What will Russia do to frustrate the signing of the Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union? Perhaps nothing: it has longer-term plans with regard to Georgia.
Why, then, was Russia so rigid in its attempts to thwart Ukraine’s signing of a similar agreement? What is the difference between Georgia and Ukraine?
First, Ukraine is more important for Russia. Second, Vladimir Putin knew full well what his deadline with Kiev was before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. If Ukraine signed an agreement on free trade with the EU, it would be able to gain access to a new market for its export-oriented economy. The economy of Ukraine is arranged in such a manner that it necessarily needs free trade, either with Russia or the EU. If Ukraine rearranges its economy so as to become oriented towards the EU market, this will finally free the country from its economic dependence on Russia and will open up the path towards eventual membership to the EU (and NATO). Russia will be left without effective leverage to stop this march.
The Georgian economy is not as heavily export-oriented as that of Ukraine. Free trade with the European Union is itself very good, but it will not structurally change the Georgian economy and will not tie Georgia to the EU once and for all. The same holds true for a visa-free travel regime – it is good, but does not mean ultimately tying the country to the EU. After the signing of the association agreement Russia will hold almost as many levers for blocking Georgia’s march towards Europe as it holds today.
What is the main, long-term lever that Russia will use against Georgia? Military levers unlikely – one can hardly expect the start of another war. Economic levers are also not likely because we proved to be able to carry on without the Russian market for eight years and will continue to be able to do so. The key lever here is public opinion.
The political spectrum that shapes public opinion is no longer clearly pro-Western. Pro-Russian groups are seen inside both the parliamentary majority and non-parliamentary opposition. They enjoy serious public support from those forces who do not yet dare to conduct open pro-Russian propaganda, but succeed in achieving the same goal by blasting the West and its values. These forces are becoming increasingly aggressive and their influence is constantly enhancing.
Who will stand up to that?
The pro-Western infrastructure, which seemed unshakable a mere two years ago, looks quite weak today: in parliament, it is confined to the minority of the parliamentary majority and the parliamentary minority’s absolute majority; just one or two TV channels in the media; a few non-governmental organizations in the civil sector; and the young bureaucrats and law enforcement officers in the state administration. These are those who will fight for Georgia’s Western choice to the end.
Almost every component of the pro-Western infrastructure is endangered. The government applies all possible methods, both acceptable and unacceptable, against the parliamentary minority. In the event of the minority being destroyed or sufficiently weakened, it will then become the turn of the parliamentary majority’s minority. The “honeymoon” between the new government and non-governmental organizations has ended and they have failed as yet to outline their orientations; news agencies that perfectly combine government propaganda with reactionary ideas are mushrooming; and the Georgian government boasts about sorting out relations with Russia.
It is a paradox, but fearing another Ukrainian or Armenian scenario, the European Union does not dare stop these negative tendencies. Russia, however, is intensifying its activity – the visit of the Russian Patriarch to Georgia this spring will be the first serious step in this regard.
In a situation where the pro-Western infrastructure is increasingly weakened and pro-Russian propaganda is strengthening, the question thus naturally arises: why should Russia hurry?