American author Robert Penn Warren touched upon the tide of history in his magnum opus All the King's Men:
For the West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old field-pines encroach … It is where you go when you are told you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them thar hills … Or, it is just where you go.
Warren never visited Georgia and couldn’t claim a window into the Georgian soul, but his message was intended as universal: When mankind needs to make a choice, it chooses West.
For Georgia that Western choice seems obvious. The country’s government is firmly committed to EU and NATO membership, despite the ruling Georgian Dream coalition's partial restoration of ties with Russia and last year’s sacking of pro-Western Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.
Public opinion surveys show that society consistently and overwhelmingly favors closer ties with the West. “In Georgia we still have quite high expectations and attitudes in favor of EU integration,” said Malkhaz Saldadze, a program coordinator at the Heinrich Boell Foundation's Tbilisi office.
Indeed, Georgia continues to sprint westward. But an increasing number of people are asking whether there really is gold in the Western hills. For everything the country has done to prove its commitment to the Euro-Atlantic cause, tangible results are far from evident.
The EU Association Agreement has done nothing to assuage Georgia’s recent economic woes, and the EU has given no clear signal that Georgia is a candidate for full membership.
According to an analyst in the Georgian civil service that spoke to Global Voices on condition of anonymity, the public is tiring of Western tepidness and needs assurances: “They [the EU] are creating anti-European sentiment by not giving clear signals.”
And despite the country’s firm commitment to NATO — 29 Georgian soldiers have been killed fighting in Afghanistan, for example — membership seems no closer than it did a few years ago. Disappointment with the pace of Euro-Atlantic integration is palpable in both official circles and on the ground.
Public opinion polls show West-weariness
A recent poll published by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) found that 26 percent of the country’s adults agreed that “Georgia will benefit more from abandoning Euro-Atlantic integration in favor of better relations with Russia.” In August 2014, only 19 percent agreed with the same statement.
The same survey found that 20 percent of Georgians disapprove of the government’s goal of joining NATO, nearly double the proportion giving that response in 2012.
As for EU integration, Georgian society is still overwhelmingly in favor. The NDI survey found that 68 percent of people support Georgia becoming a member of the EU. However, that number is smaller than the 78 percent who expressed support in August 2014.
Most alarmingly for Western onlookers, the poll found that 31 percent of people approve of the country joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Union. Many find this especially eyebrow-raising, given the country's 2008 war with Russia and the Kremlin's continued backing of separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both regions that most of the international community recognize as Georgian territory.
Many blame a perceived lack of political will on the part of Georgia’s Western allies for fading public interest in the Euro-Atlantic project.
The quest to become a full-fledged NATO member looks as quixotic as ever; the country still hasn’t been offered a Membership Action Plan, and on March 2 French President Francois Hollande stated that “France’s position for the moment is to refuse any new membership.”
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili channeled popular frustration on May 19 when he chastised the lack of progress on the European front: “The basic message is that Europeans don’t care about you, you are abandoned, you don’t have a choice and the European choice is doomed.”
Visa-free travel for Georgians off the EU agenda
May 21-22 brought the annual summit of the Eastern Partnership, an important forum for the EU’s relations with Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. This year's summit was held in Riga, Latvia.
Georgian leaders and members of the public expressed optimism the summit would yield the most tantalizing carrot dangled by the EU so far: visa-free travel to EU countries for holders of Georgian passports.
On May 5 Georgia’s President, Prime Minister, and Chairman of Parliament sent a joint letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk imploring the EU to grant visa liberalization.
Unfortunately for Georgia, the country’s delegation to Riga returned empty handed. Visa liberalization was not offered, and the Eastern Partnership’s Joint Declaration provided little reassurance to Georgian hopefuls.
“Since the EU made a declaration about the Riga Summit [prior to the Summit itself], nothing was said about visa liberalization at the Summit,” said the Boell Foundation's Saldadze.
Yet according to Misha Shavtvaladze, a political scientist at Tbilisi State University, the situation calls for patience. “Of course there was some expectation. But signals were weaker and weaker, gradually,” he told Global Voices. “Some reports issued by the EC indicated that we are not yet fully prepared for [visa-free travel]. I think we will get it soon. I still have expectations.”