Honour commitments to Georgia or we lose the country forever

Russia is continuing to aggressively expand and entrench its hold over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while the West stands idly by despite bold words about supporting Georgia's territorial integrity. The West needs to step up and make good on its commitments, or risk losing Georgia to Russia forever

Tbilisi
Tbilisi needs actions not words from the West
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Daniel Hamilton
On 27 July 2015 05:51

Last week, Russia completed its latest land-grab in Georgia. Having interfered in, and, ultimately, illegally occupied, the province of South Ossetia since the early 1990s, Russia has gradually consolidated its position, erecting barbed-wire fencing and expensive CCTV equipment to supervise its area of control.

The most recent operation has pushed the so-called "Republic of South Ossetia" a further 300 metres (980 feet) into Georgia, splitting farms in half and bringing a kilometre-long portion of BP's Baku-Supsa pipeline, which carries oil from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea, under Russia's control.

Georgia's main east-west highway is now only 950 metres from an area now securitised by the Russian army.

The strategic value to Russia of the country having such a strong hold on energy flows from the Caspian to the Black Sea, as well as holding a key vantage point over Georgia's east to west traffic flows and troop movements, is clear for all to see.

What's less clear, however, is why the European Union and the United States have been so muted in recent months.

Russia has not been shy in signposting its intentions. Indeed, their latest territorial incursion follows an agreement signed in March between Vladimir Putin and the breakaway region's President Leonid Tibilov aimed at further assimilating South Ossetia into the Russian Federation and harmonising defence and economic policy between the two.

With Russia on the verge of orchestrating a Crimea-style annexation of South Ossetia, the expansion of territory makes a lot of sense to Moscow.

Rather than do all this when South Ossetia is a "formal" part of Russia, it is able to carry out its operations under the banner of the region's separatist administration.

At the moment annexation comes about, the region will be subsumed in its entirety -- formally placing occupied Georgian lands in the hands of the Russian Federation as opposed to constituting a separatist junta.  This will make any attempts on the part of the Georgian government to reclaim the territory nigh on impossible.

The situation is much the same in Georgia's other breakaway province, Abkhazia. While, for reasons of sheer population size, the Abkhazian junta have been less enthusiastic about explicit integration into the Russian Federation, their breakaway government continues to be, chiefly, bankrolled by Moscow.

A November 2014 document signed by Putin and Abkhaz President Khadzhimba established a joint Russian and Abkhaz army unit under the control of the Russian Federation -- essentially securitising their hold on both the territory the junta has controlled since the early 90s, and regions seized during the 2008 war.

With the predictability of this situation in mind, it is shameful that the United States and European Union member governments have been so slow to act in order to support Georgia in securing its territory.

To date, the international presence in the areas close to the lines of occupation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been confined to ineffective, civilian monitoring missions.

What was -- and still is -- needed was a small peace-keeping mission comprised of NATO forces in order to prevent further territorial expansionism on the part of the Russian Federation.

Many in the west have been critical of those who advocate for western military involvement in Georgia -- their logic being that the presence of NATO troops would somehow serve as a "provocation" to Putin that would risk worsening relations with Moscow and possibly even spark armed conflict in the South Caucasus.

Both arguments are baseless. Indeed, a NATO presence would bring a new sense of calm and security to the region, muting Russia's confidence in its ability to press further into Georgia and allowing both parties to pursue negotiations over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetian on an equal footing.

The presence of NATO troops in the region is clearly a step that no supporter of Georgian territorial integrity would, in an ideal world, have wished to have seen.

Indeed, it wouldn't be necessary if the West had shown seriousness about bringing Georgia into NATO several years ago, something that would have helped in establishing clear red lines, and probably forestalling Russian aggression in the first place.

Instead, despite the fact the country has itself honoured the overwhelming majority of protocols required for prospective members, membership seems further away than ever -- hamstrung by the presence of aggressive and expansionist Russian forces on its soil.

The west's repeated failures to honour pledges made to the country on defence issues are mirrored by a lack of progress on political ties.

The signing of the June 2014 Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union was a proud moment for many supporters of the country, yet has ultimately proved to be a great disappointment with no real achievements to speak of in relation to visa liberalisation and only a small uptick in trade flows.

Much-needed infrastructure funding to boost the country's ailing railway and ports systems has yet to materialise.

Regrettably, the west's habit of over promising and under delivering in the region has only given succour to sharply pro-Russian politicians in Georgia, such as Nino Burjanadze, who has a habit of ridiculing the governing Georgian Dream Coalition and the leading opposition party, the United National Movement, for the faith they place in promises from Brussels and Washington DC.

Against a backdrop of the current poor economic climate in Georgia, her repeated denunciations of the "illusion" that the country will one day join NATO or the EU have seen support for her party steadily increase.

It is not just support for pro-Russian politicians like Burjanadze that is on the increase, but also support for Russia's chief geopolitical and economic weapon: the Eurasian Customs Union which promises almost limitless cash grants in exchange for the subjugation of national sovereignty to Moscow's will.

In a poll taken in May, 31 percent of Georgians expressed support for joining the bloc -- twice the number expressing such support in 2014 and three times as much as in 2013.

Negative trend lines aside, it is worth stressing that 68 percent of Georgians continue to express a preference for their country continuing along a path of Euro-Atlantic integration, towards membership of both NATO and the EU.

While support remains strong, the West can no longer afford to ignore indications that Georgia may be slowly backing away from the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

Enthusiasm and willingness on the part of both the people and government of the country to look westwards has simply not been backed up by a real commitment on the part of Western governments.

Something needs to be done. 

As a starting point, the country should be handed a NATO MAP that provides for the stationing of a protective force along the lines of occupation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A special mechanism can and should be found to exclude the two areas from the Article 5 collective security guarantee provided to all members; only applying the provision to land presently under the control of Tbilisi.

This would stem Russia's advances in the north of the country, secure its maritime border, and restore Georgian public confidence in western security guarantees.

Secondly, the visa liberalisation process between Georgia and the European Union should be completed. This would be a particularly important confidence-building measure between the EU and the country's young, educated population whose freedom of movement has been largely curtailed by cumbersome regulations.

This ought to be matched by an increase in funding for ties and exchanges between US, European and Georgian higher education institutions.

Thirdly, the EU should look beyond the Association Agreement and begin the process of granting Georgia formal "candidate country" status.

The granting of such a status would not mean setting out a formal timetable for accession but it would be a clear statement to both the Russian Federation and Georgian people of the West's long-term commitment to the country.

Inside this framework, cooperation on individual policy areas -- from maritime transport links to energy security -- could be gradually increased.

The ball is in the west's court. The Georgian political establishment and people remain committed to a Euro-Atlantic path -- but they cannot be expected to wait forever.

It's time to either honour commitments made, or accept the country's irrevocable slide back into Russia's tawdry orbit.

Daniel Hamilton is a Senior Director at a global business advisory firm and an expert on the South Caucasus.  He writes in a personal capacity

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