In the article "Keeping An Eye on Canaries in the Coal Mine" published last year, I offered readers a system of indicators designed to better analyze Georgia's foreign policy positions. The article provided a list of key directions and projects which, in essence, determine Georgia's place in the region and the world. These directions and projects were broken down into two groups. The issues falling under the first group, "what must be continued," were those that served the advancement of our national interests. The second group, "what must not be done," contained the "red lines" which were deemed unacceptable to cross. The indicators were compared to those canaries in a coal mine that warned miners about imminent danger by stopping singing. Almost a year has passed since the article was written and the time has come to look at the canaries to better understand where we stand now, one year after the new political force came to power.
To summarize briefly, in the majority of directions, Georgia has failed to keep up the tempo of advancement it had had in previous years. We have witnessed stagnation in some projects and regress in others. Georgia's foreign policy has lost the dynamism of the previous years. Coordination among government agencies has weakened, especially when it comes to projects with economic and financial components. The activity of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has mainly been retroactive, rather than proactive; it has constantly had to come up with explanations for controversial, ambiguous and often scandalous statements made by the political leaders. The centralization of decision making, both at the government level as well as within the ministry caused problems in timeliness, effectiveness, and initiative. Irresponsible political rhetoric, such as dubbing the reforms acknowledged as exemplary by respected international organizations as "sheer lies and window dressing," largely damaged the country's reputation. The worst single blow to Georgia's standing, however, was delivered by the prime minister's statement about the Eurasian Union.
To analyze specific directions, let's now go back to our canaries. One year later, we find them worryingly silenced.
What Must Be Continued
"Rapprochement with the European Union – Negotiations must be completed on the following agreements: (1) EU-Georgia Association Agreement; (2) Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement; (3) Visa Liberalization Agreement. All three objectives were expected to be met in 2013."
Performance: Negotiations on points (1) and (2) have been finalized, however, the level of agreement has been downgraded. While last year's plan was to sign the Association Agreement, currently we only expect that agreement to be initialized. That the work on the action plan for visa liberalization (VLAP) will not be completed this year is already clear – the first interim report is not going to be published until November.
"NATO integration – (1) Annual action plan must be fulfilled; since 2008, Georgia has successfully fulfilled four action plans; (2) The high level and frequency of the NATO-Georgia Commission sessions must be maintained; (3) The practice of holding sessions of the Atlantic Council in Tbilisi must be kept up; (4) Frequency of visits of the NATO Secretary General to Georgia must be maintained; (5) The level and frequency of visits of the NATO Military Commission to Georgia must be maintained. Unfortunately, the scheduled November visit of the NATO Military Commission to Georgia has been postponed."
Performance: The implementation of the annual national plan will be evaluated at the end of this year; the events under points (2) through (4) were conducted as scheduled, which is a welcome fact; (5) the visit of the NATO Military Commission to Georgia, which was initially scheduled for November 2012 but was postponed due to the arrest of the then Chief of Joint Staff of Armed Forces of Georgia, General Kalandadze, has not materialized.
"Strategic Partnership with the United States – The high level and frequency of meetings of all four working groups of the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership and the summary annual session must be maintained. Agreements achieved in the defense area must be implemented. High-level dialogue launched on free trade must be continued and developed into negotiation on a Free Trade Agreement."
The activity of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has mainly been retroactive, rather than proactive; it has constantly had to come up with explanations for controversial, ambiguous and often scandalous statements made by the political leaders.
Performance: Of the four working groups, only two held meetings in 2013. A decision on conducting a summary meeting (a so-called omnibus) on the level of foreign ministers (or the prime minister from the Georgian side) has not yet been taken. The high-level dialogue launched on free trade between the U.S. and Georgia's President in 2012, has seen no continuation; nor have any agreements been implemented in the sphere of defense.
"Non-recognition policy towards occupied territories – (1) Proactive multi-dimensional diplomacy must be continued, especially in Africa, Latin America, Caribbean and South Pacific, involving bilateral political consultations, visits, cooperation in humanitarian, cultural and educational fields; (2) the process of establishing diplomatic ties with UN member states must be completed – there are fifteen countries left."
Performance: (1) the process of the non-recognition of the occupied territories of Georgia is still frozen; even though important visits took place to South America, South-Eastern Asia and the Pacific forum, there is no ground for complacency. Although some initiatives of the previous government are thus far still bearing fruit, no single new project has been launched in the humanitarian, cultural or educational fields. To make things worse, several ongoing projects have been stopped and several important visits cancelled. The parliament intends to consider a draft law on complicating the visa regime with a number of Asian, African and Caribbean countries. If Georgia fails to launch new humanitarian, cultural and educational projects and, at the same time, introduces visa restrictions on countries in these regions, this will undermine our positions in terms of the non-recognition policy. (2) Diplomatic ties were established with four more countries, though this process has not been completed – there are still eleven more countries with which we have not established diplomatic ties.
