As U.K. Turns Its Back on the EU, Georgia Desperately Wants In

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On a giant pillar in Freedom Square, the central rotunda in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a gleaming golden sculpture of St. George—the patron saint of both Georgia and England—slays a dragon. Just steps away, a giant screen featuring the U.K. flag touts Britain as a centre for investment and culture.

The fluttering Union Jack is part of a sprawling promotional campaign the U.K. is putting on this fall in Georgia, as it aims to tighten ties with the Caucasian country before the U.K.’s three-year-old Brexit plans take it out of the EU.

Its location, however, is not short of irony.

The Freedom Square billboard sits atop Georgia’s information center on NATO and the EU, a government agency dedicated in part to furthering Georgia’s urgent goal of becoming a full member of the bloc—a goal that analysts say is, at the very least, years out of reach.

As U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson and his allies are desperately trying to crash out of the EU, Georgia is just as desperately trying to claw its way in.

Blue and gold

Across Tbilisi, government buildings—including the city hall on Freedom Square—typically feature two flags: that of Georgia—a post-Soviet country of 3.7 million wedged between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia—and the EU’s.

The EU flag of midnight blue with its ring of gold stars began making routine appearances behind then-president Mikheil Saakashvili in the early 2000s, before it became more prominent during Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia. It has since appeared regularly during political rallies and milestones, including when Georgia and the EU agreed to visa-free travel in the Schengen zone in 2017.

In everyday life, too, it is a fixture: it flies outside government buildings, flutters in offices, and even hangs from balconies and the dashboards of cabs.

The country shares use of the symbol with several other post-soviet, non-EU countries, including Ukraine and Moldova, which also fly the EU flag—but the practice is arguably most common in Georgia.

“There is this drive to be seen as a European country, a normal country, away from the Russian influence,” says Dan Arenson, a senior analyst at risk consultancy GPW Group. “I think [the EU flag] is a symbol, for sure.”

Protestors wave the Georgian and EU flags during a peace demonstration on September 1, 2008, in Freedom Square in Tbilisi, shortly after the war between Russia and Georgia in August of that year. Credit: Olivier Laban-Mattei—AFP via Getty Images

For many Georgians, particularly the younger generations, EU flags are not just the emblem of a political relationship—or a means to ward off a security threat in the form of Russia—but rather a symbol of identity. 

“We are Europeans, our identity is [as] Europeans,” says Levan Giorgadze, the 32-year-old co-founder of Tbilisi Free Walking Tours, who picks up his daily tour groups in Freedom Square. “It doesn’t matter the geographical location, because we’re talking about the identity of the people.” 

Georgia now has an association agreement with the EU, a relationship that comes with free trade, and a member of the Council of Europe, an organization intended to uphold human rights, which has non-EU states as members.

But the country’s leaders have repeatedly expressed a desire to go further: in July, the French-born president, Salome Zurabishvili, who holds a largely ceremonial role in the Georgian government, said that Georgia intended to be “a little bit patient” with the EU’s internal conflicts, but expressed a desire to “knock on every door, to open every door,” in a bid to eventually becoming an EU member country.

In Georgia, using the EU as a bulwark against Russia influence is not merely theoretical. In August 2008, Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia in and around the breakaway regions of Abkhazia in the northwest, and South Ossetia in the north, which both Georgia and the EU consider to be Georgian territories now occupied by Russia.

Those regions represent about 20% of Georgia’s territory, and the boundaries of the territories are monitored in part by an EU mission put in place after the war. In March, the EU said that Russia had continued to illegally violate the ceasefire agreement while also restricting freedom of movement, discriminating against ethnic Georgians within the regions, and committing other human rights abuses. Russia has repeatedly denied it is an occupying power, and says the two regions are independent states.

Those territorial disputes effectively eliminate Georgia’s chances of becoming an EU “candidate” country, at least in the next decade, analysts say.

Not only has the appetite to expand the bloc waned within member countries, as the EU grapples with its own internal crises—from Brexit and other eurosceptic movements, to the slowing of eurozone economies—but any movement in Georgian membership will also risk further tension with Russia.

Still, Georgadze, for one, is hopeful.

“It takes time to adopt the regulations, but there are many changes now,” to adopt the standards for EU membership, he says. “From 15, 16 years ago to now [in Georgia], it’s like sky and ground, like black and white. We made a huge jump.”

A Brexit breakthrough?

Given Georgia’s obstacles to entering the EU, it seems unlikely that Brexit, of all things, could offer the country the breakthrough it desperately wants.

But in April, Zourabichvili told Bloomberg that Georgia was looking at the situation “to get the most out of it.”

“There is a logic that the country that has been steadily moving toward and wanting Europe can’t be treated less than the country that’s steadily moving away from Europe,” she said at the time.

The EU and Georgia have continued to have political discussions: most recently, in March, the EU said both sides had reaffirmed their commitment to advancing “Georgia’s deeper political association and economic integration with the EU.”

EU flags flutter next to Georgian flags outside the National Bank of Georgia in Tbilisi in October 2019. Credit: Katherine Dunn
Katherine Dunn

But if anything, Brexit probably will further weaken Georgia’s chances.

“Just in purely practical terms, what’s going on with Brexit will push things like this down the pecking order,” said Avram Libenau, also a political risk analyst at GPW.

In the meantime, the U.K. has spotted an opening and moved to strengthen its own relationship with Georgia.

On October 21, the U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab signed a “strategic partnership agreement” with his counterpart, David Zalkaliani, to ensure that free trade between the two countries continues after the U.K. leaves the EU. The agreement also recognized Georgia’s desire for greater integration with Europe—and its sovereignty over its borders, including the regions occupied by Russia.

The agreement will go into force after Brexit, it said.

Georgia’s ministry of foreign affairs, and the Georgia’s information center on NATO and the EU, did not respond to requests for comment.

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