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ENP: Georgia is top of the class

By Dick Leonard. Source: European Voice

Time to upgrade its action plan, argues Dick Leonard

The European Commission is currently assessing the progress of its European Neighbourhood Policy launched two years ago, with much talk of an 'ENP plus' initiative being in the offing. A useful summary of what has already been achieved, with proposals for extending the scope of the ENP, has just been published by the Centre for European Policy Studies, and is available for free downloading from its website (www.ceps.eu).

So far, five-year action plans have been agreed with 12 of the neighbouring states, five to the east (Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), and seven to the south (Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt). The CEPS paper distinguishes between those states who are 'willing' and those who are merely 'passive' partners.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic of the 'willing' partners is Georgia, which claimed during the negotiation of its action plan that it could reach all its objectives within three years, rather than the five years envisaged. Experience so far suggests that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his ministers were too optimistic, but on any reckoning Georgia's progress has been impressive.

It could perhaps have done even better if it were not for the distractions caused by the 'frozen conflicts' over the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where rebel regimes maintain themselves in power thanks to Russian-supplied arms and a great deal of unofficial support.

The Russian attempt during the past year to put an economic squeeze on Georgia has, however, proved largely counter-productive, as Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili made clear in his visit to Brussels earlier in the month. Although it has been estimated that the initial effect of the Russian sanctions has been to reduce the Georgian growth-rate by 1½-2 per cent, in the long run it has strengthened the economy by forcing it to diversity both its imports and exports.

The doubling of Russian gas prices has forced Georgia to seek alternative sources of supply, mainly from Azerbaijan, and already it is getting 80 per cent of its gas from non-Russian sources. More damaging to Georgia has been Russia's illegal closing of its land border for trade with Georgia, in direct breech of its obligations to the WTO, to which its negotiations for membership are in an advanced stage.

This, too, has spurred Georgia to establish much closer trading relations with its other neighbours – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey – and further afield with Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The Russian boycott of Georgian wine has led to renewed efforts to improve its quality, and a vigorous export drive which has had – according to Bezhuashvili – extremely encouraging results, particularly in Scandinavia.

The Georgians have detected a certain softening of Russian pressure and invective in recent months, and hope that this reflects a recognition that the policy is not working and should be quietly dropped. This is certainly the view of some within the Russian administration, but it is far from certain that it will prevail. The Russians' irrational behaviour towards Estonia does not give great confidence that they are good judges of their own best interests.

One continuing concern of the Georgians is that Russia may attempt to use independence for Kosovo, if it goes ahead with or without the backing of the UN Security Council, as a precedent for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They have taken steps to set up separate administrations for the areas of the two territories which they still control, so that it may not be claimed that the rebel governments are the sole source of authority in the territories.

There is no question that Saakashvili and his team are disappointed that the EU has not given them more robust support in his dispute with Russia, nor provided him with any assurance of eventual EU membership. One particular grievance is that the EU's visa requirements for Georgians are more stringent than for Russian citizens.

He is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Commission's re-examination of the ENP, and in particular, the feasibility study which it is currently carrying out of a free trade agreement with Georgia. If the result of this study is positive, its rapid implementation would be the least that the EU should do to reward its most promising pupil.

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union