The European Union has taken a major step in its long-lasting struggle with Russia for hegemony over Eastern Europe. In a highly anticipated decision, the EU granted visa-free travel to Georgia in February of this year, and is getting ready to seal the same deal for Ukraine later this summer. The true value of the visa-free travel deal is found in its geopolitical implications, in form of its symbolic, rather than literal, meaning. The visa-liberalization process puts Georgia and Ukraine alongside Moldova, which is celebrating the three-year anniversary of its own visa-liberalization deal with the EU. All three countries are now more deeply embedded into the European orbit and further from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Expansion without Overcommitment
The future of EU expansion is a hotly-debated subject. Debate continues about whether or not the EU should have offered membership to at least three of the 11 post-Soviet states into its borders at such a fast pace. The question of Bulgaria’s and Romania’s EU membership still comes up as an example of why the EU should expand at a slower pace, or not expand at all. Frustration with rapid expansion has been exacerbated by the recent experiences of democratic backsliding in Hungary, and now in Poland. The traumatic experiences of the Eurozone crisis, which left Greece, Italy, Spain, and other European economies in shambles, worsened “expansion fatigue.” When it comes to EU expansion, a popular narrative suggests that the EU should focus on internal issues rather than its foreign policy. Some experts go as far as calling the Union a “failed project.” But Europe can’t ignore foreign policy when the rules-based union of democratic European states faces Putin’s Russia which challenges the very post-World War II order that created the EU as an institution.
With these challenges in mind, the EU leadership has devised a policy to expand its reach in a non-traditional way. Through its Eastern Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the EU has identified its six Eastern Neighbors with whom it has established special ties. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are a part of the joint policy initiative launched at the Prague Summit in May 2009. Geographically, these countries represent the next logical frontier for EU expansion, though they aren’t membership candidates for a wide array of reasons, including the EU’s hesitation to expand much further, and some of these countries’ lack of readiness, willingness, or failure to follow democratic standards. Nevertheless, the Eastern Neighborhood Policy allows the countries that are eligible and willing to embark on a path toward EU integration.
At the center of this neighborhood policy framework is the EU Association Agreement (AA). These agreements are a means for the EU to help bring ENP countries up to EU standards, essentially preparing them for a possible EU membership down the road. Association agreements consist of four general chapters: Common Foreign and Security Policy; Justice and Home Affairs; the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA); and a fourth chapter covering a range of issues including the environment, science, transportation, and education.
The EU’s Association Agreements became famous during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in 2013-2014, as the country’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych had to flee the country after he chose not to sign it. Vladimir Putin’s efforts to keep Ukraine away from the European orbit influenced Yanukovych’s decision. As an alternative to the EU Association Agreement, Russia offered Ukraine a large loan if it joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an organization created as an alternative to the EU, which currently counts Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia as members. Armenia, too, was set to sign the Association Agreement back in 2013, but after Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan travelled to Moscow for a meeting with Putin, Sargsyan announced that Armenia would instead become an observing member of the Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia formally joined the EEU in 2014. This move was seen as a strategic U-turn for the country, a decision that ended Armenia’s path towards EU integration, and constituted “surrendering to Russia.”
Signing the Association Agreement, and following its guidelines, can put a country on an almost-irreversible path towards EU integration. This is why the Ukrainians ousted Yanukovych for rejecting the Association Agreement, and why Putin’s Russia has been trying so hard to counteract it. The length of this path, however, depends on how well the country fulfills its Association Agreement commitments, and how much the EU is prepared to expand. To incentivize good performance, the EU offers bonuses like highly coveted visa-free travel.
For Georgia, this incentive could not have come at a better time. Georgia signed the Association Agreement in 2013 as scheduled, and began implementing the prescribed reforms immediately. The reforms proved difficult to swallow, and the economic, political, and security crises that broke out in the Black Sea region as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, helped to push Georgia into a currency crisis, and it experienced overall stagnation. The road to visa-liberalization has been a long and tiresome one for this country surrounded by authoritarian neighbors. Its people needed a reward for resilience amid the continuously unstable conditions of the region, and its government needed a reminder that sticking to a democratic path pays off.
