For Georgians, EU and NATO remain “forbidden fruit”

For Georgians, EU and NATO remain “forbidden fruit”

The FINANCIAL -- Over the past decade, Georgia has undergone dramatic changes. A colored revolution ushered in a pro-Western regime, resulting in serious efforts to combat institutional corruption and organized crime; Moscow’s lost its central Caucasus command HQ in Tbilisi, and replaced its military bases in Georgia proper with bigger ones in the breakaway regions, and it would be a mistake not to mention Georgia’s first democratic regime change in 2012 since becoming an independent state nearly 25 years ago.

But despite all the ups and downs, Georgians are still highly motivated and eager to see their country be part of the civilized Western world, even as European Union and NATO membership remain “forbidden fruit.”  

In this column, I present time-series data on the Georgian population’s favorable opinions towards four key players in this region: the EU, NATO, Russia and USA. Each is very strong; most possess nuclear weapons and are technologically and financially way beyond Georgia’s capabilities. They enjoy either favorable attitudes by the vast majority of Georgians, or in case of Russia, over one third of Georgian’s support (despite the war) since 2008.  

EU and NATO

In GORBI’s most recent survey conducted from June, 1-12, four out of five respondents expressed positive feelings towards the EU, pretty much in keeping with sentiments over the last ten years. During his recent visit in Tbilisi, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso correctly said that “Georgia has made a choice, and we are here to support that choice.” Indeed, that’s the choice that we have made but truth be told, it is the only foreign policy choice that any rational person could be making in Georgia. In a fortnight, the Georgian leadership will sign EU association and trade agreements, the latest and most advanced instruments to enhance and integrate our “homegrown democracy” with the EU political and economic system. 

NATO membership - another recurring dream held by the majority of Georgians; it appears another “forbidden fruit” as well, one that appears to be out of reach given recent statements by US President Barak Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A large majority of Georgians had and have favorable sentiments towards NATO though this attitude suffered considerably right after the war with Russia in 2008. However, favorability towards NATO has rebounded since 2013. The decline was clearly due to false expectations among a large segment of the population that somehow NATO would militarily intervene in Georgia and help us restore our territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression. 

Average favorable ratings toward the EU and NATO since 2008 were 80% and 74%, respectively. This is the highest compared to any other international or local institutions other than the Georgian Orthodox Church. 

However, there is another interesting and direct indicator of the population’s willingness to join the EU and NATO that I am not presenting here.  

Russia and USA

Not surprisingly, for those who have a good understanding of local culture and history, Georgians always have been positively disposed towards Russia, compared to their Russian peers’ views of Georgia (this could easily be verified by visiting the websites of Russia’s top polling organizations). Surely, this in no way should be understood that we hold the same positive feelings towards Russia’s previous or current political systems or leadership.

Russia’s military aggression naturally has had a big impact and over the past years, favorability rating has dramatically declined from 83% to 42% (year of 2008 vs 2009). It improved in 2012 but again melted in late 2013 and has since remained comparatively low. Despite the recent warming of relations between the two countries and renewal of wine and other agricultural exports to Russia, in 2014 the country continued to lose Georgian “supporters,” with the annexation of Crimea playing no minor role in this decline.

The USA’s average favorability rating over the last eight years was 73% compared to 61% of Russia’s average figure.
The bottom line is that in the ideal case scenario, Georgia should be able to easily cohabitate with Russia while aspiring towards the two most dreamed of clubs – the EU and NATO. In reality, Georgia has a long way to go, even as it achieves very important milestones – signing the EU political association and trade agreements (at least that is scheduled for 27th of June). And while the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) still remains attractive for some Georgian politicians and citizens, in Russia it remains the only protocol to deal with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.