Foreign Minister Baerbock in Georgia: Between hope and staying in power
Annalena Baerbock encourages Georgia to stick to a pro-European course. But the Russian influence on the country remains enormous.
TBLISI taz | What a permanent crisis means in Georgia becomes clear to Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock when she comes to South Ossetia at the latest. Around 70 kilometers north of the capital Tblisi, the Green politician is standing on a hill – at observation point number 5 near Odzisi – and is looking through binoculars at a Russian military base. The station is close to the so-called administrative line, which is monitored by the EU mission EUMM (European Union Monitoring Mission). The European Union sent around 250 observers there, 28 come from Germany.
Their task is after the end of the fighting between Russia and Georgia in 2008 Compliance with ceasefire agreements to monitor. The observers should ensure stability and create trust. Both are difficult. Sebastian Hulde has been doing this basic work for the EU mission for about a year. During her visit, the 43-year-old shows the German Foreign Minister the hotspots on the administrative line, maps, photos and the positions of the border guards. There are said to be a total of 19 from the Russian side, and Russia has stationed up to 30 soldiers there.
Hulde, like all EU observers, is unarmed and wears a blue vest with the EU flag on it. He could also be a ranger in a national park. But his job is to ensure that communication between the conflicting parties Russia and Georgia is maintained. There is no direct talk, but only through the intermediaries. This becomes existential on many days of the year when people from the region cross the administrative line. And for very practical reasons. For example, when cows escape or the water supply runs out. A hotline is available around the clock, through which the EU observers announce the cross-border commuters. If there is no mediation and registration, this can mean arrest and imprisonment for up to two years.
On the way to EU observation point number 5, Annalena Baerbock drives over bumpy roads, past ramshackle houses with crumbling facades, sheds and huts that have been pieced together. A few hundred people live in the poor region, many work in the fields. Life is difficult and the 2008 war and its consequences are still visible. On the night of August 7-8, Georgian troops shelled the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.
At the time, the incumbent Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili believed he could quickly regain control of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. He misjudged this, because Moscow interfered, and Russian troops advanced far into Georgian territory. The war was ended four days later through the mediation of France under the mandate of the EU Council Presidency.
Internally displaced people are looking for perspectives
The losses were bitter: around 850 dead, thousands injured and around 100,000 people who became internally displaced. This Friday, the German Foreign Minister will also meet two young women whose families have fled on the hill of the EU observation mission. In 2008 they were 4 and 5 years old. From the hill you can even see where the village is on the South Ossetian side, they say, pointing in the direction of a forested area. Today only a handful of families live there, they report. And: For themselves and their closest relatives, they see no prospects there.
Both talk about trying to bring together young people in the region. They organize film nights, art projects. The activities appear small in the apparently insoluble and swelling permanent conflict. But they eased the pain a little, says one of the two. The visit to the station of the EU observation mission, from which they can see their homeland, is very emotional. They are words to which Baerbock cannot give a correct answer, she can only listen. And take a selfie with the two women to say goodbye. Georgia’s relations with the autonomously administered area in the north of the country are difficult. Given the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine nobody here is assuming that the local situation will ease up any time soon.
And now? Baerbock sees this as her mission in Georgia to keep young people engaged, reduce frustration and give them a perspective. After visiting observation point number 5, they will return to the capital to the Ilia University. Around 30 students want to talk to her about the Georgia’s chances of joining the EU argue. The great hope in the EU is already evident at the entrance to the university: the Georgian and European flags hang on the outside facade. The students are not just interested in jobs, but in getting a good education, better health care, freedom of expression and gender equality. All topics in which Baerbock is at home.
Georgian students: Don’t leave us alone!
In June 2022, the EU made Ukraine and the neighboring Republic of Moldova candidate countries. Georgia was promised this status, albeit on the condition that a 12-point plan is implemented. This includes, for example, the fight against corruption, the rule of law, safeguarding freedom of the press and freedom of expression – and so-called de-oligarchisation. There were demonstrations for days at the beginning of March with thousands of participants against a controversial draft law for an “agent law”. The government under Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili used water cannons and tear gas against the protesters. Internationally, the pictures of people defending Georgia’s accession to the EU and opposing the Georgian police apparatus attracted enormous attention.
