|Why Georgia deserves more appreciation from Europe|
|June 16, 2011|
The mistakes of Georgia's president should not be used as a pretext to neglect a pro-Western country. Blinking, yawning and scratching, the European Union is waking up to the idea that enlargement to the western Balkans is a pressing priority.
Croatia will be in soon, Serbia next, probably Montenegro after that and then, eventually, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. It will take a long time, but each new accession will make the remaining ones look more anomalous. It also looks as though Moldova's status as a black hole on the Black Sea is ending, though the institutional process has yet to catch up with the new political will now being expressed. The feeling of inevitability may be premature, but it is pleasurable.
The region certainly gives the Polish presidency plenty to work on. Nobody will blame officials and politicians in Warsaw if they are unable to also conjure life into relations with countries farther east, such as Belarus and Ukraine.
My big worry now is that Georgia gets neglected. President Mikheil Saakashvili has done his country few favours in his European diplomacy. He has disappointed the Poles, riled the Germans and burned sympathies in many other formerly supportive countries. Kosovo's president was invited to dinner with Barack Obama in Warsaw last month. Saakashvili was not. That was a telling snub.
It is hard to remember the time when the Georgian leader was the reform darling of the Euro-Atlantic community, blitzing corruption with one hand, building infrastructure with another and trying to use soft power to win back the loyalties of people in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia's achievements were indeed a bit overstated then, but they risk being unfairly denigrated now. The handling of opposition protests in recent weeks was exemplary (casualties came because of reckless driving by a convoy carrying a leader of the protests). The authorities have learnt much since November 2007, when they sent riot police into the studios of broadcasters they disliked. Despite what some bits of the radical opposition claim, Georgia is not a dictatorship. The economy – amazingly – has survived both war and other attempts to disrupt it, including a systematic campaign of bombings and media smears. If you want a free-market, law-governed, multi-party success story, the next stop after Georgia is South Korea.
Georgia is also reverting, belatedly, to boxing cleverly in its dealings with the Russian republics of the north Caucasus: visa-free travel and the offer of decent higher education to the people living there undermines Kremlin propaganda. Given Russia's mismanagement of the region, and the danger of a bubbling insurrection turning into a volcano, the sight of a pro-Western country trying to be a force for stability, prosperity and good-neighbourliness deserves a bit more appreciation.
Even those who cannot forgive the Georgian president for his mistakes (impetuousness, bad choices of his advisers and self-indulgence are among them) should not punish the whole Georgian people for their leader's failings. It would be a particular scandal if Russia, for example, were to get visa liberalisation before Georgia.
In the past, EU neglect of Georgia was balanced by American love. But as Robert Gates, the departing US secretary of defence, said so bleakly last week, the US's commitment to Europe is fraying under the weight of apathy, stinginess and disengagement from its supposed allies. Georgia is not a member of the alliance but bears its burdens gladly and admirably (rather like Sweden, but that is another story). This may not be enough to refrain US attention in future.
Neglecting Georgia will appease Russia, which likes to think that it can do deals with Europe over the heads of inconvenient small countries. That would be an appalling precedent to set.
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
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