EU Mediation in Georgia’s Political Crisis: What did We (not) Understand?

Nino Samkharadze  [1]

For five months, Georgia has faced a severe political crisis that has been worrying enough for its European partners to express unprecedented interest in the country’s ongoing political processes. Indeed, the EU has been actively involved  in attempting to solve the crisis: the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in charge of mediating an inter-party dialogue, and even mandated a personal envoy, Christian Danielsson, to engage in the mediation process. However, even the very high-level involvement of the EU proved unsuccessful: the Georgian political elite did not manage to reach an agreement, and the EU mediation in Georgia is considered to have failed at this stage.

According to certain analysis, the EU’s “failure” in the mediation process is logical to some extent, as the EU does not provide realistic perspectives for those countries hoping to become the EU members. Consequently, the importance of the European Union for Georgia’s political elites might be diminishing. However, it is important to discuss what the EU expected from the Georgian political leaders, and how could Georgia use the privilege of the EU mediation process to its own advantage.

What Did the EU Expect from the Mediation Process in Georgia?

The EU places importance on maintaining stability and development through agreement and compromise, which is exemplified by the recent crises, such as the Brexit agreement, which was reached after almost one year of negotiations and an unusually prolonged process of budget approval. A similar tradition of crisis management played a decisive role in Danielsson’s mediation mission in Georgia. In his words, the EU tried to “take into account the interests of all sides”, which proved unsuccessful in the case of Georgia’s political class.

Creating stability in the eastern neighborhood is one of the top priorities among the EU’s strategic security objectives.  Brussels sees the Eastern Partnership initiative through the same prism: promoting good governance in a stable environment is an important factor for foreign policy planning, especially with those countries that have membership ambitions. Brussels is expecting irreversible democratic changes from these nations,, and political leaders in Georgia have to keep in mind that the EU’s “strict and fair conditionality” principle is still in place. 

In this context, the ongoing political crisis in Georgia puts the country in a vulnerable position, where a frontrunner EaP state has slowly lost its focus on steady development and fallen into political deadlock. Considering the recent democratic backsliding and the challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia is less likely to remain focused on democratic reforms and maintain a stable environment. Consequently, it became important for the EU to demonstrate its soft power by unprecedented high-level mediation in Georgia’s political crisis.

Brussels had certain expectations towards the ways that Georgian political parties could have handled the dialogue process more effectively. From Brussels’ perspective, both the ruling and opposition parties shared the responsibility. The EU also expected that in an overly sensitive political crisis, the processes would have been free from the personalized influence of both Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili. Moreover, Charles Michel’s six-point document included not only disputed issues under the ongoing crisis, but also wider problems, which, if effectively addressed, could significantly advance Georgia’s EU integration process. Judicial reform is included as one of the most important issues, without which it is impossible for Georgia to complete the democratization process and thereby enjoy greater success in the EU integration process. By refusing to sign the document proposed by Danielsson, the Georgian political class also virtually lost an opportunity to use the Jean Monnet Dialogue format, which would otherwise allow the parties to communicate with the European Parliament in the long-run and reach an agreement on  priority issues in national politics. 

As has already been mentioned, all of those expectations are based on the European political tradition that has its own rules. However, Georgian political actors still struggle to align with the aforementioned common rules and learn how to create a truly European state. Georgia has an ambition to establish a Parliamentary democracy and build a consensus-based state: however, the country’s political parties are apparently more interested in reaching an agreement with as few concessions as possible and without crossing their own red lines, while simultaneously attempting to pin the blame solely on their political opponents. Consequently, as Christian Danielsson stated following the unsuccessful first round of negotiations, the political parties are fully responsible for the crises. With this statement, Danielsson indicated that there is a resources for a result-oriented collaboration in Georgian party politics, but the main problem is the lack of political will among the party leaders.

EU Mediation as a Privilege for Georgia 

“President Michel took up the [mediator] role and sent me here because he believes that Georgia is important for the EU” – this statement from Danielsson clearly shows the scale of the aforementioned privilege. Georgia still remains on the EU radar in terms of its close partnership with the EU: the active involvement of the European Union in the political processes of Georgia is even more significant considering Brussels’ lack of involvement during major recent political developments in the neighborhood, such as the Crisis in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh War between the two EaP countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia. If discussed further, the EU even was not involved to the same extent in Ukraine at different stages of the crisis, neither in that country’s internal political affairs nor with regards to Russia’s renewed military intervention. The EU’s special interest in political processes in Georgia can be additionally exemplified by the EU’s parliamentary debates around Georgia’s case  and the unplanned prolongation of Danielsson’s mission with the aim to achieve fruitful inter-party negotiations.

Therefore, Charles Michel’s initiative of the EU mediation in Georgia and Danielsson’s involvement in the process was a strong political message to Georgia in the context of the EU’s strategic relations. However, Georgian political leaders failed to acknowledge the importance of that kind of privilege for the EU-Georgia rapprochement in the long-term,  and by both sides’ refusal to sign the mediation document, they even endangered the country’s future prospects in that direction. This is an important setback for Georgia’s long-standing common national interest – tangible and successful EU integration.

Moreover, the Georgian political elite had an opportunity to demonstrate to the EU’s high-level decision-makers that Georgia is a politically mature state, and prove that the official membership application for 2024 is not an unrealistic proposition. Christian Danielsson was actively involved in Croatia’s accession to the EU as the Acting Director-General for Neigbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations: he contributed significantly to the country’s preparation process by outlining the specific plan and steps that Croatia needed to take in order to complete the already-delayed EU accession process. Therefore, even now when Brussels is facing a challenge coming from “enlargement fatigue”, Danielsson might still play a significant role in EU enlargement issues, as he did when Croatia became an EU member state. Moreover, he is the Director-General for Neigbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations since 2015, meaning that demonstrating Georgia’s political maturity during his mission should have been of key importance for the leading political parties in the country, considering Georgia’s EU integration ambitions. However, the Georgian political elite failed to properly appreciate the involvement of a high-level representative in the mediation process, and Danielsson’s double effort to solve the political crisses turned into an unsuccessful mission. That is even more illogical considering the Georgian government’s stated plan to officially apply for  EU membership in 2024.

Even though certain political actors did recognize that the “painful” process of negotiations could not have a clearly victorious side, the outcomes of those negotiations showed that the Georgian political elite has yet to learn the main political lesson, which, according to Danielsson is that »compromise is not weakness, compromise is strength. Compromise is a sign of the democracy in Georgia working, and compromise is the European way.”

Overall the EU has clearly showed its interest in and support for Georgia’s political stability and irreversible democratization. The EU mediation efforts were a key message to Georgia on its way towards European integration, which should have been effectively used by the Georgian political elite as an opportunity to politically become closer to Europe. Expectations from the EU’s side were mostly focused on pragmatic inter-party dialogue based on compromise and cooperation, political will for collaboration, which would then – in the long term – transform Georgia into a more European country.  The EU expected to see a difference between  “real and imitated democracy” in the country. However, Georgian political actors failed to employ European method of inter-party dialogue. Consequently, the risk of possible “fatigue” among Georgia’s European partners became even more evident, especially after the implications that EU-Georgia relations might be affected as well. Considering Georgia’s ambitions towards EU integration, it is essential for the political elite in the country, both in the government and opposition, to fundamentally rethink their red lines. They need to direct all of their efforts and resources towards a reassessment of the recent EU mediation mission, and look for the new ways that will lead to greater stability in the country.

 


[1] Junior Policy Analyst at Georgian Institute of Politics.

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