Almost all of the students who want to convince the German foreign minister of their position on the EU that day took part in the protests. “Don’t leave us alone” is her message to Baerbock. She insists that she and Germany came to Georgia as friends who want the Caucasus republic to be in the EU. For many of the young population in particular, however, this is not feasible with the current government under Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. They consider them too pro-Russian, too steeped in the power behavior of oligarchism. Baerbock says what a diplomat needs to say: government needs civil society and civil society needs government to push for EU accession.
She already came with that principle at a meeting with four representatives of Georgian non-governmental organizations not further. The four women’s message to Baerbock: Speak clear words. And don’t trust this government. The “agent law” was withdrawn. But: All four women agree that the current leadership under the ruling Georgian Dream party will make further attempts to continue its pro-Russian course. They also assume that the “agent law” will be repeated.
Critical media, rights for LGBTIQ groups, civil society work critical of the government – they all see this threatened if the incumbent government introduces further anti-European laws and follows a pro-Russian course. Baerbock also makes it clear that there are still enormous gaps here. Your offer: Support through German political foundations, the Goethe Institute and at the diplomatic level. And she affirms: We, the EU, have great respect for your passion for joining the European Union. In order to implement the 12 points, they want to “take this final step together now,” says Baerbock after a meeting with her Georgian counterpart Ilia Darchiashvili.
Too many jamming fires in Georgia
had on Thursday Baerbock in North Macedonia Easier game: She passionately promoted the EU project and, in an unusually long press conference in front of Macedonian and German journalists, wanted to get all parties to compromise for a constitutional change. But she won’t get anywhere in Georgia with emotions alone.
There are simply too many disruptive fires, as can be seen upon arrival in the Caucasus republic. Like all trips by the Federal Foreign Minister, this one is also precisely timed. All program points are geared towards perfection, but things don’t run entirely smoothly. Even the arrival of the foreign minister’s plane is bumpy. Shortly before the landing approach, the pilot has to go around again. Whether it’s a standard situation or an exceptional case – how it came about is not entirely clear until the end of the trip.
Every delay and disruption creates excitement in an already complex situation. Around 3.7 million people live in Georgia, the country on the Black Sea. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the republic has been under enormous influence and pressure from Russia. The breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are supported by Russia, and Russian troops are stationed in the region. 20 percent of the national territory is occupied by Russia. Georgia has become the plaything of geostrategic simulation games.
Well over 80 percent of the Georgian population want their country to join the EU – and also NATO. But with the start of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, fears are growing in the country that Georgia could become the next trouble spot. Internationally, the South Caucasus republic has only half-heartedly positioned itself alongside Ukraine, but has repeatedly endorsed UN resolutions condemning the war and Russia. If you want to join the EU, that also includes foreign and security policy, says Baerbock.
Therefore, direct flights from Tbilisi to Moscow should not be resumed. This possibility has been discussed for weeks. Most recently, the mayor of Tbilisi, Kacha Kaladze, spoke out in favor of it. The Georgian Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, is keeping a low profile. Darchiashvili stressed that relations between Russia and Georgia relate only to the ceasefire agreement and take place on “international platforms”.
Pressure from all sides
Solidarity with Ukraine can be seen on the streets of Tbilisi. In addition to the EU flag, the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag hangs in many places. Artists organize solo concerts to raise money for the refugees. “The fact that you are also supporting Ukraine with your background clearly shows what values you share,” Baerbock never tires of affirming.
The four women in the office of the NGO in the old town of Tblisi certainly don’t look tired either. There is still hope, but the pressure is increasing. They convey very clearly to the German Foreign Minister how much the representatives of civil society are being hostile to. Hate in social media against oneself, Annalena Baerbock knows that too well. In Georgia it has already spilled over into the real world. The faces of the protest leaders ended up on placards defaming themselves as agents. The posters were distributed across the city.
It will certainly not be Baerbock’s last visit to the geopolitically important region. Parliamentary elections will be held in Georgia next year – a crucial decision for the future course of the country. The pro-EU protest movement wants to hold out, as does the pro-Russian government.