Tipping the Scale
Per Freedom House’s democracy measurements, of the six Eastern Neighborhood Policy countries, three are either fully or partly consolidated authoritarian regimes. The other three—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—are considered hybrid or transitional regimes. This categorization also symbolizes the fine line between democracy and authoritarianism, or between Europe and Russia, that these countries have been treading for years now. More investment from the West, in form of incentives such as visa-liberalization, has the potential to tip that scale in favor of democracy. Visa-liberalization shows the Georgian people that supporting pro-democracy reforms brings tangible benefits such as greater access to and inclusion into the West.
Russia has tried to counteract the expansion of EU influence using familiar methods. As soon as the news of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s forthcoming visa-free deal with the EU hit the press in December 2016, Mr. Putin offered Georgians and Ukrainians visa-free travel to Russia. For many months prior to the EU visa-free travel deal, Georgian society faced a major anti-EU disinformation campaign from Russia. Russian-linked outlets falsely claimed that EU-integration meant being forced to legalize gay marriage, a controversial step for a nation of mostly conservative, Orthodox Christians. Another false narrative claimed that Georgia would only be granted visa-free travel if it set up refugee camps in order to relieve some of the European countries of their Syrian refugees.
Georgians’ pro-EU and pro-Western sentiments haven’t changed as a result of this disinformation campaign. Eighty percent of Georgians still want to join the EU. One reason for this failure to change minds is that Georgians still remember the 2008 war with Russia, and they consider the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be occupied by Russia. Moreover, polls show that 63% of Georgians consider Russia their biggest national security threat.
Another reason for high EU approval ratings in Georgia is the effective EU public relations campaign. This campaign focused on educating Georgian citizens and politicians about the terms of the EU Association Agreement and visa-liberalization. This campaign included two major aspects. The first part was encouragement by EU leaders of Georgia’s progress in form of visits to Georgia, public statements of support, and videos congratulating Georgians on their important Association Agreement milestones even used the Georgian language to increase their reach. A second key step was to make all EU-related information readily available for all Georgians. While Georgia’s relevant ministries and public service offices offer this information to Georgian citizens online and in their physical offices, the EU itself has created a “Europe for Georgia” website, which can be viewed in English, Georgian, and Russian. The website houses all AA-relevant information and is organized in a user-friendly way. As a result of this campaign, an April 2017 poll showed that only two months since the visa-free travel deal was activated, 92% of Georgians were aware of the deal, and 64% felt that they were well educated about its terms.
The Georgian government also sees visa-liberalization as an opportunity to resume relations with its breakaway territories. As soon as visa-liberalization was approved by the EU in February, the Georgian State Ministry of Reconciliation and Civic Equality published information about visa-free travel to Europe in Abkhazian and Ossetian languages, and the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published instructional videos on its Facebook page in both languages as well. The Georgian government has made clear that anyone holding a biometric Georgian passport can travel to the EU visa-free. Abkhazians and South Ossetians who have accepted Russian passports for the sake of convenience have the option to give up those passports and obtain Georgian ones in order to access the EU.
One major limitation is that visa-free travel is intended for those who wish to travel to the EU’s Schengen countries for trips of up to 90 days. It does not allow travelers to work in Europe. The Georgian government has taken on the responsibility of tracking down those who stay beyond the 90-day mark. Moreover, the EU has included a suspension mechanism into the deal, which can be activated if a large number of asylum-seekers enter Europe from Georgia. Another challenge to the success of the visa deal is that the Abkhazian government has already declared Georgia’s offer to share the visa-liberalization benefits as “the Georgian government’s crude effort to put Abkhazians under the Georgian economic and justice systems.” In a statement on Facebook, Abkhazia’s de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that “this is the Georgian government’s yet another attempt to lure Abkhazians into Georgia, which like all previous attempts, will fail miserably.”
Still a Long Way Ahead
Georgia still has a long way ahead on its path of European integration. It also has many problems to fix at home, including addressing its territorial integrity, reforming its troubled judicial system, ending assaults on media freedoms, and stabilizing the economy. However, Georgia has proven to be one of the few countries in the region where Western investment still pays off. Despite its daunting domestic challenges, Ukraine, too, will greatly benefit from EU visa-liberalization. Through their revolutions, Georgia and Ukraine have shown that they are certain of their European choice. The EU is right to grant them visa-free travel.