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27.03.15 - 02.04.15

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Georgia’s Anti-Western Voices Growing Louder

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Georgia is not wavering from its NATO-Atlantic path. Despite the November 2014 sacking of pro-Western Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and subsequent resignation of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, the country’s leadership remains fully committed to NATO and European Union membership. Georgia is currently in the process of implementing the Association Agreement signed with the EU last year, and is set to open a NATO training center in Tbilisi in 2015. The facility will be the first NATO facility to open in a non-member state.

Despite media rumblings to the contrary, the Georgian Dream coalition isn’t reorienting the country’s foreign policy away from its Western partners. But that doesn’t mean all is rosy. Elite and popular attitudes toward the West, especially NATO, are noticeably less sanguine than they were just two years ago. While 59 percent of Georgians still support the country’s membership in the EU, a small but growing number are coming out in favor of the Eurasian Union. According to the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Research Resource Centers, 20 percent of Georgians reported favoring their country’s membership in the Eurasian Union, up from 16 percent in 2013 and 11 percent in 2012.

These popular sentiments are being voiced by a growing number of political groups. Nino Burjanadze, a member of the non-parliamentary opposition Democratic Movement—United Georgia Party, captured headlines earlier this month by making incendiary remarks regarding America’s treatment of Georgia. Her vitriol was spurred by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s decision to invite former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to testify at a hearing titled “Russian Aggression in Eastern Europe” (the US government has refused to extradite Saakashvili, who is a wanted criminal in Georgia). Expressing indignation at America’s apparent disregard for Georgian interests, Burjanadze said the following: “I want to assure you that if this situation does not change, the stance of the Georgian people toward the United States will soon be heading in a negative direction.”

Burjanadze is on the outside looking in regarding the Georgian political establishment. She has also long been known for skepticism toward NATO-Atlanticism. But she isn’t the only one. Members of Industry Will Save Georgia, a group of six parliamentarians in the Georgian Dream coalition, recently voiced similar opinions. Member Gogi Topadze recently told reporters that, “We must maintain neutrality and not be dependent on NATO or Russia.” Zurab Ikemaladze, also of the Industrialists, went even further: “If the Eurasian Union is better, we may say no to Europe.”

None of this is cause for alarm, but it is cause for concern. Long taken for granted as unblinking devotees of the Euro-Atlantic cause, fewer Georgians now view the West through rose-tinted glasses. NATO members appear to be concerned foremost with their own national interests, and committed to the security of peripheral states only when those interests overlap.

Western tepidness in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine hasn’t helped; neither have recent statements made by French President Francois Hollande. “France’s position for the moment is to refuse any new membership,” Hollande told reporters on March 2. To which outgoing US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland commented:

“I am not going to comment specifically on the statement by a leader of a NATO country. I think the important thing is for Georgia to do everything it can to enhance its qualifications for NATO membership.”

Georgian politicians and voters doubt whether efforts to boost the country’s qualifications will actually bear fruit, especially if one of the alliance’s leading members isn’t interested in bringing it on board. The same applies for fellow non-NATO partners Ukraine, Moldova, Montenegro and Azerbaijan.

It isn’t difficult to understand why some Georgians, including Ms. Burjanadze, perceive NATO as having a cynical attitude toward their country. If the West wants Georgia to remain firmly in its camp, it will eventually have to make a serious commitment.

Joseph Larsen

26.03.2015

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