Last Friday, after years of diplomatic wrangling over the course of two administrations, the Republic of Georgia received a report from the European Union allowing its citizens visa-free travel within the European Union sometime soon. Nevertheless, some news media earlier this year suggested that Georgia was turning toward Russia rather than the E.U.
That appeared to be true last May, when an NDI-CRRC public opinion poll declared that 31 percent of Georgians favored membership with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Have voters in the Republic of Georgia suddenly begun to prefer an ECU affiliation over their existing affiliation with the European Union?
If true, it would be shocking. Since its independence in 1991, Georgia has favored Europe overwhelmingly. Polling has found levels of support for the E.U. that Brussels could only dream of elsewhere in Europe, and serious ongoing problems between Georgia and Russia would naturally strengthen those pro-Europe leanings.
Certainly, many observers have taken that poll number to heart. Nearly a dozen publications and organizations — such as the Financial Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, the BBC, Foreign Affairs, Carnegie Endowment and Brookings Institution — have cited the number. It even seems to have influenced a Roll Call op-ed, the first sentence of which cited “recent news accounts” on Georgia and Ukraine. Almost every news account on Georgia at the time cited the number.
But that number hasn’t changed since 2013, when the Caucasus Barometer examined support for Georgian Customs Union membership. Moreover, the number by itself is misleading. The data show far fewer Georgians are consistently pro-Russian. “The Russian turn” has been overstated.
What do Georgians want? It’s complicated.
In August, Georgians were asked whether they approve of the Georgian government’s goal of joining the E.U. and whether Georgia should join the Eurasian Customs Union. Twice as many Georgians prefer the E.U. to the Eurasian Union, 61 percent to 31 percent. This has been largely consistent over time, although support for the E.U. has had its ups and downs, with a slight decline in recent years.
Nonetheless, support for the Eurasian Customs Union has never been more than half the level of support for the E.U.
Georgians fall into four consistent groups about union membership. Here’s the largest one: 39 percent say they would vote for the E.U. and against the Customs Union (marked in the graph below as pro-E.U.). Only 15 percent would vote for the Customs Union and against the E.U. The joiners, 12 percent, support membership in both unions. And the isolationists, 5 percent, would vote against both unions. An additional 11 percent don’t know how they feel about either union, and 17 percent had responses that didn’t really have a clear interpretation.
Why would any Georgians support economic union with the nation’s former oppressor, Russia?
Why would any Georgian support joining a union with Russia? Their country has de facto lost two territories to their former Soviet rulers. Its citizens have been deported en masse from Russia. Georgians have a lively collective memory of the wrongs its northern neighbor has perpetrated against it over the past 300 years.
James Carville’s famous catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” comes to mind. Seventy-one percent of those who support Customs Union membership say that membership would help Georgia’s economy. The reasoning is similar for those who support joining the European Union: 68 percent of them believe E.U. membership would strengthen the economy.
The second most common reason for supporting E.U. membership, and the third most common for supporting the Customs Union, was that it would improve the country’s security.
Those are far from surprising. Almost every time a poll asks Georgians what the country’s biggest issues are, it finds that a majority mention the economy, with the second most common response being linked to security. Georgians likely view membership – in either union – as a path towards solutions to their problems. As the Georgian national motto has it, “Strength is in unity.”
So why have the media overstated the purported “turn toward Russia?”
There are two sources at the heart of the overstatement.
First, after the Georgian Dream Coalition won a 2012 electoral victory, the party it defeated – the United National Movement — has been trying to paint the current government as pro-Russian stooges.
It’s not accurate. But some Georgian Dream Coalition members have made anti-Western statements, and recently, the minister of energy participated in discussions with Russia’s Gazprom over increasing gas supplies to the country, arousing suspicion.
Meanwhile, Russia has been intervening to shift public opinion in Georgia. For instance, Russia funded some of its supporters to dress in drag in Gori, a small town not known for its LGBT activism, to rally for anti-discrimination legislation that was required if Georgia wanted visa-free travel to the E.U. The goal was to incite an anti-E.U. reaction.
More recently, pro-Russian (and some say Russian-funded) politicians like Nino Burjanadze and the Patriotic Alliance have become more popular, and will likely gain some seats in the upcoming 2016 parliamentary elections.
With that as background, news organizations reporting the new poll data might reasonably have written headlines declaring that Georgia was turning toward Russia. But such headlines are misleading. It would have been good to ask how many people who support the Eurasian Union would just as well support the European Union.
And yet despite the fact that support for the Eurasian Customs Union isn’t as significant as was suggested this summer, Russia is indeed trying to pull Georgians closer. Pro-Russian parties received 15 percent of the party list vote in the 2014 local elections. Russia is attempting to use soft power to shift public opinion by funding organizations like the Eurasian Institute and Eurasian Choice, which promote pro-Russian positions.
In the Soviet period, Eduard Shevardnadze, who at the time was first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and later would be the second president of independent Georgia, famously said that the sun rises in the north for Georgia. If the country’s current elite, and the E.U. and U.S. for that matter, want the sun to keep rising in the West, as it has for the past 25 years, then they should consistently and frequently say so to the Georgian public. Politicians need to talk to the public about why a Euro-atlantic orientation is important for Georgia, if that’s what they really want for the country. Otherwise, it could start shifting north again.
That said, it hasn’t, yet.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC-Georgia or any of the sponsors of the survey on which this article is based.
The data on which this article is based is available here.