"Geneva talks – The immediate objective is to have Russia assume the obligation on non-use of force. Owing to Georgia's efforts, Russia, for the first time ever, in October declared its consent to work on the document for the non-use of force. The Geneva talks represent the only negotiation format with Russia that is based on international and impartial mediation as well as on clear and fair rules of the game."
Performance: No headway has been observed on the issue of the non-use of force by Russia. Time and again, Georgian high officials make statements belittling the importance of the Geneva format; statements such as: "If Geneva proves unsuccessful, this format may be revised." I will let readers judge for themselves whether it is plausible to expect a better format than the Geneva talks that involves three participants – the United States, Russia and Georgia – and three mediators – the UN, the OSCE and the European Union.
"European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) – The EUMM must be maintained and supported. This mission is the only mechanism for implementing the six-point ceasefire agreement signed by Georgia and Russia. EUMM is an effective and principled partner in demanding that Russian military forces be withdrawn from Georgia and in unswervingly defending our territorial integrity."
Performance: The EUMM is being maintained, however, its statements have been fewer in number and less straightforward in substance. We may assume that this is caused by the dubious policies the Georgian government has towards Russia and the occupied territories.
"Establishment of the term "occupation" – The question here is, how many more states and international organizations will line up with those who have adopted resolutions on Russia's occupation of Georgian territories? Currently there are five states – Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, United Kingdom, and the United States, and seven international organizations – Baltic Assembly, Community of Democracies, European Parliament, Francophone Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Unfortunately, the term "occupation" is absent from the new government's program which was adopted by the Parliament on 24 October."
Performance: Zero progress. The list has not been extended to include a single "new" state or international organization using the term "occupation." This lamentable result may also reasonably be attributed to the ambiguous attitude of the Georgian government towards Russia.
"UN Resolution – Support for the General Assembly Resolution on the Status of Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees from Abkhazia, Georgia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Georgia has to be further strengthened. The resolution recognizes the right of IDPs to return "to their homes throughout Georgia, including in Abkhazia and South Ossetia." Russia wants the resolution to be dropped from the agenda of the UN General Assembly, claiming that it is an "impediment" to the Geneva process. It has been five years now that Russia has been fighting against the resolution and it has lost the vote every year with an increasingly larger margin."
Performance: The number of supporters of this resolution increased by two. Against the backdrop of the weakened activities of the Foreign Ministry, the efforts of the Georgian Permanent Mission to the UN alone proved insufficient to achieve a better result.
"Status-neutral travel document (STND) – Success of this crucial element of the Engagement Strategy is determined by its attractiveness, which in turn will be shaped by how many more states will recognize the document. Currently, there are nine states that do recognize the STND: Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and the United States."
Performance: Zero progress. The Georgian government put the Engagement Strategy and its Action Plan on the shelf and, consequently, rejected the status-neutral travel document as a crucial element of this concept.
"Access of Georgian products to the Russian market – By joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), Russia assumed the obligation of allowing Georgian products to its market. Russia will not be able to apply a politically motivated trade embargo any more. In return for its WTO membership, Russia signed an agreement that recognizes Georgia within its internationally recognized borders."
Performance: Russia has allowed some Georgian wines, mineral waters, fruits and vegetables to enter its market, which must be considered a positive result. At the same time, the partial lifting of embargo must be seen in the broader context of our bilateral relations with the northern neighbor. Russia continues to take aggressive and humiliating steps against Georgia (moving the occupation line deeper into Georgian-controlled territory, and choosing a military pilot, Ivan Nechaev, who bombed populated areas in the 2008 war, to be a torchbearer in the Winter Olympics torch relay), thereby making Georgian exports hostage to Georgia's reaction to these steps. "Should you utter a complaint, the exports will be banned just as quickly as they were allowed" – is how the Russian warning sounds. Proof of this can be seen in both the 9 October decision of Russia's sanitary service to deny several Georgian winemakers entry to the Russian market and the 14 October statement on the "threat" that the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi ostensibly poses to Russia. Despite its WTO membership, Russia has not given up its practice of using trade restrictions as a political tool, whilst the WTO has proved to lack mechanisms to influence its new member.
Tbilisi has not recognized Russia as a mediator, but has repeatedly offered a "direct dialogue" to Tskhinvali and Sokhumi. Such a "direct dialogue" precisely fits into Russia's narrative, according to which the conflict exists between Tbilisi, Sokhumi and Tskhinvali and not between Georgia and Russia.
