Georgia Beyond Europe and Russia

The macro-problem that is now at the crux of Georgia’s political future is often presented as whether or not pursuing a western course, with the goal of joining NATO and the EU, continues to make sense in the face of growing evidence that these two goals are more distant than many Georgians have been led to believe. For Georgia’s political leaders this problem may take the form of determining whether it is worthwhile to continue to pursue difficult reforms, put Georgian troops in harm’s way in places like Afghanistan and support political positions that, at times, are at odds with the views of their voters. For ordinary Georgians this may present of choice whether continued hostility towards Russia is a wise economic and security position given that the economic and security benefits of joining the EU and NATO appear to still be a a long way in the future. 

If the question in framed this way, the easiest answers are that either Georgia should continue doing what it is doing to get into NATO and the EU, as strengthening institutions and building a more democratic and functional state are worthwhile goals on their own, or that absent imminent membership in these organizations, Russian influence will inevitably grow. The first answer, while not inaccurate, feels incomplete and even a little bit patronizing. The alternative may overstate a threat that while real, is not quite as drastic as many, including some who have an incentive to exaggerate, think.

Framing Georgia's choice as a binary one, between the primal satisfaction of full integration into the west and succumbing to the shadowy influence of Moscow, however, is itself part of the problem, as it places Georgia between two limited and unsatisfactory options. It is an incomplete approach that leaves many Georgians caught between the unrealistic and the unthinkable. Therefore, contemplating other approaches, and indeed other outcomes, for Georgia is essential.

The way out of this conundrum is to raise the question of what Georgia’s short and middle range future might look like absent membership in the EU and NATO, and what Georgia should do to ensure that future can be a positive one. One approach to addressing this problem of Georgia’s political future is to probe why Georgia wants to be part of the EU and NATO, and to identify the component parts of that desire. Once those component parts are identified, it may be possible to identify a strategy that pursues those component goals without resting exclusively upon the decreasingly likely prospect of gaining admission into those two multi-lateral organizations in the immediate future. 

The EU and NATO have both substantive and intangible attractions for Georgia. The substantive attractions include national security, increased economic opportunities and links to one of the world’s biggest and most vibrant economies.The intangible appeal is harder to define but also very significant. This might be described as a sense of belonging in an elite international grouping and full membership in the family of wealthy and democratic nations. The intangible draw of these western institutions is very powerful in Georgia, particularly among Georgia’s western leaning political elite. These intangibles also make it more difficult to grapple with Georgia's more primal goals and to explore alternate means of attaining those component goals.

While it is true that membership in the EU and NATO are the best guarantors of Georgia’s future security, economic growth and stability, it is not true that without membership in these organizations, those goals are impossible. The paths to achieving these goals without NATO or EU membership are arduous, but they are not impossible. Moreover, given the state of opinion regarding expansion in general, and extending membership to Georgia in particular, in both these organizations, Georgia’s leadership must try to figure out what that path looks like and to persuade the Georgian people to join them on that journey.

Georgia’s political opposition, at least those like the Free Democrats and United National Movement that seek to move Georgia towards the west, may find it politically expedient to avoid this challenge, instead simply saying they would do better than the Georgian Dream at moving Georgia towards the west. That is a position that might help them with an already wary electorate, but is better campaign rhetoric than it is a guide to governance.

Achieving the component pieces underlying Georgia’s quest to join the west-security, economic growth and stability-without membership in the EU or NATO does not, as many fear, mean Georgia would turn to Russia. On the contrary, Georgia can build economic ties to Europe and even continue to engage in security cooperation with NATO member countries while remaining outside those organizations. This is not the first choice of the Georgian people or government, but it may become more apparent in coming years that this is better than simply giving up, or turning to Russia after years of disappointment. Moreover, the component goals are central to Georgia’s future and may provide a valuable, and actionable roadmap for Georgia. It is, after all, almost axiomatic that if the Georgian people could secure their security, stability and economic future but still not make it into NATO or the EU, they would make that deal.

The foundations of these component parts are broad integration into international economies including not just Europe but Asian and Middle Eastern economies as well; bilateral security arrangements with strong supporters of Georgia and a functioning and reasonably democratic state. Achieving these component goals does not preclude membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions, but does not call for a legislative path narrowly targeted at EU or NATO membership.

There are many European countries that trade with China or the Middle East and are deeply integrated into the global economy. This is a source of economic strength and stability for many countries; it should be the same for Georgia. Similarly, there are several NATO, and non-NATO countries, that have close bilateral security relationships with powerful NATO members, most notably the US. That is a model that could be essential for Georgia, but would not preclude, rather it would actually improve, the chances of closer ties with NATO.

Thus, the overlap between the work needed to achieve these goals and those needed to make it into NATO and the EU is substantial, but not complete. Building strong institutions, sufficient democracy to guarantee stability, and maintaining enough rule of law so that business can function is essential for Georgia regardless of how it seeks to achieve its fundamental or component goals. However, restructuring Georgian laws to be compatible with those of the EU is a difficult and time consuming process that is only useful if Georgia is going to become part of the EU in the foreseeable future. Similarly, building a consensus around liberal European values has proven very difficult in Georgia. While those goals as reflect an ethical and moral society, it is not absolutely essential to realize those values, if the goals is simply stability and security rather than integration into Europe.

It is also not the case that tolerance and liberal social values are uniquely European or western values. This tolerance, whether towards LGBT citizens, members of religious minorities or other groups, is often very tenuous, even in those societies that most actively seek to promote these values globally. To see this one has to look no further than the spate of American presidential candidates who oppose full equality for LGBT citizens, the rise of anti-Semitism in many European countries or problems of racism in the US and anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe. This suggests that Georgia’s path to tolerance may be as difficult as that in most of the west, and may need its own storyline, leaders and heroes.

Georgia’s western aspirations have defined modern Georgia and often played a very constructive role in Georgia’s development. However, a macro-political approach that insists that membership in the EU and NATO is inevitable and will happen soon is dishonest, and ultimately destructive for Georgia, regardless of the party making that assertion. The corollary to that assertion, that diverting from that program in any way is doing the bidding of Russia is also dangerous and false. That assertion limits Georgia to pursuing a political path, that as time goes by, seems increasingly difficult, while ruling out exploring different options that, in the long run, are good for Georgia and do not preclude Georgia eventually making it into the EU. In other words, if the Georgian political elite continues to frame the debate as joining the west or capitulating to Russia, in one form or another, the latter will slowly begin to gain appeal. This is not because Georgian people want to give in to Russia, but if they are told it is either that or continued pursuit of what many believe to be impossible, Russia may begin to look more attractive. The central irony here is that the best way to weaken Russian influence in Georgia, therefore, may be not to make never-ending pledges of western aspirations, but to explore other futures for Georgia that do not center around either Moscow or Brussels.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email