Danger of the Association Agreement: Masking the Russian Threat

01 September 2014
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.