September 2014

Danger of the Association Agreement: Masking the Russian Threat

On September 1st major part of the Association Agreement, which was signed by Georgia on the 27th of June, 2014, entered into force. The Agreement is an important step towards Georgia’s European integration. It entails a new legal framework of EU-Georgia relations, opens the European market to Georgian products, creates conditions for visa liberalization, and increases European Union’s engagement in Georgia’s democratic reforms and security.

Georgians celebrated the signing as a historic event bringing the country closer to the full-fledged EU membership, even though the Agreement does not contain a guarantee for the membership of the European Union. However, the Agreement qualifies Georgia as an Eastern European country. Preamble of the Association Agreement acknowledges “European aspirations and European choice of Georgia” and recognizes that Georgia, as an Eastern European country is committed to European values. This is widely interpreted in Georgia as a hint that Article 49 of the Treaty of the European Union, which states that the EU membership is open for all European states, also applies to Georgia. On the day of the signing, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili proclaimed: “Today Georgia is given a historic chance to return to its natural environment, Europe, its political, economic, social and cultural space.” This message is a continuation of the rhetoric also upheld during the President Saakashvili’s administration, that aimed at portraying Georgia cut off from Europe during the Russian and Soviet occupation, currently attempting to reunite with its European past.

The Association Agreement has bi-partisan support from both the Government and the Opposition, and according to an August 2014 poll by NDI, 69% of Georgians approve the signing of the Agreement.

While signature of the Agreement is a big step for Georgia’s eventual European integration, there is a substantiated belief that the prompt implementation of the Agreement and further Europeanization of Georgia’s economy could increase Georgia’s vulnerability to Russian pressure. In Spring 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and instigated a war in eastern Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement. Since then the Agreement gained special geopolitical importance, and the recent decision of the EU and Ukraine, to suspend the entry into force of the Agreement until the end of 2015, only reinforces the image of the Agreement as a geopolitical instrument used by Brussels against Moscow. Georgia is particularly vulnerable to Russian pressures, which has a range of instruments available at its discretion, starting from the occupation of the 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, ending with the imposition of trade embargo and restrictions on the freedom of movement. That Russia would not hesitate to use such measures, became obvious immediately after the signature. First, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Russia will have to take “protective measures” after the signature of the Agreement. This was later followed with the introduction of the trade tariffs on Georgia goods exported to Russia. By doing so, Russia officially suspended the Free Trade agreement between the two countries, which entered into force in 1994.

Russia can use trade restrictions as a tool for political intimidation. Russia previously resorted to this measure in 2006 when it banned import of Georgian wine and agricultural products. After the change of the government in Georgia in 2012, the trade embargo was lifted and the Russian market was reopened to Georgian products. The export of Georgian products to Russia increased by three times in 2013, and thus far in 2014, over 65% of Georgia’s wine exports went to Russia . A new trade ban could be painful for the Georgian economy, While Russia has only increased tariffs.

"While signature of the Agreement is a big step for Georgia’s eventual European integration, there is a substantiated belief that the prompt implementation of the Agreement and further Europeanization of Georgia’s economy could increase Georgia’s vulnerability to Russian pressure."

Second, Russia can use the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to directly threaten Georgia either via annexation, like in Crimea, or by destabilizing the areas and causing further unrest. Ethnic Georgian population in Gali and Akhalgori regions could be used as the tools for further Russian actions. Currently the future of these residents is unclear, as they are continuously subjected to pressure to become more integrated into the occupied territories, cut their ties with the TAT (Tbilisi administered territory) and pledge allegiance to the independent Abkhaz and South Ossetian states. Any complication of the situation of these people could cause major trouble for the Georgian Government.

Third leverage Russia could apply concerns the large number of Georgians working in Russia, who regularly travel back and forth and send remittances home. In 2006 Russia arrested, detained, and expelled ethnic Georgians from its territory as a measure of punishment for the Government of Georgia, who few days before arrested and deported Russian spies. Then Georgia sued Russia in the European Court of Human Rights and only in July 2014 ECtHR ruled that the Russian policy violated the European Convention of Human Rights, including the right to liberty and security. There are allegedly several hundred thousand Georgians, who reside in Russia. Most of these people still hold Georgian citizenship, so their deportation, could cause severe problem for Georgia. While Russia has not yet resorted to the ban of the remittances to Georgia, it could attempt to do so, in case of the utmost necessity.

