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Keeping Georgia on Europe’s mind

Article by Adam Hug

August 12, 2009

Following US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit and this month’s anniversary of the war with Russia, the international spotlight is briefly back onto Georgia. The country faces an uncertain future. The optimism and excitement generated by the 2003 Rose revolution and the first few years of rapid reform has dissipated. The events of November 2007 on the streets of Tbilisi and August 2008 in Tskhinvali have shaken the West’s previously almost reflexive support for President Mikheil Saakashvili, prompting international soul-searching about the road ahead.

Georgia’s decline in the eyes of the international human rights community has been marked by falling rankings in several key areas. According to the 2009 Freedom House “Nations in Transition” report, Georgia today is less democratic than in any period in the last ten years, with rankings for democratic governance, electoral process and civil society all slipping since 2008. The decline in press freedom has been a particularly worrying trend. Reporters without Borders ranked Georgia 120th in its 2008 Press Freedom Index, a significant fall from its 2007 ranking of 66th. Rising international disquiet has mirrored growing domestic discontent, particularly following a severe crackdown on demonstrators in November 2007 when the government used excessive force to disperse largely peaceful demonstrations. The country has been wracked by street protests ever since, most notably again in April 2009.

It is important to see Georgia for the country it is rather than the one we would like it to be. Since Saakashvili took over in 2003, Georgia has been one of the better performing transition countries rather than a new fully fledged democracy. With that in mind, the EU’s new Eastern Partnership provides an important opportunity to help Georgia recommit to reform and the transition to full democracy by developing clear human rights benchmarks and conditionality.

Under the Eastern Partnership, the EU should develop a more detailed set of benchmarks than currently exist. To assess compliance with these benchmarks, the EU should establish a permanent governance and human rights monitoring team attached to its existing presence in Georgia. This should act as the core around which additional personnel and resources can be attached for election, media and other monitoring purposes during key periods.

Ultimately, improvements in the EU’s human rights and governance benchmarks and monitoring should not only deliver increased moral and political pressure for reform, they should also be clearly linked to the economic aid and trading relationships that the EU develops with Georgia. The Eastern Partnership offers countries the opportunity to upgrade their Partnership and Cooperation Agreements to full EU Association Agreements that include “deep and comprehensive free trade agreements”. Such free trade agreements should be contingent on meeting a set level of performance against the human rights and governance benchmarks. Georgia’s need for funds to weather the economic crisis gives the EU another important lever to help ensure significant reform takes place by linking support to improvements in human rights.

To supplement the aid and trade incentives and penalties, the EU should re-examine and develop the existing governance facility of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The facility, which provides extra funding to top reforming countries, is a good idea in principle but the size of the “carrot” is just €50 million per year across all ENP countries. For it to have a significant effect, the size of the pot needs to grow substantially.

The EU’s role in Georgia goes beyond conditionality and monitoring. It has a vital role in providing technical assistance and political engagement. Both the EU and the US need to work pragmatically with the current government while trying to bridge the divide between Saakashvili and his opponents. The international community must make clear to the opposition that it recognises that the human rights situation in Georgia has deteriorated and that urgent action is being taken to address these issues. At the same time the opposition needs to be told that repeated street protests must not be seen as the means of achieving political change in Georgia.

Political engagement must be matched by technical support. The international community should work to strengthen the independence of the media regulator, the Georgian National Communications Commission, by calling for an end to the president’s final approval of commissioners, strengthened parliamentary scrutiny and the addition of international representatives to the commission.

In the wake of the withdrawal of the OSCE mission and its role in supporting police reform, the EU needs to step in to fill the gap. There is scope for improvement in police training and oversight, and an independent police complaints authority should be created. Similarly in the legal sphere, representatives of the bar and NGOs should be brought onto the High Council of Justice to enhance judicial independence.

The EU has the opportunity to take the lead in supporting reform in Georgia, underpinning its commitment to European values through a monitored mix of incentives and penalties. By doing this it can set the template for the new Eastern Partnership – and become a more effective player in its neighbourhood.

“Spotlight on Georgia”, a new pamphlet edited by Adam Hug, was recently published by the Foreign Policy Centre.

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