Georgia's foreign policy agenda: the road to Europe

16 May 2007

Gela Bezhuashvili, Georgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, stressed that his country was a “natural part of Europe”, particularly after the recent EU enlargement had turned the Black Sea into an “EU Sea”. The country had been in “enforced isolation” from its EU neighbours, but was now retuning to its “natural home”.

Since it became an independent state, Georgia has taken steps to reform its judicial, legal, educational, economic and governance structures; as a result, the country is now based on the rule of law, human rights and a free market, and has been ranked as one of the ‘least corrupt transition countries’.

It has committed $560 million to a comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform Strategy, including a new Court of Appeals, a prison code based on Council of Europe guidelines and a Code of Ethics for prison personnel.

In the economic field, the market has been liberalised to encourage competition. This has brought substantial growth, which reached double digits by the first quarter of 2007, leading the World Bank to name Georgia as one of the top reformers in its Doing business report, and for the Heritage Foundation to rank the country 35th in its economic freedom index.

Despite this progress, the government realised that the reforms were far from complete, said Mr Bezhuashvili. Pushing through the necessary, but unpopular reforms, had been a painful, often politically risky process, but he was confident the country would continue to make steady progress.

To support Georgia’s defence capability, Mr Bezhuashvili was meeting NATO officials this week, with a view to joining the alliance as soon as possible. The Minister stressed that Tbilisi needed incentives from the EU and NATO to push forward the reforms and make the process irreversible.

Frozen conflicts

Moving onto the question of Georgia’s ‘frozen conflicts’ - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - the Foreign Minister said he was anxious to create a win-win scenario, but was concerned that Georgia’s neighbours, particularly Russia, might use these conflicts to weaken the country. Being a superpower did not mean “bullying and pushing”, he said. Rather, it implied taking responsibility for the welfare of the countries in its neighbourhood and it was not in Moscow’s interest for Georgia to be a disintegrated, weak state.

The Georgian government wants a peaceful dialogue with the people living in breakaway territories, said Mr Bezhuashvili, and will support them in their attempts to break with the separatist elements that have had a “criminal monopoly” and kept the local population like “prisoners in a military camp”.

At the same time, Georgia needs Russian and EU support to help it to open a meaningful dialogue with the separatists. To this end, the Minister said he would be holding meetings with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. He added that he was “cautiously optimistic” that these conflicts would be resolved

Regional and international involvement

The government is hopeful that its own “success story” of transformation will spill over into the region, serving as a role model for democratic change in the Southern Caucasus, helping to create opportunities for people from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea to “enjoy the fruits of progress”.

As part of this, the government is actively participating in regional forums that promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights, such as the Community for Democratic Choice (CDC) and the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM).

Tbilisi has developed constructive relationships with its immediate neighbours: Azerbaijan is a key partner in energy security, Europe and diversification; Georgia has abolished visas and is opening up a free trade agreement with Turkey; and it is working with Armenia to provide an alternative means for transportation of goods.

Internationally, Georgia is playing its role: in 1998 it took a lead role in Kosovo and the Partnership for Peace, it has sent troops to Afghanistan and recently dispatched a contingent to Iraq.

As energy security becomes increasingly important in the region, Tbilisi realises that the Black Sea has the potential to become a major transport route to Europe for gas and oil originating in the Middle East and Central Asia, so is helping to develop energy-transit routes between producer and consumer countries.

Georgia and the EU

Mr Bezhuashvili said deepening cooperation with the EU was one of the country’s top foreign policy goals, so Tbilisi was taking pragmatic steps to move closer to the EU and EU standards.

A principal means of doing this was through the European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plans. Here, Georgia’s three priorities were trade facilitation and making the EU market accessible to its goods (particularly important given Russia’s decision to impose economic sanctions), opening a visa-facilitation dialogue to improve Georgian-EU exchanges, and working with the Union on conflict resolution.

Peter Semneby, EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus, shared the “cautious optimism” about progress in Georgia and the region – citing the reforms being launched in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and way that the ENP Action Plans were encouraging change.

However, Mr Semneby said he had not seen much progress in resolving the country’s frozen conflicts, describing these as an “existential issue” for Georgia in that they could not be resolved until Tbilisi had completed its domestic reforms to ensure a stable state and established strong regional cooperation.

Given that Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia are all EU strategic partners, the Union wants to ensure that they build up good relations between each other and eliminate possible areas of friction. Any frozen conflicts pose a security risk for the EU, as they create a legal vacuum, and can be the theatre for organised crime and the growth of the private military, and spark off a wider confrontation.

The EU acts as a soft power in the region, leading by example, and using its transformational leverage to help the peoples and countries in the region to resolve the conflicts and move forward.