Today I come to you from beautiful Georgia (not the US-state). I want to take that chance to draw this little country into the spotlight but also apart from that, there are quite some good reasons to talk about this place on the edges of Europe a bit.
Earlier this month, Georgia had its parliamentary elections and the question of EU-visa liberalisation for the country’s citizens has entered its final stage in Brussels. But what else is there to say about it?
Georgia: a pro-Western democracy (?)
This would be the optimist’s description of Georgia. And on the surface this mainly holds true. The country is indeed amongst the most pro-Western states in Europe’s surrounding. In fact, in the Caucasus region it is by now the only country seriously on its way towards EU and NATO membership at all, a course backed by all major parties in parliament.
While this is of course still a distant option, the idea has strong backing in Georgia’s population. For a large part, this strong pro-Western leaning is also due to a heavily burdened relationship with Russia. Only eight years ago, Georgia went to war with its powerful neighbour (you can imagine how that went) and, as a result, has now all but lost its two breakaway regions Abkhazia and South-Ossetia.
But how about the “democracy” part of the statement above? I mentioned, Georgia had its parliamentary elections this month so they obviously do have free(ish) and fair(ish) elections. However, after the governing party “Georgian Dream” has won in a landslide with likely around 50% of the vote (there are no final results yet), the opposition was quick to call the election rigged. Also concerning independent media, Freedom House only ranked Georgia as “partly free” recently.
Nonetheless, ever since the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, that ousted then autocratic leader Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia has had a tradition of accepting changes of power and reforms concerning corruption and media plurality are at least underway.
Europe should not give away its chance
All in all, Europe should not give away its chance to embrace this strong pro-EU sentiment on its edges. With Armenia leaning ever more strongly towards Russia, and Turkey moving away from Europe by the day, Georgia is one of the few states in the region still on a Euro-Atlantic course. I have said many times that this soft power to influence countries is the EU’s single most powerful tool. We’d better use it and offer a credible European option.
To be clear, Georgia is still miles away from achieving the democratic, economic and social standards to join the EU. There is widespread corruption and strong homophobic sentiments in the population, to name only a few issues. However, the country is increasingly opening up and EU-Visa liberalisation is an important step in the right direction.
Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood is an unsafe place with an ever more aggressive Russia, an ascending Sultan Erdoğan, not to even mention neighbouring Syria. The EU should embrace every hint of progress it can get. Georgia is a damn good place to start.