Fifteen years ago this month, while all eyes were set on Beijing for the opening of the 29th Olympic Games of the modern era, war broke out between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. Officially part of Georgia since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it remained occupied by Moscow, as did the Black Sea coastal region of Abkhazia. Georgia’s then-president, Mikhail Saakachvili, attempted to regain control of these territories, which represent 20% of Georgia’s surface area, but to no avail. At the instigation of Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, the European Union took on the role of mediator.
Russia is still exerting pressure to penetrate further into the territory today through what is known as the technique of “frontierisation”. It aims to make a territorial conquest irreversible by transforming a simple administrative demarcation line into an international border. The process, which Russia has used extensively in the past, particularly in Central Asia, is being deployed in Georgia and Ukraine.
Russia’s objectives in the South Caucasus are similar to those that led to its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The overall ambition is to maintain or re-establish Russia’s control over the political, military and economic resources of what it has long regarded as its sphere of influence. The region is essential for Moscow in terms of trade and access to energy along a north-south corridor linking Russia to Iran and India.
Georgia is torn, both within the government and public opinion, between pro-Western sentiments and the prospect of EU membership on the one hand, and the need to maintain ties with neighbouring Russia on the other. This divide has been further exacerbated by the arrival in Georgia in 2022 of around 100,000 Russian citizens fleeing their country, a situation that is boosting the Georgian economy but is also a source of uncertainty and anxiety.
The countries of the South Caucasus are once again at the heart of a complex game in which the military, economic and political interests of the major powers clash and intermingle. Despite sharing common interests, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan face very different situations and challenges in their relations with the Russian Federation and Turkey, whose influence is growing in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
A crossroads of influence
Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan was decisive in the war against Armenia (supported by Russia), which wanted to maintain its control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkish support serves Erdogan’s ambitions in Central Asia: to rebuild historical, cultural, linguistic, economic and political links with Turkic-speaking countries. The Organisation of Turkic States, founded in 2009 by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, welcomed Uzbekistan in 2019 and can be seen as a challenge to the hegemony of Russia and China in the region.
Azerbaijan, even as it balances the interests of Turkey and Russia, has also been a partner of the European Union since 2022. The strategic energy partnership signed in Baku in July of that year supports the doubling of the capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor from 2027.
Georgia is also a transit zone for goods trains from China and Central Asia bound for the European Union, via the Trans-Caspian rail corridor, an important alternative to the northern corridor, which crosses Russia and Belarus. The fastest route is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) rail link, which then leads to the Turkish ports or the undersea Marmaray train tunnel.
The ports of Georgia, Poti and Batumi, and potentially the new port of Anaklia, offer the possibility of a direct link to Central and Eastern Europe via the Black Sea. Since purchasing the first of these terminals in April 2011, Netherlands-based APM Terminals has been negotiating with the Georgian government for a $250 million investment, including the construction of a deepwater port capable of handling Panamax vessels.
It will be a new gateway to Europe, serving the needs of businesses in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as their trading partners in Central Asia. It will also offer the shortest connection to the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), with regular container-shipping lines linking the ports of Poti or Batumi in Georgia to the ports of Constanta (Romania), Odessa (Ukraine) and Varna (Bulgaria).
EU agencies and financial institutions, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), are also financing projects in Georgia’s energy, transport, agro-industry and finance sectors.
A fragile partnership
Georgia is thus a key partner for the European Union in terms of energy and transport policy, as well as trade and economic cooperation with the countries of the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia. EU countries are already among Georgia’s main trading partners, accounting for 17.7% of Georgian exports in 2021, followed by China (16.6%), Russia (13.3%), Azerbaijan (12.7%) and Turkey (8.7%).
Despite these encouraging economic prospects, the EU’s response in June 2022 to Georgia’s membership application was a simple recognition of the country’s “European perspective”“, while Ukraine and Moldova were granted official candidate status. The European Commission’s opinion on Georgia’s application for membership defined twelve priorities that the country must meet in order to obtain candidate status. These include strengthening the independence of the anti-corruption authority, promoting gender equality and working toward the "de-oligarchisation” of the country.
The policy of rapprochement with Russia pursued by the ruling party, the “Georgian Dream” founded by the oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanichvili, has led to the EU’s priorities being implemented as slowly as possible. The EU member states must decide whether or not to grant Georgia the status of candidate country before the end of 2023, and thus face a “terrible dilemma” in the words of the Robert Schuman Foundation.
Not to give the candidate status to Georgia in an attempt to punish the current government would only serve to discourage public opinion, which is predominantly pro-European, and leaders such as President Salome Zurabishvili, a former diplomat. The demonstrations in March 2023 against the Russian-inspired “foreign agents” law showed the division of the country and the fragility of the situation. Were the bill to pass, organisations that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad would have to register as “foreign agents”, or face fines.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, said at the time that its adoption could have “serious repercussions on [EU-Georgian] relations”. Of that there can be no doubt.