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Is Georgia victim of hypocrisy?

By Tim Ogden
Wednesday, October 28
A recent poll conducted by the NDI showed a slight increase in support in Georgia for closer political and economic ties with the Russian Federation. Nostalgia for Muscovite influence is nothing new, though it is usually only to be found amongst older generations; doubtless the Soviet Union with its social security and guarantees of employment and housing in exchange for individual liberty seemed attractive with hindsight during the struggles of the 1990s, and perhaps still do with the uncertain nature of Georgia's future today.

It is not difficult to see why Georgians are becoming apathetic and sceptical towards the European Union. Georgia has made staggering strides since 2003. Police corruption has been all but eliminated, and the streets of Georgian cities are arguably safer than those of many European capitals. Its military has gone from being an ill-disciplined and badly-equipped militia to a professional fighting force that has displayed a skill equal to that of European and American troops. Its infrastructure continues to improve, attracting foreign tourists, students and substantial investments.

No other former Soviet state which remains outside the EU has achieved anywhere near the same progress. Moldova, for instance, continues to suffer from problems which have not afflicted Georgia for over a decade. Political and police corruption are rife; a total of $1.5 billion went missing from three separate state-owned Moldovan banks in September of this year, leading to mass protests in Chisinau. Millions of dollars' worth of aid from the United States and Europe has not resulted in any visible progress, and the common belief that the money has been seized by corrupt government officials is unlikely to be founded completely in rumours. Organised crime continues to ravage Moldova, with the trafficking of young women into forced prostitution remaining a serious problem; the country is also frequently used a route into Europe for the smuggling of drugs.

Yet perplexingly, Moldovan citizens are allowed to travel anywhere within the Schengen Zone. This bafflingly hypocritical decision made by the European Union only serves to question the wisdom and competence of those in charge, and sow reasonable doubt amongst Georgians as to the EU's sincerity. In addition, as one example of a disastrous consequence of this policy, Moldova's visa-free regime with most of the EU has only made the lives of people smugglers easier, since they no longer need worry about arranging false documentation for trafficking illegals; since their victims no longer need visas, they are no longer illegal migrants.

Georgia is frequently assured by the EU that it will be granted a visa-free regime (and later membership) once it has attained 'European standards'; exactly what these standards are or what they apply to remains unclear. It would be interesting to hear the answer of EU officials if they were asked in what ways Moldova has succeeded in achieving 'European standards' while Georgia has failed.

The truth behind the EU's barely-concealed reluctance to admit Georgia into the Union has nothing to do with standards of any kind. It is simply a product of realpolitik, a policy which a politician might describe as prudent but anyone else would simply call cowardly and dishonest. The EU, like NATO, is proving itself to be cumbersome and divided; no consensus has been reached over the ongoing refugee crisis, and the popularity of political parties such as Nigel Farage's UKIP in Britain or Marine La Pen's Front National in France show that the Union is becoming increasingly unpopular in its home territories.

Admitting Georgia into the Union would greatly anger Russia (with Moscow's hostile foreign policies towards the Baltic States as rather conclusive proof), something which the EU is very unwilling to do, as shown by its limited responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Of course, the EU is heavily reliant on Russian natural resources, and any unpleasant political tension could result in the withholding of Russia's gas supplies.

Granting Tbilisi a visa-free regime with Europe would also damage the arguments of those opposed to the membership of Turkey. Chancellor Merkel is particularly against Turkey's accession to the Union, due to Germany's sizeable existent Turkish-born population which now numbers roughly three million people; other European leaders (former French President Sarkozy among them) have also expressed concern over admitting Turkey into the Union, citing the inability or reluctance of the growing Islamic communities in Europe to integrate with European society. It is interesting that the cultural issues over allowing a Muslim-majority nation into the EU dominate the debate, while less attention is paid towards Turkey's continued hostility towards Cyprus or its human rights record.

However, if Georgia was granted a visa-free membership plan with the EU, it would not be politically unreasonable for Turkey to demand the same treatment. As well as a large economy, Turkey commands the second largest military force in NATO behind the United States, as well as a convenient route into Asia (a current point of promotion for Georgia by the current state leadership); its geographical location also makes it a strategic asset.

Yet support for the EU in Turkey has waned due to the decades of half-hearted EU responses over the issues of a visa-liberation plan or outright membership. Georgia's need for international partners is infinitely greater than Turkey's, and Georgian culture is far more compatible with its European counterparts, but if the EU continues to neglect Georgia and leave its progress unrewarded, one can hardly blame Georgians for turning back towards Russia, if only for economic reasons.

The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are frequently cited by the EU as being obstacles in the way of any visa-liberation process. However, the Russian-backed separatist state of Transnistria seceded from Moldova in similarly violent circumstances to Abkhazia's break from Georgia in the early 1990s, yet this has not stopped the EU from granting Moldovan citizens a visa-free regime. Doubtless Russia's greater interest in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has contributed to the EU's treatment of Georgia, but if the Union wishes to survive and be taken seriously as a political body, this type of diplomatic hypocrisy must be immediately abandoned.