Ms. Tamari Bibichadze is a member of the non-governmental organization YATA Georgia, one of the most important civil society platforms in the Republic of Georgia.
K.P.: How did the Russian invasion in Ukraine influence Georgian political life?
T.B.: The Russia-Ukraine war has had a significant impact on Georgia, and it is unsurprising that a large portion of society views the war’s outcomes as a turning point for Georgia’s future. The current polarization within the country has had a severe impact on Georgia’s foreign policy objectives and internal political situation, hindering the establishment of unified positions. Following the aggression by Russia, it is crucial to promptly identify opportunities and risks and address these issues rationally within Georgia.
First and foremost, it should be acknowledged that the Russia-Ukraine war has created a framework of opportunities that Ukraine and Moldova, two members of the associated trio, have successfully capitalized on. They have been granted candidate status while Georgia, despite demonstrating fairly positive indicators, was denied due to its internal political situation. This situation appears to foster a trend of growing “distance” from Europe, manifested in the country’s increasingly significant engagement with Russia. For instance, the visa regime with Russia was lifted on May 15, and in 2022, Russia became one of Georgia’s top trade partners, ranking in the top three for trade turnover in terms of both exports and imports. Concurrently, the number of Russian migrants has risen, with approximately 1.5 million crossing the border, resulting in over 2 billion GEL entering Georgia’s budget. Additionally, around 17,000 companies registered by Russians are operating in Georgia, with over 5,000 new businesses registered in the first three months of 2023 alone. Naturally, these developments increase risks, particularly the primary peril of pursuing an independent national policy. As dependence on Russia grows, the country becomes increasingly vulnerable to foreign political threats. Prime Minister Gharibashvili emphasized at the Qatar Economic Forum that severing economic ties with Russia would have catastrophic consequences for the country.
On the other hand, the Russia-Ukraine war has had a significant impact on Georgia’s domestic political landscape. An unprecedentedly high percentage of the Georgian population, 82%, supports Georgia’s accession to the European Union, with many believing that the government is not doing enough to achieve this goal. Recently, negative sentiment toward the ruling party has increased, despite their active pursuit of double-digit economic growth.
The Russia-Ukraine war has rekindled painful memories of the 2008 war and sparked concerns about the future among segments of society. Consequently, the ruling party has begun manipulating the discourse around peace. They assert that the West aims to open a second front in Georgia and argue for maintaining peace and stability. They have also called for sanctions. Prime Minister Gharibashvili, for example, deems it unreasonable to urge partners to cease trade, economic activities, and flights with Russia, citing the fact that the European Union engages in trade with Russia. However, the current situation does not align with this claim, as the European Union reduced its foreign trade with Russia by 64.4% in the first quarter of 2023. The war has also accentuated the preexisting democratic issues in Georgia, leading to several intense situations. One notable example is the Law on Foreign Agents, commonly known among a large portion of the Georgian population as the “Russian Law.” Its attempted adoption sparked significant protests and resulted in clashes between law enforcement agencies and civilians.
The most prominent development has been the strong support from the majority of society for Ukraine. Young people, especially Gen-Z, have become active participants and played a crucial role in opposing the Russian law. Georgia faces significant challenges, ranging from its distancing from the West to the growing dependence on Russia. However, the unity of the population and the activism of the youth provide hope for positive changes. It is also worth mentioning the President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, who recently made commendable moves by pardoning Nika Gvaramia, the director of the “Mtavari Channel” and a prominent opposition journalist.
K.P.:What are the perspectives of Georgian -EU and Georgia-NATO relations?
T.B.: The Russia-Ukraine war has underscored the urgent need for European integration in Georgia. It serves as a reminder to Europe that the 2008 war was not an isolated incident, and Russia has shown a willingness to invade other states if given the opportunity. Consequently, the security concerns of Eastern European countries have become increasingly important for EU member states. Georgia perceives the European Union as its main partner in addressing security problems and advancing democratic and economic reforms, as demonstrated by the overwhelming support of 82% of the country’s population. In addition to the security aspects, Georgia recognizes the potential economic benefits and opportunities that closer integration with the European Union brings. Access to larger markets, foreign investment, and technological advancements are among the key drivers for seeking stronger economic ties with the EU.
