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What's At Stake In Riga?

A projection of the Georgian and EU flags during celebrations for the Association Agreement with the EU in Tbilisi in June 2014.
A projection of the Georgian and EU flags during celebrations for the Association Agreement with the EU in Tbilisi in June 2014.

Awkward silence or a strong message? The dilemmas facing the EU ahead of the May 21-22 Eastern Partnership summit in Riga are far from trivial. The backdrop is one of war in Ukraine -- and a range of other aggressive acts whereby Russia has violated the principles of inviolability of borders and peaceful relations with some of its neighbors.

The challenge for the EU is to respond to this crisis in a way that a) does not lead to an escalation of tensions; b) does not jeopardize international norms and principles; and c) does not appear to reward bullying, compromising its interests in the neighbourhood. Doing all three at the same time appears difficult, if not impossible.

Since politics is the art of the possible, the EU and its partners are engaged in an effort to find a compromise of sorts. For Georgia, a small state which has already been a victim of military aggression and is continuously under pressure from Russia, it is essential that basic norms and principles are not compromised and our country’s aspirations and pro-European choice are recognized.

It is often said that the Eastern Partnership countries have been made to choose between Russia and Europe, ignoring established historical, emotional, and economic ties. In order to redress this "mistake," the argument goes, we should create an over-arching, all-inclusive framework where artificial choices will be avoided and no dividing lines can be created.

Natalie Sabanadze
Natalie Sabanadze

This reasoning is based on a number of false assumptions, first and foremost ignoring the fundamental fact that some of the Eastern Partnership states, including Georgia, very consciously and willingly made their choice for European integration. This was an informed choice by citizens about what kind of state they wish to build and what path of development they choose to follow. Nothing in this choice is artificial, threatening, or divisive. On the contrary, it is a choice for advancing democracy and mutually beneficial interdependence: a foundation for peace and security in Europe, from which all will benefit, including Russia.

Secondly, the existence of old connections cannot be made as the basis for policy decisions today, exaggerating their past and present significance. There are no diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia and economic links, severed since 2006, are only now in the process of gradual restoration.

It should also be recognized that our historical and emotional ties are far from simple. We share a difficult Soviet past, which Georgia is keen to leave behind. It is time to move on and build new foundations for our renewed relationships if these are to be genuine, forward-looking and mutually beneficial.

In Riga, the EU should once again uphold the right of sovereign nations to decide on their future and recognize that no third party can challenge their legitimate choices. The failure to do so would imply tacit recognition of ''spheres of influence'' and lead to the emergence of the very dividing lines that the EU is so keen to avoid.

Georgia’s European integration path is manifested in the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (AA/DCFTA) it recently signed with the EU -- as did Moldova and Ukraine. These instruments, which we are implementing, can have a transformative and modernizing impact on our states and economies. Free movement of people will be key to maximising this impact. With all technical requirements completed, we hope that Georgian citizens will soon be able to travel without visas to European countries.

For the average citizen, visa-free travel would represent a tangible and valuable benefit from EU integration. It would mean more tourism, more student, civil society, and professional exchanges and more business opportunities. But there is more to it. It is the personal experience with the reality of the EU -- its values, its system of governance, and its ways of doing business and politics – which will bring about genuine transformation at the societal level. It will help build linkages between Georgia and the EU not only at diplomatic and elite levels but also at a level of the individual citizen. One should not underestimate the importance of these linkages as these often translate into political leverage by nurturing citizens with high expectations of democracy, good governance, and the rule of law.

Natalie Sabanadze is Georgia's ambassador to the EU. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.