Fourth major leverage, that Russia has is through the ethnic minorities, who reside in the Southern parts of Georgia. Armenian and Azeri populations of Georgia are highly susceptible to external manipulation. Recently reports have been circulated that Russia is pursuing a strategy of granting Russian citizenship to the ethnic minority residents of Georgia, who go to Russia for the search of the jobs. Even though such “passportization” is illegal by Georgian law, there is a danger that de facto situation will emerge, when a large portion of ethnic minorities in Georgia also hold Russian citizenship, thus giving pretext for further Russian involvement in Georgia’s volatile region through military, or other means.

A fifth and major leverage over Georgia is through the support of those societal groups, inlcuding the political parties, who have clear pro-Russian agenda. Among such groups Georgian Orthodox Church stands out, as it has been traditionally linked with the Russian Orthodox Church. Major figures in the GOC have on the record endorsed Russian leadership’s positions on a number of sensitive issues for Georgia’s security. Links between the GOC and ROC have been sustained even during the most strained times in Georgia-Russia relations. It has become clear in the last two years that Church could go very far to contradict some pro-European reforms. Church has openly equated European values with promoting homosexuality and tolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities. As Georgia proceeds further with the implementation of the DCFTA and visa liberalization related reforms, there is an increased likelihood that GOC will support those interest groups, which lose as a result of the transition to European economy and legal system.

What exacerbates the situation is the lack of strong messages from the Government of Georgia on the potential threats coming from Moscow. High level officials of Georgia have not linked the Association Agreement with the possibility of further Russian sanctions, or measures on the record. Most troubling is that the Prime Minister has consistently repeated that he does not “see any kind of danger or threat Russia can pose to us.” In a live interview with BBC on XXX date, Prime Minister once again downplayed the threat from Moscow and even failed to link Crimean events with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is also known that during the meetings with the high foreign dignitaries, Russian threat is consistently downplayed. Such an approach reduces international attention to the Georgia-Russia conflict -- and puts Georgia in an even more vulnerable position.

Abkhazia, Georgia: An unnoticed Crisis

The occupied region of Abkhazia held snap de facto presidential elections on the 24th of August, following a political crisis in May. Protesters stormed the presidential building in Sokhumi, causing the resignation of Mr. Alexander Ankvab, who rejected the idea of engaging in the dialogue with the opposition. As was expected, the election was won by the mastermind of the opposition protests – Mr. Raul Khajimba, a career KGB officer with close links to Russia. However, contrary to the expectations almost 35% voted for Mr. Aslan Bzhania, a political unknown, in a clear demonstration of fatigue with the recurrent faces and personalities in Abkhaz politics.

The May 2014 Abkhazia crisis happened in the context of Russia’s decisive fight against Ukraine’s European integration; Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and currently leads a war in Eastern Ukraine. It is therefore important to view the Abkhaz events in the context of wider developments, however it would be naïve and superficial to only analyze Abkhaz crisis through the Russian prism. In the similar vein, it would mean missing the wider picture, if the Russia’s role in the ongoing crisis is downplayed and underestimated.

"Europe may face another crisis in the Caucasus unprepared"

In reality Abkhaz events happened against the background of Russia’s willingness to tighten its grip in Sokhumi, as well as the complete alienation of the political opposition and former allies by Mr. Ankvab, whose authoritarian style of governance was widely criticized. Therefore the unique mixture of domestic and international factors led to change of regime in Sokhumi.

For Tbilisi there are three major issues at stake that need to be watched carefully in the months to come – (1) fate of the Georgian population of the Gail district, (2) steps that could integrate Abkhazia more into Russia and (3) possible change of attitude towards Tbilisi.

