The newly elected president of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, is using the first hundred days of her presidency to demonstrate her country’s ongoing commitment to integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. This was recently clearly evidenced by her visits to Brussels, Paris and Berlin.
Some experts believe that President Zurabishvili’s intense activity in the foreign policy arena is a direct result of the stormy and controversial election campaign that unfolded in Georgia last year (see EDM, November 13, 2018). “The opposition frequently accused Salome Zurabishvili of secretly sympathizing with Russia and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. Therefore, immediately upon being elected, she has been trying to show [Georgian] citizens the falsehood of such accusations and to confirm her commitment to the course of integration with NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the EU [European Union],” local political scientist David Avalishvili asserted (Author’s interview, March 9, 2019).
Zurabishvili’s first official visit abroad was to Brussels, on January 21–23. And in her meetings with top European officials—European Council President Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker—she specifically reaffirmed Georgia’s EU aspirations. “Georgia has defined integration into the EU as one central perspective for its development,” Zurabishvili said on January 22, at a joint press briefing with Tusk (Consilium.europa.eu, January 22). After meeting with Juncker, she reiterated this stance even more clearly: “[My] visit is a significant gesture pointing to the absolute priority Georgia gives to closer integration with the EU, to which my country belongs with its heart, its culture and its identity. Georgia is at home here,” Zurabishvili said.
Additionally, the Georgian president stressed the crucial role played by European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) on the occupation line with the separatist, Russian-occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “It is unique and extremely important to the population on both sides of the occupation line… that the EU is physically present to protect the territorial integrity of Georgia” Zurabishvili underlined (Civil.ge, January 22).
For their part, Tusk and Juncker confirmed their support for the South Caucasus country’s course toward further rapprochement with the EU.
During the same trip to Brussels, President Zurabishvili met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who thanked her for Georgia’s important contribution to the Alliance mission in Afghanistan. “The cooperation and support are mutual, and we appreciate what is being done by the Alliance to upgrade Georgia’s self-defense capabilities,” Zurabishvili said. Further remarks at NATO Headquarters underscored her country’s continued drive to ultimately join the North Atlantic Alliance. “It is very important that all political forces, the population, the government and those who will be in power in the future, share the wish of Georgia’s integration into NATO,” Zurabishvili said after meeting with Stoltenberg. “I will repeat that Georgia wants and is ready for integration into NATO… we already made a decision and that passage in that regard had been written into the [Georgian] constitution,” she noted. Zurabishvili added, “I will repeat that Georgia wants and is ready for integration into NATO and that Georgia carried out all the required reforms” (Agenda.ge, 1tv.ge January 23).
The following month, on February 19, the presidents of Georgia and France held a bilateral meeting at the Élysée Palace and signed a document on furthering French-Georgian cooperation. The visit to France for Salome Zurabishvili was of particular importance: she was born and raised in Paris, in a family of Georgian immigrants who fled to the West to escape Communist terror. For many years, Zurabishvili worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France.
At the joint press conference with President Emmanuel Macron, Zurabishvili said that Europe perceives Georgia as a reliable and important partner in the region and that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process is irreversible. She additionally thanked France for its assistance during the 2008 Five Day War as well as for the more recent supply of air-defense systems to the Georgian military. “We should work on developing strategic cooperation,” President Macron remarked and thanked Georgia for standing beside France in the Central African Republic (CAR) (Agenda.ge, February 19). According to the agreement between Tbilisi and Paris, several hundred Georgian soldiers serve as peacekeepers in the CAR (Agenda.ge, January 14).
The next day, President Zurabishvili flew to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (President.gov.ge, February 20). The Georgian leader stressed, “Georgia’s friends and partners—the Germans, French and the Americans—should be more actively engaged in dialogue and reiterate to Russia, to make them [Russia] understand, that it is necessary they change their position. It is time to demand more from our partners so that they use more levers [to pressure Moscow]” (Georgia Today, February 21).
Back home, on March 6, and speaking before the Georgian parliament, President Zurabishvili warned that occupation, pressure, threats or violence from Russia would not force the South Caucasus country to change its course toward NATO and EU integration. Moreover, Russian aggression could not stop Georgia’s commitment to build an independent, democratic state (Kommersant, March 7).
Nonetheless, the Georgian opposition still does not believe in the sincerity of the new president. One of the founders of the European Georgia party, Sergo Ratiani, said, in an interview with this author, that Salome Zurabishvili “is playing a double game with respect to the West and Russia.” He continued, “Her policy is very similar to the national emblem of Russia—an eagle with two heads. One head looks to the East and the second to the West” (Author’s interview, March 8).
Meanwhile, Zurabishvili’s tough statements in Europe on the issue of occupation may affect Georgia’s attempts at maintaining positive relations with both of its regional neighbors, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The latter two states are locked in a decades-long conflict over the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories—namely, Karabakh and several surrounding areas. Upon returning from her series of trips to the EU, she visited Baku, where she explicitly declared, “Conflicts and the violation of territorial integrity are tragedies for both countries [Azerbaijan and Georgia]. We still fight together to restore and recognize our territorial integrity in international organizations” (see EDM, March 7).
Under the current constitution, the Georgian president has only symbolic power. But in her first few months as head of state, Zurabishvili repeatedly made the case in international forums that her country would steadfastly pursue a Western course and defend itself against Russian domination. So despite the Georgian opposition’s expressed concerns, the Zurabishvili administration is, at least rhetorically, not willing to reverse Georgia’s geopolitical direction.