In an effort to reinforce Georgian government’s claim that it wants to continue with plans to integrate further with the West, the small South Caucasus nation’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, made her first official visit abroad where she held meetings with senior EU policymakers in Brussels on January 22-23.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani met with the French-born Zurabishvil and reassured her of the EU’s support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, a quarter of which is under Moscow’s direct military and financial control as a result of the brief but bloody August 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
Though the EU pledged to continue providing limited financial support to Tbilisi, Juncker and Tajani noticeably avoided any mention of a timeframe or roadmap for Georgia to continue down the path towards eventual EU membership.
“We have a friendly view of Georgia and we are developing bilateral cooperation in many ways, including in the economic field. The EU’s macro-financial support to Georgia will be maintained and we stress the need to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity,” Juncker said.
Though Zurabishvili received a cordial reception from the EU’s institutions, her two-day visit yielded little in the way of any breakthroughs in negotiations concerning Georgia’s future in the EU.
Her visit coincides with a particular period in the European Union’s relatively young history when few in the 28-member bloc have the appetite to discuss the integration of an impoverished former Soviet republic with separatist territorial issues and which is also currently in the process of backsliding on the progress that it had made in developing an active civil society as well as the rule of law and democratic institutions in previous years.
Amid the rise of anti-EU populist parties, many of whom favour closer ties with Moscow over forging a deeper relationship with countries that were once under the Kremlin’s authority, Zurabishivili’s visit to Brussels before the May European elections was destined to be an anticlimactic affair from the start, despite the mechanism that are already in place to further enhance EU-Georgia relations.
Georgia and the EU signed a landmark Association Agreement in 2014 after years of negotiations. The pact entered into force two years later and specifically underlines the two parties’ commitment to strengthen their political and economic ties.
In 2017, a visa-free travel regime was granted to Georgia along with Ukraine and Moldova – two other former Soviet republics with Western integration ambitions. Less than a year, however, after the travel restrictions were lifted, the European Commission demanded that Georgia crack down on illegal migration and step up its efforts to fight with organised crime and corruption – none of the Georgian government has addressed.
Tbilisi’s unwillingness to abide by the EU’s requests and Europe’s growing frustration with Georgia over its increasingly poor judicial record and the noticeable turn towards Russia under the current administration as well as its embrace of a peculiar brand of anti-Western conservatism fuelled by the country’s powerful and highly xenophobic Orthodox Church has stalled efforts to further enhance the integration process.
Zurabishivili is a former French diplomat whose Georgian forebears moved to France in the early 20th century and who later served as a Gaullist foreign service officer for her country of birth before she briefly served in the administration of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. She was subsequently fired from her position as Georgia’s minister of foreign affairs due to major policy clashes with the administration, including disagreements about Georgia’s relations with its former imperial master, Russia.
The 66-year-old Zurabishvili won Georgia’s presidential elections in late November 2018 under a cloud of controversy as international observers, Georgia’s allies in Europe and the US, and the political opposition criticised the election as being unfair and not up to international standards due to allegations of vote buying and intimidation by Zurabishvili’s government-funded supporters.
In the run-up to the election, Zurabishvili – who also often goes by “Zourabichvili”, the Gallicised transliteration of her surname that she used prior to taking up residency in Georgia in the mid-2000s – was highly criticised in Georgia, both by the opposition and even by her own supporters, for her noticeably poor grasp of the Georgian language and aloof character that many saw as indifference and arrogance. Though she ran as an independent for the largely ceremonial role of president, Zurabishvili was handpicked by Georgia’s informal national leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest and most powerful oligarch who served as prime minister in 2012-2013 after defeating his political rival, Saakashvili.
The pro-Russian Ivanishvili holds no elected office, but he remains the head of the country’s ruling political party – the Georgian Dream – and, in a complete circumvention of the democratic process, remains the country’s ultimate authority when it comes to the appointment of government officials and the formulation of both domestic and foreign policy.