Since the May crisis, the status of Georgians in Abkhazia has deteriorated. While in power, Ankvab initiated the “passportization” of ethnic Georgians living in the Gali district, giving close to 22.000 residents of the Gali region Abkhaz passporats. While the passports are not recognized by Tbilisi, they make everyday life easier for the Gali population to cross the Abkhaz-Georgian ABL. Khajimba, together with the de facto Vice-President Mr. Vitali Gabnia, Mr. Beslan Butba (so-called “purse” of the new regime) and Mr. Astamur Tania (now the head of the de facto presidential administration) were one of the most outspoken critics against “passportization”, contributing to making the Gali population’s status major topic of the crisis. As a result of the pressure exerted by the political opposition on 4th of August, the de facto Abkhaz parliament passed a resolution revoking the Abkhaz passports of over 22,000 residents of Gali, saying they were obtained illegally as the passport holders held dual – Abkhaz and Georgian - citizenships. Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgians were therefore excluded from voting in the 24th of August presidential election. It can not be stressed more that precisely because of the lack of participation of the Georgian population in the electoral process, Khajimba managed to garner more votes than his opponents. Therefore, now, once the opposition came to power, they will have to find a solution to the issue of Gali residents’ status. Either they will continue excluding them from the Abkhaz life and political process, which could lead to un-rectifiable consequences, or they could try to find more civilized solution aimed at engaging Gali residents.

"For Tbilisi there are three major issues at stake that need to be watched carefully in the months to come – (1) fate of the Georgian population of the Gail district, (2) steps that could integrate Abkhazia more into Russia and (3) possible change of attitude towards Tbilisi. "

Second issue worthy attention is the possible strengthening of pro-Moscow vector in Abkhazia. On the 27th of August, just few days after winning the election, Khajimba flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The next day the Kremlin released a statement that by the end of the year, Russia and Abkhazia would sign a new treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance “aimed at boosting integration” between the two countries. The issue of deeper “integration”, including “Association Agreement”, has been extensively discussed throughout the pre-election period. Several components of the possible agreement include abolishing the border between Abkhazia and Russia, the creation of a joint army under joint command, and the creation of a “common space of defense and security.” In practice it would mean the  reality just short of annexation of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation. It is not a secret that Mr. Surkov, close ally of President Putin has been a strong proponent of closer integration of Abkhazia with Russia. His involvement in the “resolution” of the May crisis in favor of Mr. Khajimba, as well as recent statements, clearly aimed at accentuating the need of closer ties leave no doubt that Kremlin has vested interest in seeing Abkhazia in a close embrace.

Third issue, which could be of interest to the Georgian side is the attitude that new administration in Sokhumi could take towards the dialogue with Tbilisi. Currently there is no bilateral dialogue channel. Geneva Talks are continuously obstructed by Abkhaz participants, who raise the issue of “status upgrade” – a red line for Georgian delegation. Abkhaz are also reluctant to discuss the issue of IDP return and still insist on signature of the bilateral non-aggression treaty with Georgia, both being well beyond Georgian red lines. However, new administration has not yet made it clear, whether this harsh line will continue and whether the bilateral dialogue with the Georgian side will not be possible at the margins of Geneva Talks, or in a separate format. One way or another, it is important to watch, whether any dynamics towards re-creation of the new bilateral format will have negative consequences for Geneva International Discussions. As the first step international community should test with Sokhumi authorities the idea of resuming Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms, which have been suspended for last two years. If initially Abkhaz protested against the head of EUMM’s personality, now the reason seems to be elsewhere. In any case, if Abkhaz are serious about the dialogue, IPRMs will be restored at no time.

To sum up, in the recent context of deteriorating security situation in the Eastern neighborhood of EU, further explosive developments are quite possible in the medium run. Irrational and violent policy of exclusion towards the residents of the Gali region can cause a humanitarian problem or even a security escalation. Moreover, if not prevented in a timely manner, Russia could easily apply its instrument of annexation to Abkhazia. The best bid for the Government of Georgia in this situation is to start bringing the two potential threats to the attention of international community.  The policy of not irritating Russia night have exhausted itself without advance notice.

