EU Flags and Fireworks Show Georgia’s Dreams

Few European Union countries appear to love the EU as much as Georgia does. EU flags hang outside every government building and in every ministerial office here. They are ubiquitous symbols of Georgia’s EU ambitions, although actual membership remains a distant dream. So when three high-ranking Europeans came to visit last week — French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner; his Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski; and EU foreign policy chief  Catherine Ashton — they got an enthusiastic welcome and hours of celebratory television coverage.

Kouchner was greeted with a lavish firework display at the presidential palace in Tbilisi, while Ashton was serenaded by an orchestra in Batumi. Much like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Georgia a week earlier, they told Georgians what they wanted to hear: Russia should stop violating the cease-fire agreement and pull its troops out of the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What these encouraging words will mean in practice is another matter. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin quickly hit back at Clinton’s assertion that the two regions were “occupied” by the Russian forces. He quipped that it would be better to say they had been “liberated.” Moscow shows no sign of even considering the possibility of withdrawal, whatever Western diplomats say.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin-backed administrations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have announced that they are pulling out of the next round of reconciliation talks backed by the EU, United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and have dismissed a new Georgian strategy for “engagement through cooperation.” The prospects for fruitful dialogue don’t exactly look good right now.

Most of Georgia’s recent foreign guests also met local opposition leaders, who advised them that this country isn’t as democratic as President Mikheil Saakashvili would like them to think. But these consecutive morale-raising visits will inevitably be seen as a boost for Saakashvili’s government, which still needs all the global assistance it can get amid its never-ending disputes with Russia.

Saakashvili visibly glowed when Ashton praised Georgia’s reform process, live on national television. As he put it, Georgia has “European faith, European orientation and European instincts.”

Some observers consider the idea of Georgia in Europe a preposterous fantasy, but for many people here it’s one that they want to believe in.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

See also:

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