release under suspended sentences on March 30 as being designed to send a positive message to Brussels.
Meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Nazarbayev stressed the importance to Kazakhstan of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, which was signed in 2014 and will take full effect in May following ratification by Kazakhstan’s Senate earlier this month. (The agreement is one notch below the Association Agreement signed between the EU and hopeful candidates such as Ukraine and Georgia.)
Astana is counting on the deal to boost trade with and investment from the European Union, its largest overall trading partner. Wooing investors has become a major priority for Kazakhstan as it battles its worst economic crisis in years — brought on largely as a result of low oil prices — and it is seeking to lure them with a package of investment perks and visa-free travel.
Counter to civil-rights activists’ hopes, it was petroleum rather than press freedom that took the top billing during European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s visit to Azerbaijan. In Baku, Mogherini commended Azerbaijan as a reliable source of energy and strategic partnership for Europe. The civil liberties watchdogs argued that, with its displays of intolerance for homegrown critical opinion, Azerbaijan is not worthy of an EU partnership.
But for the EU policymakers, worthy partners in the region are mainly defined by cubic meters; not necessarily democracy rankings. Mogherini said in Baku on February 29 that there is an internal consensus within the bloc that its collective foreign policy should give priority to “partners and initiatives that are crucial for better diversification of the EU energy resources.” A key role is reserved for Azerbaijan is this regard, as it is the starting point of a forthcoming East-West natural-gas pipeline system.
Mogherini attended a big gathering on the Southern Gas Corridor, a 3,500-kilometer road to energy security for Europe. EU, US and British energy officials were all in town to partake in the discussion on what is touted as a fix for the continent’s politically prohibitive dependence on Russian natural gas. On hand also were officials from Azerbaijan’s neighbors Turkey and Georgia, both anticipating eventual shares of tens of billions of cubic meters of gas from the pipeline chain.
Azerbaijan has moved to end a major parliamentary dialogue with the European Union in retaliation for EU criticism of its rights record. The tit-for-tat between Brussels and Baku again pits the push for democratization against the desire for Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas.
Aside from the September 14 vote to suspend the country’s participation in Euronest, a parliamentary forum of the European Union and its eastern neighbors, Azerbaijani legislators also called for a broader revision of Baku’s cooperation with Brussels through the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program.
Azerbaijan already had told a delegation from the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, not to bother to visit Baku as had been planned.
The diplomatic brownout began with the European Parliament’s September 10 resolution that admonished Azerbaijan for “unprecedented repression against civil society” and for jailing domestic critics of the ruling elite; most recently, investigative freelance journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The resolution called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Ismayilova and scores of jailed rights activists and other critics.
Azerbaijani lawmakers were having none of that. “They malign Azerbaijan, try to harm the image of our country and isolate it,” they said in the passed resolution.
Geopolitics rather than terroir may be affecting the quality of Georgian wine, at least as far as Russia, the world’s largest Georgian alcohol tippler, is concerned. After the Kremlin said it would retaliate against countries that support Western sanctions against Moscow, Russia tried Georgia’s wine and found it wanting.
Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian federal food safety agency as formidable as its name, declared on August 4 that both Georgian winemakers and government services for food quality oversight consistently fail to assure the quality of alcoholic beverages exported to Russia. Almost 7 million liters of booze imported from Georgia in 2015 did not meet Russia’s high standard for alcohol safety, in Rospotrebnadzor’s telling.
The agency, long a Russian foreign-policy tool toward post-Soviet countries with Western aims, took issue with Georgia’s staple dry red Saperavi, produced by the company Agora, and two types of brandy, Old Kakheti and Kolkhida, produced by Telavi Wine Cellar. A number of batches of these beverages lacked the required quality-assurance documentation, Rospotrebnadzor claimed.
Georgia’s agriculture ministry responded that it carefully controls the quality of alcohol exported to Russia, but added that it will look into the allegations. At the same time, Georgia’s point man for talks with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, went explaining to Russian media that Tbilisi had not signed on to any of the European Union’s new sanctions against Moscow.
In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.