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Georgia's Balancing Act with the EU

Martin Wirkus | Europe and Eurasia Fellow

Little girl on her father's shoulders protesting against the proposed "Russian Law" in Georgia. Image sourced from Sheldon Kennedy via Unsplash.

Georgia finds itself at a crossroads.  It has to choose between navigating a complex and delicate relationship with the European Union (EU) while contending with foreign and domestic pressure. The small South Caucasian nation has long aspired to integrate more closely with the West, viewing EU membership as a pathway to economic development, democratic consolidation, and security. However, the political landscape within Georgia is marked by tension and division, particularly over the recent Foreign Agents Bill. The bill closely resembles a law drafted in January 2023, called "On The Transparency of Foreign Influence." It has already sparked major protests and condemnation from NGOs and the UN, forcing the government to suspend its discussion. The division has even extended to the Georgian Dream-endorsed President Salome Zourabishvili, who now calls the party “Russian Dream”. The bill’s similarities to legislation used in Russia against political opposition have prompted her to argue that the bill would endanger ties with the EU. The future of the EU-Georgia relationship will also depend heavily on the outcome of the Ukraine war, which could either bolster or weaken Russia's power and influence in the region.


EU Aspirations

The aspiration for closer ties with the EU is not new for Georgia. Since the Rose Revolution in 2003, successive governments have sought to align the country more closely with European standards and norms. This ambition was formally recognized in 2014 with the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, which included a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). This agreement is part of a contentious foreign policy aimed at distancing Georgia from its Soviet past and fostering economic ties and political dialogue with the West. Moreover, at the end of 2023, the European Commission issued its recommendation on granting Georgia candidate status for EU membership. However, not all of Georgian society is on board.


Foreign Agents Law

Georgia's political scene is fraught with challenges. Around 80% of Georgians express a strong desire to join the EU and NATO. However, the ruling party, Georgian Dream, has recently incited national controversy in its approach to governance and democracy. For example, its Foreign Agents Law, initially proposed in 2023,  would require organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."


Critics argue that this law mirrors similar legislation in Russia and could stifle civil society, limit press freedom, and undermine democratic institutions. However, proponents contend that its passage is essential for enhancing national security and transparency by safeguarding the country from undue foreign influence, whilst also ensuring that organizations receiving substantial overseas funding operate with greater accountability. Nevertheless, the proposal sparked massive protests in Tbilisi, with thousands of citizens taking to the streets to voice their opposition. This dichotomy between a largely pro-European population and ruling party seeking pragmatism towards Russia embodies a broader geopolitical balancing act at play. Georgia must weigh its Western aspirations against the realities of its regional context, and its relationship with Russia against the current backdrop of the war in Ukraine.


Russian Influence in Georgia in the Context of the Ukraine War

Russia's influence over a vulnerable Georgia has remained strong for much of the 21st century.  The April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest constituted a key flashpoint in relations when, despite Russia’s concerns, allies agreed that Georgia would join NATO. Four months later, Russia invaded to enact their ‘veto’ on Georgian NATO accession. This move resulted in the Russian occupation of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Moscow has since maintained a formidable presence. This is because NATO requires the lack of territorial disputes as a condition for ascension, however some Atlantic leaders have argued to remove this requirement in the case of Georgia. Georgia's geopolitical vulnerability is further exacerbated by its economic dependence upon Russia, which contributed to 10.3% of its GDP in 2023. Consequently, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has only exacerbated the small nation’s fragility.


Given the EU’s strong support of Ukraine, the outcome of the war is pivotal for the future of Georgia. A Ukrainian victory would likely bolster pro-European advocates in Georgia, as it would demonstrate the viability of resisting Russian influence and deepening integration with the West. Conversely, a Ukrainian defeat would embolden Russia, compelling Georgia to reconsider its foreign policy orientation. In such a scenario, EU membership might be overshadowed by the necessity of accommodating a more powerful Russia.


Hedging Their Bets?

Whilst EU has been vocal in its concerns regarding the Foreign Agents Law, the Dream Party's flirtation with it could indicate a shift back to Russian influence. By enacting this legislation, the government may be ‘hedging’: that is, seeking to balance its Western ambitions with a pragmatic acknowledgment of Russian power. However, this approach could alienate key EU partners and erode the Dream Party’s support. European officials have also warned that such measures may even derail Georgia's EU aspirations.


Georgia's relationship with the EU is at a critical juncture, influenced heavily by the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine and the internal dynamics of Georgian politics. The proposed Foreign Agents Law serves as a litmus test for Georgia’s commitment to European integration. As the European geopolitical landscape evolves, Georgia must balance its aspirations of EU integration with the pragmatic realities of its regional neighbors and their interests. Successfully navigating this delicate balance is crucial to avoiding the reemergence of conflict and securing a stable future.

Martin Wirkus is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. He is excited about exploring the emerging security challenges in Central and East Asian countries, along with delving into the political, economic, and social issues that define this diverse region.


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