With the Ukrainian crisis in mind, the top European Union official in charge of EU enlargement arrived in Tbilisi on March 4 to underline that Brussels is considering a host of measures to support Georgia’s eagerness for closer ties with the EU and to help resist potential pressure from Russia.
Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Štefan Füle spoke generally of economic aid and support for Georgia’s struggle to preserve its territorial integrity, but keeping an eye out for renewed Russian pressure on Georgia does not just apply to these areas. It also appears to mean convincing skeptical Georgians that associating with Europe does not make a country gay by association.
All ex-Soviet countries which Moscow last year tried to discourage from initialing an association agreement with the EU, including Ukraine, have seen propaganda campaigns claiming that joining the EU economic space comes with a requirement to permit gay marriages.
Brussels, therefore, has become forced to spell out that the association agreement Georgia initialed last year is about free trade, not free love, and that countries are left to make their own decisions on LGBT rights.
To that end, aside from government officials, Füle met with the powerful leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriach Ilia II, to assure him that the EU has “no intention to undermine Georgia’s traditional values.”
Unlike Ukraine, Georgia does not have a strong trade and energy dependence on Russia, and robust cross-party support exists for identifying with the EU. Consequently, many analysts believe that Orthodox Christianity and conservative values are two areas Russia, also a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, can exploit to frighten Georgia away from Europe.
Such a risk-calculation cannot be dismissed; last year, a mob, spurred on by Georgian Orthodox priests, violently attacked an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi. The patriarch has distanced himself from such violence. Last month, he expressed support for European integration, but not before he received assurances from the EU delegation to Tbilisi that gay marriage will not be forced upon Georgia.
In broadcasted remarks during Füle's visit, however, the patriarch underlined that reports "in certain countries" that the Church does not support European integration are incorrect. In fact, that integration should not be postponed, he added. "[T]he Church will do everything so that this idea [of membership in the European Union] is fulfilled," he emphasized.
[This post was updated at 1:16pm ET on March 4.]