Against the backdrop of the furore over the bailout of the Irish economy and rapid slide into the forced jollities of the festive season, one could have been forgiven for overlooking an important announcement last week by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili which will have considerable implications for European security in the coming years.
Addressing a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg little more than two years after Kremlin-inspired aggression sparked a ten day conflict in which scores died and the country’s entire infrastructure was shattered, the President outlined a strategy for reunifying Georgia by non-military means.
In the midst of thousands of Russian troops continuing to occupy the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and therefore much of the historic Black Sea coastline, Saakashvili told MEPs that Georgia will “never use force” to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty and that it will “only resort to peaceful means in its quest for de-occupation and reunification”.
Regardless of one’s view of the European Union, the thought of a Georgian leader addressing the European Parliament would have been utterly unthinkable prior to the peaceful ‘Rose Revolution’ in November 2003 which saw the corrupt, pro-Moscow leader Eduard Shevardnadze swept from office.
The differences between the Georgia of 2003 and the Georgia of 2010 could not be starker.
A former Soviet Union Foreign Minister, Shevardnadze’s hold on power had been based on vote-rigging and institutional corruption which ranged from the use of bribery as a tool of law enforcement to the awarding of higher education qualifications for financial incentives. Indeed, such was the extent of Shevardnadze’s tolerance of corruption that his administration tacitly allowed the Russian-backed mafia boss Aslan Abashidze to operate a tin-pot dictatorship in the coastal province of Adjara in exchange for financial incentives.
Saakashvili came to power in late 2003 in a country where corruption was rife and the flame of democracy only flickered – much like the few electric street lights at the time. Now the World Bank rates Georgia as the 12th best place in the world to do business and the country is well on the path to democratic reform. Indeed, only last month, the Georgian Parliament voted, almost unanimously, to make significant further shifts of powers from the President to the Parliament.
Nobody would argue that Georgia’s path to democracy under Saakashvili has been either easy or pain-free, yet as the President himself said this week in Strasbourg “no Georgian citizen thinks they lives in a post-Soviet republic nowadays – people in Georgia talk of their Government and criticise it just as it is in a European democracy”. Given the painful protests the government has endured in central Tbilisi against reforms to the higher education system (sound familiar?), the tough anti-corruption measures imposed on the country’s Police following public protests and the open and tolerated criticism from opposition politicians of the administration’s position on the future of relations with Russia, it’s clear such a sentiment carries weight.
Regrettably, despite the tremendous advances Georgia has made in recent years, 20% of the country’s sovereign territory remains under the control of Russian-backed separatists. As such, none of the benefits accrued throughout Georgia’s seven-year democracy have been transferred to those living in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions who are now having Russian passports thrust upon them by the pro-Moscow juntas in control of their homeland. At present, almost 500,000 innocent people who were ethnically cleansed from their homes during the conflict continue to be forced to live in temporary settlements in Georgia, where winter temperatures frequently to -10 degrees Celsius.
The highest honour a civilian can receive in Georgia is that of the Order of David Agmashenebeli, King David IV of Georgia. As the ruler of the country between 1089 and 1125, David IV triumphantly succeeded in unifying the country and driving out the occupying Turkic forces. Venerated by the Georgian Orthodox Church to this day, the spirit and raw determination of Agmashenebeli lives on in the lifeblood of Georgians, making the significance of the pro-negotiation stance Saakashvili outlined in Strasbourg last week even more profound.
Instead of showing bellicose aggression, the Georgian government has advocated peaceful and cultural means of winning back the hearts and minds of the Ossets and Abkhars, including a comprehensive programme to improve economic conditions, trade links, healthcare opportunities, and on educational opportunities, including providing educational material in the Abkhaz and Ossetian languages. Indeed, such a package goes a considerable distance towards fulfilling what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described as the yardstick by which engagement with Georgia on the issue of the two provinces could be judged; namely, the country’s commitment to guaranteeing minority rights and the principle of self-determination.
Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has been to Tbilisi and offered her advice and support to obtain a peaceful resolution to the conflict. So too has William Hague, who made clear to his Russian hosts on a recent visit to Moscow that Britain’s decades-long commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity remains undimmed. And, most recently, at the NATO Summit in Lisbon the commitment that Georgia will one day become a member of NATO was reaffirmed, with the communiqué noting “we reiterate our continued support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”.
Coupled with important reforms to the constitution, the judiciary, elections reforms and the broadening the “big tent” to opposition parties to contribute to the democratic process, the Saakashvili administration’s bold pledge for peace only serves as further evidence that Georgia should be shown a clear path towards full European Union membership. Already a member of the Eastern Partnership initiative, Georgia has more than satisfied the criteria for acceptance into the crucial Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area (EU-MEFTA) and Central European Free Trade Agreements (CEFTA) which would allow the country to extend its trading relations with not only the EU but scores of states on its near periphery.
The road to acceptance as a Western liberal democracy which Georgia started down during those frosty days in November 2003 will not be an easy one. For Georgia to thrive, it must do so as a country in control of its own territory, borders and destiny. The President’s call for “a deep and comprehensive dialogue” with Russia must be heeded.