The Russia-Ukraine war has also highlighted the importance of reconciliation and peace-building efforts in Georgia. The unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia exerts decisive influence, present significant challenges. Georgia has actively pursued reconciliation, fostering dialogue, and seeking peaceful solutions to these conflicts. Furthermore, Georgia places great emphasis on security cooperation with NATO. While the issue of NATO membership lies in the relatively distant future, there is a growing sense of urgency to pursue it. Joining NATO would not only enhance Georgia’s defense capabilities but also deepen cooperation in areas such as defense reforms, military training, and interoperability.
However, the presence of Russian military bases in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia poses a significant obstacle to Georgia’s path to NATO membership. According to NATO procedures, a country is typically accepted if it has no territorial disputes. Resolving these conflicts and achieving territorial integrity are vital steps for Georgia’s NATO aspirations.
To further strengthen its position, Georgia engages in diplomatic efforts with both the EU and NATO. These include high-level visits, diplomatic negotiations, and active participation in multilateral forums. By actively seeking diplomatic engagement, Georgia aims to enhance its relationship with these institutions and solidify its commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Lastly, public perception and awareness play a crucial role in Georgia’s integration efforts. Building public awareness and understanding fosters support for these integration processes and ensures the alignment of public opinion with the country’s strategic objectives. Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the imperative for Georgia to pursue European integration, focusing on security cooperation with the EU and NATO. The unresolved conflicts and the presence of Russian military bases pose challenges, but Georgia remains committed to reconciliation efforts and the pursuit of its territorial integrity.
K.P.: Civil society in Georgia plays an important part in the Europeanization and democratization of Georgia. What can be done by the EU/West to help this process? Can Georgian civil society be a model for the region?
T.B.: Civil society in Georgia plays a vital role in the process of Europeanization and democratization of the country. It is a key driving force that compels the government to make decisions that benefit the nation. For instance, following the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, Georgia swiftly rallied in support of Ukraine, with society uniting and holding demonstrations. This solidarity was accompanied by unprecedented humanitarian aid, and Georgian volunteers even traveled to Ukraine to fight alongside them. A significant portion of Georgian society considers the war in Ukraine as their own.
Another achievement of civil society is the thwarting of the law on foreign agents. During critical moments, civil society consistently assumes a pivotal stance for the country. Over the past two years, they have achieved noteworthy successes, both small and large. To further strengthen civil society and safeguard them against undue pressure, the EU can provide financial and technical assistance. This assistance may encompass training courses, various programs, workshops, and mentoring initiatives aimed at enhancing their organizational and advocacy skills. Moreover, increased funding opportunities and grants from the European Union would enable Georgian civil organizations to effectively carry out their activities.
Facilitating information and knowledge exchange between Georgian civil society actors and their counterparts in the EU and other countries is crucial. This can be realized through study visits, conferences, and platforms that facilitate the sharing of best practices and experiences in promoting democracy and European values. Additionally, active engagement of the EU with civil society organizations in policy dialogue and decision-making processes, including regular consultations and involvement in formulating policies and reforms related to democratization, human rights, and European integration, is of utmost importance.
Regarding the civil society model of Georgia for the region, it should be acknowledged that Georgia has a long history of resilience against challenges. Despite being targeted by numerous empires in the past, the Georgian people have consistently demonstrated their resolve. Even today, civil society representatives effectively handle the challenges facing the country. Their continued activism will contribute to the achievement of desired goals. Georgia has made significant progress in developing an active and issue-oriented civil society, with civil organizations playing a crucial role in advocating democratic reforms, promoting human rights, and fostering social inclusion. The experiences, successes, and challenges of Georgian civil society can serve as valuable lessons for other countries in the region.
However, it is important to recognize that each country has its own unique context, and the development of civil society may vary. Economic reforms, for example, may have justified outcomes in some newly formed post-Soviet states while causing economic shocks in others. While successful mechanisms can be applied in a general context, it is essential to consider the uniqueness of each country’s historical examples.