What Must Not Be Done
"Abolition of the Law on Occupation – This Law serves as a serious legal leverage against Russia's efforts, as well as a potent mechanism against those persons, companies or countries which intentionally violate our territorial integrity. The Law is flexible enough, allowing for tactical maneuvering. Abolition of the Law would be used by Russia to de-legitimize the term 'occupation'."
Performance: The law has not been abolished, but has been significantly eased. Under the amendment to the law, illegal entry of the occupied territories will be punished by a fine alone, which is a step towards the delegitimization of the concept of occupation.
"Recognition of Russia as a "mediator" and Tskhinvali and Sokhumi as "parties" to the conflicts – This step would undermine the notion of "occupation" and, consequently, would render the demand for de-occupation illegitimate. Russia is an occupying power that illegally keeps its military forces on the territory of Georgia and exercises an effective control over the occupied regions. Consequently, neither can Russia now be a "mediator" nor can Tskhinvali and Sokhumi now be "parties" to the conflicts. Those notions are mutually incompatible."
Performance: Tbilisi has not recognized Russia as a mediator, but has repeatedly offered a "direct dialogue" to Tskhinvali and Sokhumi. Such a "direct dialogue" precisely fits into Russia's narrative, according to which the conflict exists between Tbilisi, Sokhumi and Tskhinvali and not between Georgia and Russia. As a result, the concept of occupation has been politically weakened.
"Abolition or revision of the Engagement Strategy and its Action Plan – Either abolition or revision would be perceived as a change of course and as de-legitimization of the notion of 'occupation'."
Performance: As noted above, the Georgian government has altogether rejected this strategic document, which had been developed with the involvement of European experts and was endorsed by the EU, and has failed to replace it with anything worth mentioning. As a result, Georgia is left without any strategy and action plan in the extremely important issue.
"Accession to the Eurasian institutions – Russia has spared no effort to lure its neighbors into Eurasian customs, economic and political unions. Very few neighbors have been lured and Georgia must never be among them."
Performance: The prime minister's verbal crossing of this red line must be deemed as the most damaging act of the year in terms of the country's foreign policy. The prime minister has repeatedly declared that he does not exclude Georgia's accession to the Eurasian Union. These statements landed like a bombshell in both Georgia and among our allies. In the weeks that followed, the Foreign Ministry had to repel numerous telephone calls from our concerned partners in Europe. Because of the negative reaction from society and the political opposition, the prime minister's idea has not seen any practical continuation yet, but it has already inflicted both political and diplomatic damage on the country. The President of Lithuania, one of the most consistent supporters of Georgia, recently stated that the EU would fight for Ukraine and Moldova, while Georgia should first figure out where it is heading – towards the EU or the Eurasian Union.
"Transit of Russian military cargoes – Georgia does not allow the transit of Russian military cargoes through its territory. Allowing such cargoes across the Georgian territory in any direction would inflict irreparable damage to our strategic interests in the region."
Performance: This red line has been crossed here too. Last April, during a visit to Armenia, the prime minister informed his Armenian colleague about "Georgia's readiness" to reopen the Georgian (Abkhazian) section of the Moscow-Yerevan railway. Later on, the Secretary of the Armenian National Security Council said that the agreement on this issue "has in fact been achieved," a claim the Georgian government has failed to repudiate. At this stage, it is impossible to find out how far this process has gone, though Georgia's interests have already been damaged.
Two more indicators in which Georgia held a strong position until October 2012 can be added to the above list: participation in regional transit and energy projects and relations with neighbors. In a move that has raised concerns in both Azerbaijan and Turkey, Georgia has virtually suspended work on the construction of the Akhalkalaki-Kars railway. The promise to Armenia to reopen the Abkhaz section of the railway has angered Azerbaijan, souring our bilateral relations; whilst undelivered promises have increasingly irritated Armenia. Due to ill-advised diplomatic and political moves, relations also deteriorated with Iran and Belarus. It is difficult to overestimate the level of political risks, as well as the expected economic losses, the deterioration of these relations may cause to us.
The weakening of Georgia's international standings is obvious. Stagnation and regress are observed in many areas, including in some strategic directions. The instruments of legal and political pressure on the Russian occupation have weakened.
The above analysis clearly shows that the reasons for this slowdown or regress should be sought in political reasoning, institutional arrangements, financial decisions and management, rather than in the effectiveness of our diplomatic corps. Yet, it should be noted that the situation is not hopeless. An absolute majority of our diplomats are still ready to serve their country in a competent and responsible manner. To reverse the negative trend, it is necessary to undertake an objective analysis of the past period and develop an effective action plan. The foreign policy goals of Georgia – European and Euro-Atlantic integration – are still attainable.
We will continue to keep a close watch on the canaries hoping that they have been silenced only temporarily and not forever.