Mixed signals complicate Georgia's ties with EU and US

By bne IntelliNews April 1, 2014

Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -

Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea has sent alarm bells ringing across Central and Eastern Europe as governments in the region worry about their own territorial integrity. No more so than in Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in 2008 over its breakaway province of South Ossetia and which has made Nato membership a central foreign policy objective. So US President Barack Obama's statement on March 26 that there are "no immediate plans" to expand Nato to include Georgia and Ukraine has caused dismay in Tbilisi.

When asked about Nato's expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine on March 26 in Brussels, President Obama replied: "I think that neither Ukraine or Georgia are currently on a path to Nato membership and there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of Nato's membership."

The comments by the US president clearly threw the Georgian government. Maja Panjikidze, the foreign minister, tried to deny that Obama had said what he had actually said, while President Giorgi Margvelashvili couldn't hide his disappointment.

The US Embassy in Tbilisi pointed out that Georgia was seeking a Membership Action Plan (MAP) but had not yet achieved one, and that the US still supported Georgia's Nato aspirations. Irakli Garibashvili, the 31-year-old prime minister, also tried to downplay the remarks and warned against raising false expectations about Georgia joining the military alliance anytime soon.

Some analysts argue that Obama was actually trying to protect Georgia and Ukraine. After all, a few days earlier Russia's ambassador to Nato, Alexander Grushko, said that Georgia joining the alliance would be a "huge mistake".

Thomas De Waal, senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, regards this as a case of "grown-up politics" leaving no room for ambiguity. "The message is that Georgia will not get MAP this year," he says, stressing that the lack of consensus at the Bucharest Nato summit of 2008 still exists. "Most importantly, the US administration believes, and I agree, that an offer of MAP right now would actually would make it more vulnerable to Russia rather than less. It would only give Russia an excuse to intervene militarily in the gap between a promise being made to Georgia and formal Nato membership being given."

Tornike Sharashenidze, professor of International Relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and a former director of the Nato Information Centre agrees, though cautions against such plain speaking. "We knew that [we would not get the MAP], but we'd rather Obama didn't state it openly… In 2008 a MAP for Georgia would have contained Russia, but now the Russians are so out of control that a symbolic presence of American troops on Georgian soil seems to be the only possible deterrent."

Ambiguity also hovers over Georgia's ties with Brussels. The Georgian government has repeatedly tried to use the crisis in Ukraine to press its case for eventual membership of the EU. Without it, the government fears, Georgians could lose hope. So good news came on March 20 when the EU agreed to move up the signing of its EU Association Agreement to June to deepen the relationship. But European diplomats continue to skirt round the thorny issue of membership. The vagueness led Garibashvili to ask for "a clear promise of membership" to Brussels.

"Both the EU and Nato need to have a clear idea of what they want and can offer to Tbilisi," points out Neil Melvin, director of the Conflict Management Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Whichever the offer, it needs to be feasible and sustainable for Georgia, but also careful enough not to lead to a reaction from Russia."

Mixed signals in both directions

Yet if the Georgian government is worried by unclear diplomatic signals it has received from Washington and Brussels, it has been busy sending out mixed signals of its own too.

With the crisis Ukraine in still brewing, Georgia's allies want the country to unite in the face of threats from Moscow. For example, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Georgians "to leave the past in the past" during a visit by top officials to Washington at the end of February, referring to the poisonous political atmosphere in the country since the new government that won the 2012 elections conducts what some see as a witchhunt against the previous government allied with former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

The advice from the US seems to have fallen on deaf ears. On March 22, the public prosecutor summoned Saakashvili to appear in Tbilisi for questioning as a witness in ten different cases against former officials from his UNM party. A long-time western ally after guiding the country through the Rose Revolution in 2003, Saakashvili left the country after stepping down in November and is currently senior statesman at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Saakashvili has indicated that he might be prepared to talk to the judge by video link.

Technically, this is only a subpoena. But the fear is that arrest and prosecution will follow. Either way, this is the latest in a series of seemingly politically motivated legal moves against the UNM, and comes hot on the heels of the conviction and imprisonment of Vano Merabishvili, the former prime minister, in February.

The US stated that no one is above the law, but warned that "launching multiple simultaneous investigations involving a former president raises legitimate concerns about political retribution, particularly when legal and judicial institutions are still fragile."

De Waal says the US and other western governments have long been warning that they will take any criminal investigation against former president Saakashvili as a bad signal about Georgia, so the US statement on Saakashvili can be interpreted as a "warning shot."

The move by the Georgian government has also worried a number of Georgian NGOs. With local elections due in June, the timing appears particularly fishy, they say.

PM Garibashvili tried to downplay the affair, claiming that the US was simply advising that the legal proceedings should be transparent. But problems in Georgia's legal system mean that matters are more complicated. Shortly before the summons, pictures from the autopsy of Zurab Zhvania, the former prime minister who died under mysterious circumstances in 2005, emerged on YouTube. Although nobody knows who leaked the pictures, suspicions have fallen on the prosecutor's office. The video's title makes clear the intention behind it: "Saakashvili killed Mr Zurab Zhvania", it says.



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