Georgia: Strengthening Ties, Tiptoeing Russia

After months of political turmoil and Russian meddling in Ukraine, the NATO Summit in Wales on the 4th and 5th of September was anticipated to be one of the defining events for regional and Euro-Atlantic security.

For Georgia, which has been striving to become a NATO member since 2002, the summit carried special significance. It is the 8th NATO summit extensively discussed by the Georgian political elite and public -- of which over 60 percent consistently supports Georgia’s NATO membership. Alongside the high expectations for a clear message on membership perspective, the summit was perceived as a protective measure from Russia regarding Georgia’s vulnerable security.

One of the undisputed successes of the Wales summit for Georgia was a decision by NATO to offer Georgia a “substantial package” that includes defence capacity building, training exercises, a strengthened liaison, and enhanced inter-operability opportunities. These measures aim to strengthen Georgia’s defence and inter-operability capabilities with the Alliance, which will help Georgia advance in its preparations towards membership. It marked a strategic shift in NATO’s policy in supporting Georgia’s defence capabilities by putting NATO boots on Georgian soil. Besides a NATO defense training center that will operate in Georgia, it opens opportunities for Georgia to work bilaterally with NATO member states on enhancing its defense capabilities, and possibly includes the acquisition of desperately-needed air defense capabilities. This NATO decision is also a very clear message to Russia that Georgia’s defense and security, which is threatened by Russia, is a matter of concern for the Alliance. The scope and effect of this decision still needs to be seen, however, since its practical implementation will depend on the willingness of the member states to contribute, physically and financially, to implement it. In this regard, the visit of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Tbilisi just days after the summit was an important signal demonstrating the seriousness of the commitment of the Alliance and the United States.

On the other hand, statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May -- that granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan would not be on the agenda at the Wales Summit -- overshadowed the discussion of possible future steps for Georgia’s membership. And so, not only did the summit not grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan, it did not send any clear signal about possible next steps. It reiterated the decision of the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008 that Georgia will become a NATO member, but remained ambiguous regarding how it should advance, whether Georgia needs to go through the formal MAP process, or whether the tools it possesses (the Annual National Program and the NATO Georgia Commission) are sufficient for membership. It once again demonstrated the lack of consensus in the Alliance about the avenues and timing for Georgia’s membership. Officially, NATO repeatedly states that no third countries have influence on the integration process; in practice, it is perceived that the policy of integration takes into account possible Russian retaliation. When Georgia was denied a MAP at the Bucharest Summit, it faced a war with Russia only months later, in August 2008. In 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev openly stated that the war of 2008 prevented NATO enlargement into the region.

The Wales Summit declaration also contained traditional statements supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity, and reiterated all pre-existing elements of its non-recognition policy of the breakaway regions and condemnation of Russia. The declaration fell short of calling the presence of Russian forces on Georgian territory an “occupation,” though it did add a new element by calling on Russia to withdraw its forces, which potentially could lead to using the word “occupation.” Despite the same nature of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the declaration discusses the two conflicts in separate baskets.

"The Wales summit demonstrated a significant shift in NATO’s policy towards the region and Russia, defining Russia’s actions as a threat to Euro-Atlantic Security; though it seems that enlargement has not yet become part of this rethinking."

One point of concern and fear for the Georgian public was a sentence in Paragraph 31 of the declaration, which said that “the persistence of these protracted conflicts continues to be a matter of particular concern, undermining the opportunities for citizens in the region to reach their full potential as members of the Euro-Atlantic community.” Behind the complicated wordings, the sentence raised fears that NATO may change its policy towards the frozen conflicts and make Georgia’s NATO aspirations hostage to Russian occupation. The issue is so sensitive for both NATO and Georgia that, after heated public debates, the NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus James Appathurai made a special statement clarifying that the sentence only referred to individual citizens -- not nations -- and that NATO’s policy of no third party influence remains unchanged. While this has cooled down the internal debate, it is necessary to make sure that the next summit declarations do not contain such statements that give room for dangerous interpretations.

The Wales summit demonstrated a significant shift in NATO’s policy towards the region and Russia, defining Russia’s actions as a threat to Euro-Atlantic Security; though it seems that enlargement has not yet become part of this rethinking.