In conclusion, by actively supporting Georgian civil society and fostering regional cooperation, the European Union and the West can contribute to the processes of Europeanization and democratization in Georgia. This collective effort has the potential to set a positive example for the region.
K.P.: What is the political and economic importance of the Black Sea for the Republic of Georgia in the 21 century?
T.B.: The Black Sea holds significant political and economic importance for Georgia. Firstly, it serves as a crucial link to the West, providing access to resources and opportunities. The Black Sea plays a vital role in Georgia’s economic development and international trade. It acts as a key transit corridor between Europe and Asia, facilitated by sea ports such as Batumi and Poti. These ports enable the transportation of various goods, including agricultural products, energy resources, and valuable commodities, contributing to Georgia’s economic growth and integration into global markets.
Additionally, the Black Sea grants Georgia access to major trade routes and markets, fostering trade flows and strengthening political-economic cooperation. Georgia becomes an important player in the region, connecting neighboring countries like Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, as well as other European countries and Asia. The Black Sea’s energy resources and infrastructure are also noteworthy. Georgia leverages its strategic location by actively participating in energy projects, ensuring energy security, and establishing itself as a reliable partner. The Black Sea region serves as a transit route for significant oil and gas pipelines, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline. These connections allow the Caspian Sea region to access international markets while bypassing Russia, reducing Georgia’s dependence on a single supplier and enhancing its energy security.
Moreover, Georgia capitalizes on the Black Sea’s tourism potential. The coastal areas have become popular tourist destinations, thanks to infrastructure development projects that have made them more accessible and appealing. With its picturesque coastline and rich cultural attractions, Georgia attracts visitors from both regional and international markets. Tourism plays a crucial role in the country’s economy, contributing to job creation, infrastructure development, and foreign currency inflows.
The strategic significance of the Black Sea cannot be overlooked. Its proximity to major geopolitical actors and its potential as a transit corridor make it a vital maritime border for Georgia’s national security. Stability and security in the Black Sea region are essential not only for Georgia’s overall security and stability but also for the broader Euro-Atlantic community.
In conclusion, the Black Sea holds considerable political and economic importance for Georgia. It enables trade connections, ensures energy security, unlocks tourism potential, and holds strategic significance in terms of security and geostrategy. The development and effective management of Black Sea resources, as well as partnerships with regional and international actors, remain key priorities for Georgia’s political and economic development.
K.P.: A couple of weeks ago, Russia and Georgia reopened the air routes. What is the significance? Is this a sign of a geopolitical shift in Georgian foreign policy objectives?
T.B.: The abolition of the visa regime between Russia and Georgia has raised legitimate concerns and sparked questions about potential negative geopolitical consequences. On one hand, this move suggests a shift in Georgia’s goals and previously stated positions, aligning with Russia’s “do not provoke” policy. However, a significant number of Georgian citizens believe that Georgia’s aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration remain unchanged and criticize the government for this step.
The Western orientation of Georgia and the aspirations of the majority of its people are clearly expressed in the Constitution of Georgia, Chapter Eleven, Article 78, which states that constitutional bodies must take all measures within their power to ensure Georgia’s full integration into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This provision serves as the driving force behind Georgia’s Western aspirations. In my view, the resumption of flights between Georgia and Russia can be seen as an implicit acceptance or normalization of the occupation, which contradicts our long-standing stance on territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Furthermore, this decision can be seen as a departure from Georgia’s broader foreign policy objectives, including the pursuit of European integration and NATO membership. However, the ruling party emphasizes the importance of economic opportunities and argues that prioritizing economic and tourism interests is crucial for the country’s development. Nonetheless, the ambiguity surrounding political principles and national security issues raises doubts about the consistency and stability of Georgia’s foreign policy.
