European integration remains the top priority for the Georgian government and society at large. The integration process involves many sectors, from good governance and human rights to security, environment, and the economy. Since the five-day war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, Georgia has achieved three milestones on the European integration path: the adoption of the law on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (Spring 2014), which contains language on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”; the conclusion, signing, and entry into force of the Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) (July 2016); and the entry into force of the Visa Liberalization Agreement, which allows Georgian citizens to travel to the European Union (EU) for up to 90 days without the need for a visa (March 2017). Before the entry into force of the Visa Liberalization Agreement, Georgia underwent a period of vigorous reforms, and many observers regard the process as a driving force for many domestic reforms. Moreover, economic integration with the EU proceeds at a fast pace; the EU remains Georgia’s top trading partner, accounting for around 30% of Georgia’s trade turnover and, by November 2017, Georgia had adopted “over 7,000 European standards in the areas of health, safety, and environmental protection”. Georgia also joined the EU’s civil and military crisis management operations under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In 2017, Georgia joined the EU Military Training Mission (EUTM) in the Central African Republic and deployed one officer in EUTM Mali. In March 2018, the support for the Georgian government’s goal to join the EU stood at 75%. This figure has been fluctuating in the last years, hitting its lowest at 70% in August 2015 following the adoption of the anti-discrimination legislation. Nevertheless, support for EU integration in the country remains stable at between 70-80%.
Georgians’ support for the EU is reassuring for pro-integration supporters both in Georgia and the EU. However, there are also some obstacles on Georgia’s road to EU integration. To get EU integration right, it is important to understand deeper societal perceptions, attitudes, and more importantly, fears. Here, both state and non-state actors need to be proactive. EU’s support to civil society goes mainly unnoticed by the average citizen in Georgia, and even within pro-Democracy, pro-EU integration groups. Few know, for example, that, thanks to the EU’s support, by November 2017, 90,000 people had received free legal support, 5,000 juveniles were represented in criminal proceedings, and 140,000 free legal consultations were provided to citizens who otherwise could not have afford such services.
In parallel to these processes, different dynamics have re-emerged and intensified since 2014. The so-called “Russian soft power” has become more visible in various ways, through the emergence of Russian-influenced NGOs, foundations (the Eurasian Institute, the Global Research Center, the Club of Young Political Scientists, etc.), media and, later, social media groups. These NGOs and foundations were predominantly expressing positive attitudes towards Russia and advocating for improving Georgia-Russia relations while spreading anti-EU sentiments. However, many NGOs and foundations today have ceased to exist due to lack of funding, or they have not been able to achieve their objectives.
When it comes to the media, recent studies reveal that the main distributor of so-called anti-Western narratives is actually Georgian-language media themselves. Russian-backed news websites or TV stations have not gained much popularity and support in Georgia, partly because memories of the 2008 war are still quite fresh. Indeed, the space freed up by openly Russian-backed or - associated NGOs, foundations or media has been taken up by conservative and ultra-nationalist groups originating from within Georgia. These groups are both formal (the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia - a Political Party in the Parliament of Georgia; it was the first party with a clearly pro-Russian agenda entering the Georgian Parliament since 1991) and informal. Informal groups are organised in various ways, predominantly on social networks. These groups do not make direct reference to Russia or associate themselves with Russia. However, the narrative that they promote sets them squarely in the Russian camp. Its core is based on “traditional family values” and see preserving these values as the only bulwark to safeguard “Georgian-ness” – portraying the EU integration process (seen as an expression of a pro-Western agenda) as a threat to “national identity”, and thus to those “family values”, which are part of this “identity”. These groups use “LGBTI propaganda” as evidence that this is what is going to happen on the path to EU integration. For example, the language on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the law on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination caused a lot of turmoil among conservative segments of the society, going as far as spreading disinformation that the legislation would legalise same-sex marriage. At the same time, in October 2017, the Constitutional amendments in Georgia defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman – which is most likely a trade-off for the adoption of the 2014 anti-discrimination legislation, this time in favour of conservative groups.
While these trends have been on the rise in recent years, it was only in 2018 that the Georgian State Security Services (SSS) identified “foreign covert activities” as one of the main threats to national security. According to the SSS report, the main purpose of these activities is “to instigate anti-Western sentiments in the Georgian society; to undermine the image of Georgia as a reliable partner on the international arena; to establish distrust, uncertainty, hopelessness, and nihilism in the public; to create destabilization on ethnic and religious grounds in order to cause disintegration processes and polarize the Georgian society.” It is still not clear how strong these conservative and anti-EU integration groups are and what is the stable support they might enjoy within the society. What is clear is that Georgia will continue to adopt various pieces of legislation and bylaws to advance on the EU integration path. This will remain an important and integral part of the process. However, catering to societal perceptions, misconceptions, and fears about the EU integration process remains equally crucial.
Laws alone will not help Georgia on the path to EU integration. Much will depend on public opinion and societal perceptions. For Georgia’s EU integration to be successful, local pro-EU groups – governmental or non-governmental, formal or informal – will have to focus on more positive stories and images of what the EU does for the average citizen. Instead of communicating pessimism and anger, such as “anti-Western groups will hijack integration” or “Illiberalism will dominate the world”, they should communicate more positive stories about how the EU helps citizens – proposing solutions to concrete problems. Furthermore, pro-EU groups should change their narrative from Western (EU) to universal values. Indeed, the values promoted by the EU are universal – not Western. They are norms and principles to which Georgia had already signed up through UN conventions and committed to abide by. This means that the EU does not ask Georgia to adopt any new standards or norms, but only those that Georgia should already have in place when it comes to the protection of fundamental rights.
As George Orwell put it in its 1945 article Freedom of the Park: “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” For the EU integration process, public opinion will remain as important as legislative harmonisation with the EU. Thus, it is crucial that pro-democracy groups do their part seriously and work on society and societal perceptions about the EU.
1. Facts and Figures about EU-Georgia Relations, EaP Summit Fact Sheet, November 2017
2. Joint Staff Working Document, Association Implementation Report on Georgia, 9 November 2017
3. Public attitudes in Georgia Results of March 2018 survey carried out for NDI by CRRC Georgia
5. The Raise of Illiberal Civil Society in Former Soviet Union, July 2018, Chapter - From a Pro-Russian to a Pro-Georgian Narrative by Nata Dzvelishvili
7. Report of the Georgian State Security Services, period covered 01.01.2017 – 31.12.2017
8. Hope, not fear: A new model for communicating human rights, Thomas Coombes, Human Rights Activist, 10 December 2017