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Georgia warns post-Brexit EU not to soften stance on Russia

Georgia’s president has urged the EU not to allow Britain’s departure to affect its attitude towards defending the east of the continent, warning that a softened stance could lead to another border violation by Moscow.
Britain’s vote to leave the bloc has raised fears that the country will step back from its role as Europe’s biggest defence and security player, and will result in the EU taking a less hawkish position on Moscow. The UK has been one of the most vocal supporters of economic sanctions against Russia, both after its brief war with Georgia in 2008 and its role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
“Brexit did not add a solution to this, it added a problem. So we have to be even more focused. [Europe] has to be more concentrated,” Giorgi Margvelashvili told the FT in an interview.
"Russia’s foreign policy priorities are maintained,” he added. “So if we are not very sincere to Russia in saying that we will not accept these rules of the game, we can easily project that there will be another Georgia, another Ukraine.”
Last week’s Nato summit was overshadowed by Brexit, with many eastern European countries concerned that Britain’s partial withdrawal from the European political scene could mean a warmer relationship between Brussels and Moscow.
The decision of Theresa May, the UK’s new prime minister, to keep defence minister Michael Fallon in office has soothed some worries. But her choice of foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has raised some eyebrows — Mr Johnson has previously suggested that the EU bears some responsibility for Russia’s intervention of Ukraine.
Last week Nato promised to deepen its relationship with Georgia and committed more resources to the Black Sea region, but stopped short of offering Tbilisi membership of the defence alliance, which it craves.
“Shutting your eyes to whether Georgia . . . and the eastern partnership area should be made secure is simply not accepting reality,” said Mr Margvelashvili. “We should be more united. This must be very vividly acknowledged.”
Georgian government officials also worry that the Brexit vote — as well as the subsequent renegotiation process and soul-searching in Brussels over how to stabilise the EU — could mean further delays to Tbilisi’s hopes to enter the bloc, or watered down promises to expand eastward.
An agreement that came into force on July 1 gives Georgia access to EU markets and is a precursor to the country’s possible membership of the bloc, but talks on allowing Georgians visa-free travel to Europe are still ongoing.
“We have fulfilled all the requirements demanded by the EU and now we are just waiting. Surely it could happen faster.” said Mr Margvelashvili.
“We are not happy that it has been prolonged, but we understand why it has,” he added. “[Brexit] is a new load for the entire political process. It’s a challenge to be high on the political agenda when there is such a thing going on. It is a challenge for us. We have to be more active.”
Georgia has been the star pupil of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, aimed at bringing former Soviet states into the bloc’s trading area in exchange for liberal economic and social reforms. Unlike other countries such as Moldova, Ukraine or Belarus, it has kept a solidly pro-European political course.
But Mr Margvelashvili fears the relative lack of progress on EU and Nato accession will mean that pro-western political parties suffer at the country’s general election in October, as voters become disillusioned. “Pro-Russian, or let’s say Eurosceptic or Nato-sceptic, parties will find their way into parliament,” he said. “I am concerned about the numbers and percentages . . . [the situation] might reduce the motivation of pro-EU voters.”

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