Additionally, the decision to open air routes without clear progress on conflict resolution or significant concessions from Russia is concerning, as it indicates the potential for increased dependence on Russia.Moreover, there are questions about the impact on regional dynamics and the possibility of geopolitical realignment. It could be interpreted as Russia’s adaptive response to the developments in Ukraine or an opportunity for Russia to evade sanctions. The course of events at a similar pace will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the balance of power and Georgia’s relations with its Western partners.
In conclusion, the abolition of the visa regime between Russia and Georgia has elicited valid concerns and raised doubts about the potential negative consequences on Georgia’s foreign policy objectives. While some argue for the economic benefits, others view it as a departure from Georgia’s Western aspirations and a sign of increased dependence on Russia. The implications for regional dynamics and Georgia’s relations with its Western partners are subject to ongoing scrutiny and evaluation.
K.P.: In your opinion, what would be a solution to peacefully solve the separatist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
T.B.: In my opinion, one potential solution to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia issue would be to resolve the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which would create an opportunity for negotiations without the interference of a hostile third state. It is crucial to have sustained and inclusive dialogue involving all parties to the conflict. Additionally, considering the possibility of granting wide autonomy, similar to the existing autonomy in Adjara, could be discussed.
Restoring trust is of utmost importance as it will help create a favorable environment for negotiations. Impartial international actors such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or other regional organizations should play a significant role in facilitating a peaceful resolution.
Promoting economic development and addressing socio-economic disparities in the conflict-affected regions can contribute to stability and reconciliation. Initiatives focused on economic growth should be pursued. However, initiating dialogue between the parties is essential, emphasizing that the confrontation between Abkhazians, Ossetians, and their Georgian counterparts is rooted in Russian propaganda and distorted historical narratives.
In the long term, a comprehensive approach that addresses socio-economic and political aspects is necessary. Efforts should be directed towards reconciliation and reintegration. This includes promoting mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect among different ethnic and cultural groups. Resolving the territorial dispute will be possible when Russia refrains from interfering in the internal politics of the country.
K.P.: Romania and Georgia have similar historic backgrounds up to a point. How can the relations be improved? How can Romania help Georgia in its quest for EU membership?
T.B.: To begin with, I would like to highlight the exceptional historical and cultural background shared by Georgia and Romania, which serves as a solid foundation for enhancing close relations and cooperation between the two nations. Both Georgia and Romania have experienced challenging battles for independence, facing various empires that sought to exert control. The shared desire for independence has shaped their identities and contributed to their distinctive cultural heritage. Georgia and Romania find common ground in their values, traditions, and practices. Notably, Romania’s membership in the European Union and NATO holds significant value for Georgia in its pursuit of EU integration. Romania can act as a strategic partner, offering knowledge and support based on its successful integration journey. Drawing inspiration from Romania’s example, Georgia can chart its own course towards European integration, benefitting from Romania’s guidance and cooperation. To strengthen relations between Romania and Georgia and to support Georgia’s EU aspirations, several steps can be taken:
Firstly, it is crucial to enhance bilateral cooperation in various fields, including trade, investment, culture, education, and tourism. Facilitating more youth exchange programs and fostering educational initiatives will empower the society and contribute to Georgia’s development.
Secondly, knowledge sharing plays a vital role. Romania’s extensive experience can be shared with Georgia, encompassing technical assistance, training programs, and the exchange of best practices in areas such as governance, rule of law, economic reforms, and harmonization of legislation with EU standards.
Support in areas like democratic governance, human rights, judicial reform, and anti-corruption measures is also essential. As Georgia’s closest partner, Romania can demonstrate a meaningful gesture by advocating for and highlighting Georgia’s achievements in EU institutions and among its member states.
Furthermore, Romania and Georgia can enhance regional cooperation within frameworks such as the Eastern Partnership, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, or the Three Seas Initiative. Collaborating with other countries in the region can facilitate joint projects, infrastructure development, and economic integration, all of which will further advance Georgia’s European integration goals.
In summary, by deepening bilateral cooperation, sharing experiences, supporting reforms, advocating for Georgia’s EU aspirations, promoting regional cooperation, and facilitating cultural and educational exchanges, Romania can play a pivotal role in Georgia’s path towards EU accession.