Charles Michel Tries to Keep Georgia From Leaving the European Orbit
European Council President Charles Michel waves as he leaves after a meeting with Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili in Tbilisi, Georgia April 20, 2021. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
Original article: Giorgi Menabde, The Jamestown Foundation. Many thanks to The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor for their collaborative spirit.
On July 29, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council (the main policy-setting body of the European Union), released a statement in response to the unexpected decision of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party to annul the accord of April 19, 2021. This document, referred to as the “Charles Michel Agreement,” created a chance to end the longstanding confrontation between the Georgian authorities and the opposition. It was prepared and signed with the direct participation of President Michel. But GD accused its main rival, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), of ignoring the document. Consequently, the ruling party refused to fulfill the main point of the Agreement: its obligation to call early parliamentary elections if, as a result of the municipal elections scheduled for October 2, GD does not receive more than 43 percent of the vote.
The opposition expected the EU leader’s reaction to GD’s decision to be harsh. But as an experienced and distinguished European politician, Michel responded diplomatically: “I have taken note of the decision by the Georgian Dream as regards the 19 April Agreement. This agreement continues to offer a European way towards building a stronger democracy and rule of law in Georgia in the interest of the Georgian people. I have equally taken note of the continued non-signature by United National Movement of the agreement”.
Many Georgian experts believe Michel avoided sharply criticizing the Georgian authorities because the EU wants to be able to continue to point to Georgia as a “showcase” of the success of the Eastern Partnership initiative—particularly against the background of Belarus’s recent withdrawal from this format. Additionally, in recent years, and especially following the Second Karabakh War (September–November 2020), Brussels has been trying to boost its own profile in the South Caucasus.
Petre Mamradze, who heads the board of the Policy Institute for Governance, argued that the EU is trying “to show its flag in the South Caucasus.” According to the expert, “The well-known European politician Josep Borrell, the former European Union high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, himself pointed out, that the EU must learn how to play geopolitical games.” Mamradze stressed that the EU is not as strong a geopolitical actor as the likes of the United States, United Kingdom, China, France or Germany. Nonetheless, the recent activities of the European Council president in the South Caucasus confirm: the EU no longer wants to be an “economic giant but geopolitical dwarf,” as it was characterized 20–30 years ago (Author’s interview, July 30).
Indeed, Charles Michel visited Georgia three times in five months. The first two visits, on February 28–March 2 and April 20, respectively, were associated with his attempt to negotiate a compromise between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the United Opposition (of which UNM is a part).
Michel’s third visit (July 18–19) was to the Georgian Black Sea city of Batumi, where he attended the regional summit of the Associated Trio: Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The European leader’s diplomatic involvement apparently contributed to resolving outstanding issues between those regional actors. Just prior to Michel’s arrival in Batumi, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili pardoned three Ukrainians, including one of Saakashvili’s former bodyguards, who had been sentenced to four years in prison for illegal entry into Georgian territorial waters. Saakashvili, who presently heads the Executive Reform Committee of Ukraine’s Presidential National Reform Council, had called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Moldovan counterpart, Maia Sandu, to cancel their planned visits to Georgia if those Ukrainian sailors were not released.
Another important context of Charles Michel’s regional tour last month was demonstrated in his earlier two stops, Yerevan and Baku, where the European Council president held talks with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev, respectively. In Yerevan (July 17), Michel made clear Brussel’s readiness to not only fulfill the role of “honest broker” in the peaceful resolution of the conflict around Karabakh but also to help Armenia overcome its economic dependence on Russia and strengthen the country’s cooperation with the West. This will include financial assistance to Armenia amounting to 2.6 billion euros ($3.1 billion).
Two days later, speaking at the Georgian-Ukrainian-Moldovan conference in Batumi, Michel declared that the European Union will remain a “strong and reliable partner for the region.” An additional stimulus for the development of the Eastern Partnership countries will be a huge and unprecedented economic investment package, with concrete flagship initiatives for each partner country. This economic and investment plan will be supported by 2.3 billion euros ($2.7 billion), with the potential to mobilize up to 17 billion euros ($20 billion) in public and private investments for the region. Also, the EU will invest in the creation and renewal of thousands of kilometers of roads and railways by 2030, which will further shrink the distances between regional societies.
This investment promises to provide access to financing for local small- and medium-sized enterprises, assist digital transition in the region, and support greater climate and health resilience. “I believe our Eastern Partnership is the locomotive for transformation, prosperity and growth. It has been one generation of independence for you. And in this one generation, the distance between your societies and the EU has shrunk in unprecedented ways. The EU is your most committed partner for greater democracy, for greater stability, for greater prosperity, and above all, for the benefits of the people of your countries,” the European Council president said.
The former head of the Georgian Diplomatic Academy, Joseph Tsintsadze, in a July 30 interview with this author, called the plan announced by President Michel for the post-Soviet space and the South Caucasus “an analogy” of the Marshal Plan for Europe. “Seventeen billion euros is a very large amount for our region. After the departure of Belarus from the Eastern Partnership, the EU is not retreating from the region and, on the contrary, it is strengthening its influence as a global player,” Tsintsadze emphasized. The pro-Western politicians in Georgia and the other countries of the region appear confident that the only development likely to prevent the implementation of the “Michel Plan” would be full-scale regional destabilization brought about by renewed Russian aggression against its neighbors.