Mar 21, 2022

Georgia’s Fate Will Be Decided in Kyiv

Do Europe and the United States want to abandon the small country in the Caucasus to Putin’s nihilism?

Demonstrators hold a Ukrainian flag during an anti-war rally in front the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 7, 2022.
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A good three hours’ flight east of Berlin, the pledge of US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to defend “every inch” of NATO territory (should Russia force their hand) sounds far less forceful than intended. Anyone who talks to Georgians in their capitol city Tbilisi these days will sense disappointment, concern, and plain fear. Does NATO want to defend its territory, or “does it also want to defend every inch of its promises?," asks Batu Kutelia, one of Georgia's leading security policy experts.  Is NATO standing up just for its members or for its commitment? Especially for its vow made at the 2008 NATO Summit  that Ukraine and Georgia would, eventually, be allowed to join NATO?

Everyone in Tbilisi senses that Georgia's fate will be decided in Kyiv and on the battlefields of Ukraine. Should Ukraine fall to Russia, an eventuality that virtually all interlocutors fear, Georgia will be next. Then the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, occupied by Russia since 2008, will be "recognized" by Moscow and then the whole country will be swallowed up—as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's neo-imperial campaign, with the completion of his assault on Georgia's independence.

German Soul-Searching

Yes, Germany's belated self-criticism about its all-too-cozy relationship with Putin is welcome in Tbilisi. Yes, words of regret are noticed in Georgia, such as the remarks by the chairman of the ruling Social Democrats, Lars Klingbeil, who recalled "the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the contract killings in Berlin" and said that "from today's perspective," Germany “should have assessed the developments in Russia differently earlier.” And most certainly, Chancellor Scholz’ announcement of drastically increased defense spending was greeted with relief.

But the question asked in the cafes and offices along Tbilisi's magnificent Rustaveli Boulevard is this: What follows for Georgia from all that German soul-searching and all that self-correction when it was—above all—Germany that put off Georgia’s NATO membership until some vague future date and thus sparked Putin's imperial appetite? Will Germany at long last vigorously promote Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration swiftly instead of hesitantly? Or will the Germans at some point complain again, in the next stage of their soul- searching, that a new Iron Curtain has descended, only on the wrong side of a Georgia striving for Euro-Atlantic integration? Will the Germans then say yet again: Unfortunately, we reacted too slowly?

In an emergency operation after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and as a result of mass demonstrations in Tbilisi, Georgia (together with Moldova and Ukraine) has applied for membership of the European Union. This surprise petition comes from a government that is otherwise extremely careful not to irritate its overpowering neighbor. It is walking a fine line of appeasing Russia and advancing Euro-Atlantic integration at the same time. Part of the Georgian balancing act is the government’s attempt to join the EU without supporting the EU sanctions against Russia, "in order not to further damage our country and its population," as Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili put it. It is likely that his words reflected an assumption of a Russian victory on the battlefield. In the meantime, Georgia is at least trying not to hand the country over to Russian sanctions breakers and money launderers.

Urgency of Wartime

No one could claim that Georgia is already a stable Western-style democracy. Corruption is significant, the government has too much control over the judiciary, and elections do not meet all requirements of fairness quite yet. The conditions for admission to Western institutions have not been fulfilled, neither for NATO nor for the European Union. The same, by and large, is true for Moldova and Ukraine.

Therefore, Western institutions customarily advise aspiring members to do their homework first and then see what can follow from best-in-class behavior. But what to do with such long-term advice when Russian armies are marching through Europe right now, reducing parts of Ukraine to ruins and ashes, and issuing wild threats against countries in the post-Soviet space? To committed pro-Westerners like Nino Evgenidze, executive director of the Economic Policy Research Center in Tbilisi, it "sounds like mockery" when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declares “Ukraine belongs to us," while at the same time ruling out any shortcut on the road to membership. British historian Timothy Garton Ash has described this as a clash of "a peacetime bureaucratic process" with "a wartime existential struggle."

This gap must be closed, and quickly. To resist Russian pressure and to integrate further with Western institutions must be seen as worthwhile for all three aspiring countries. Under the pressure of war, Europe and the United States need to put aside the bureaucratic toolbox for the time being and invent something new and appropriate to the gravity of the situation.

As the guns roar, it cannot be a matter of working through administrative to-do lists with hundreds of boxes to check. Nor can it be a matter of entrusting two dozen parliaments and a couple of complete populations of nation states with votes on the ratification of accession treaties. This is a geo-political, not a bureaucratic moment. Something simple, maybe less binding under international law, and at the same time more than just declamatory, is needed to do justice to this extraordinary moment. For all three aspirant countries, a formal declaration of a European future with the commitment to a junior membership might be what is possible quickly. For Ukraine, it could be linked to a Euro-Atlantic commitment to help rebuild a free and Putin-free Ukraine. It is now essential not to stall these three countries, but to give them what they so desperately need: Hope.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is Vice President and Executive Director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS)

Anna Kuchenbecker is Senior Director for Strategic Partnerships at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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