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Reality is breaking out: is there actually no alternative to Georgia’s integration choice?

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Photo by news. am

The Georgian leaders keep surprising us with their extravagant – and at times even provocative – statements. Following Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s declaration that it was due to Georgians that WWII was ever won, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said that Russia could offer its neighbors no alternative to western integration.

This lunge would be left unnoticed where it not for one “if” – Margvelashvili’s words were followed by the results of a poll by the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), saying that over 1/3 of Georgians do not share their president’s opinion - for as many as 31% of them Georgia’s integration into the Eurasian Economic Union would be quite acceptable.

During a poll held in Aug 2014, only 20% of Georgians opted for the Eurasian Union, with 59% wishing to see Georgia as part of the EU. In Nov 2013, the figures were 11% and 68%, respectively. So, we see that the Georgians are gradually losing interest in the European project.

As compared with the Aug 2014 poll, the percentage of Georgians believing that their country is moving in the right direction has shrunk from 40% to 23%. As many as 48% see no changes at all.

What should be especially alarming for the Georgian leaders is that Europe is becoming less and less attractive for Georgians despite their decision to associate with the EU. The association and deep and comprehensive free trade area agreements were signed on June 27 2014 and took a temporary effect on Sept 1 2014 until the parliaments of all 28 EU member states ratify them. So, we see that just a year after the signing of the association agreement, more and more people in Georgia are moving away from the European project.

After the NDI’s poll, Margvelashvili’s attitude became more realistic. He stopped saying that Georgia had only one alternative. Instead, he began urging those believing in Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration to be more consolidated. In fact, it is strange to hear anti-Russian words from the current Georgian authorities as it was exactly the people’s wish to see relations with Russia improved that put them into power in the autumn 2012. Bidzina Ivanishvili noticed that wish and converted it into a slogan calling for improved relations with Russia. But today, four years after, Georgia seems to be going back to Saakashvili’s times.

We are not trying to whitewash Russia by demonizing the West - especially its European part - but we cannot but point out some elementary factors existing in the South Caucasus, in general, and in Georgia, in particular. Georgia has chosen one thing, Armenia the other. And for the Armenians the Eurasian test may prove even harder than for the Georgians the European one. In any case, no single post-Soviet regime can make hostility towards Russia a long-term policy in its country simply because sooner or later close economic, cultural, humanitarian and historical ties prevail at the “grassroots” level of the public opinion. And this is something those regimes cannot ignore, especially if they were advocates of good relations with Russia at the time of their highest popularity.

Since 2012, Georgia’s foreign policy has shifted towards solidarity with the West against “Russia’s imperial ambitions.” Georgia is not self-sufficient enough to be able to go its own way and to push its own interests. As the crisis in Ukraine developed, the western capitals began persuading Tbilisi into making a final foreign political choice. As a result, the current Georgian authorities are facing a dilemma: being pragmatic in its decision to improve ties with Moscow, they are forced to actively demonstrate their pro-western orientation.

Most of the Georgians do not care for what is going on in their Government. The NDI’s poll has shown that what they care for is to have jobs (66%) and what they are worried about is high prices (43%) and extreme poverty (39%). Since 2011, the anxiety about high prices has come to replace the fear for territorial integrity (just 27% in the last poll).

Russia is not the only nation that can help Georgia out of this situation but it is the first market that is ready to lend a hand to its southern neighbor.

Until Georgia’s association with the EU gives its first tangible results, we cannot say what consequences the country’s pro-western policy will have for it. But one thing is already clear: Euro-association will make Georgia’s industry non-competitive and will turn that country into a net importer.

After the “rose revolution” Georgia’s industry - especially, its mining sector - has been steadily on the decline. According to official statistics, in 2006-2012 industrial production in Georgia registered a certain growth (due mostly to alcohol and soft drinks), but today it can offer much less than local consumers need. As a result, the country is forced to import substitutes. In agriculture things are a little better but not good enough: though employing as many as 54% of all workers, this sector gives just 8% of all products. This is a clear sign of a crisis. And this is why 80% of Georgia’s food basket consists of imported products. Food industry in that country meets just 20% of domestic needs.

In Europe, Georgia will have the role of a consumer and a reseller. Over 20% of Georgia’s exports (or to be more precise, re-exports) are cars. In fact, that country has become a transit point for European vehicles exported to third states.

Today consumption in Georgia accounts for almost 90% of its GDP. This proves that Georgia is a consumer rather than a producer.

The priorities of the Georgian Dream government are to pull the country out of poverty by enlarging exports and to boost the competitiveness of own products. The question here is how Euro-association can help the Georgian authorities to do it if the gaps between production and consumption and imports and exports are steadily growing. Only agriculture has certain export capacities, but the rub here is that most of its products are exported to Russia. They in Europe do not need Georgian wines or juices. What they need is to turn the Georgian economy into a constant borrower and importer. Import-dependent, non-industrial, transit country – this is the “ideal” Georgia the Europeans would lover to see.

This situation could not be ignored by the Georgian public and is therefore reflected in the NDI’s survey. Being a US center, that Institute is the last to wish to devaluate Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic image. But reality is so eager to break out that even the best public opinion “engineers” in the United States cannot hold it back.

Today neither people nor leaders in Georgia need confrontation with Russia. Declarations about no alternative to the West or Russia’s inability to offer its neighbors effective integration schemes can give them only tactical dividends in the form of new foreign loans, but this policy can hardly give them welfare.

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