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amid challenges, georgia’s european dream moves forward

Amid Challenges, Georgia’s European Dream Moves Forward

Author: Nicholas Castillo

Nov 29, 2023

Image source: shutterstock

The mood was exuberant in Tbilisi following the November 8 announcement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that she would recommend Georgia for European Union candidate status. Georgians celebrated on the streets of Tbilisi, waving EU and Georgian flags as officials made congratulatory statements. Speaking of the occasion in a televised address, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stated, "It's a great honor for me to congratulate you all on this historic decision...This is, of course, an historic day for Georgia." While EU member states will make the official decision on candidate status in December, the endorsement of the European Commission is a major step forward. Despite the celebrations in Georgia, several core challenges remain for the Caucasus country as it pursues EU membership.

Once seen as one of the most pro-EU countries of the former Soviet Union, recent developments have cast doubts on the future of European enlargement into the country. This was crystalized in December of 2022 when Brussels granted candidate status to fellow EU hopefuls Moldova and Ukraine while leaving out Georgia. Instead, Tbilisi received a list of 12 “priorities” that should be addressed to become a candidate country, including media freedoms, de-oligarcization, an open elections environment, and judicial independence. 

Several controversies, including attempts to pass a Russian-style foreign agents’ bill that would hold suspect recipients of foreign assistance, along with the attempted impeachment of the country’s pro-EU president, seemed to demonstrate a political incoherence to Georgia’s government.  However, Georgia’s rhetoric and some policies still point to a desire to join the EU. Overall, the 2023 Communication on EU Enlargement policy on Georgia found that only three of the 12 EU “priorities” given to Tbilisi had been completed, and noted mixed results on some fronts and a lack of progress of others. 

On the issue of corruption, for instance, the report notes that Tbilisi has established an anti-corruption bureau and, at the same time, has withdrawn from the EU-backed OECD anti-corruption network. A September visit to the country by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, cast a shadow over Georgia’s European aspirations. Borrell re-iterated the EU’s commitment to Georgian accession, but also critiqued the current government: “The work undertaken by Georgia has been acknowledged, but additional efforts are required,” he said, adding, “There’s little time left until these important decisions for Georgia’s future are made.”

A recent EU Commission statement, however, recommends Georgia’s candidate status, praising Tbilisi for current progress, particularly on gender equality, combatting organized crime, and some reforms to the judiciary system. Von der Leyen stated that she “fully supported” Georgian citizens’ desire for EU membership, and that “tangible steps” were taken to meet the previously outlined principles the European Union had given Tbilisi. 

To some observers, the decision to recommend candidate status to Georgia may surprise some observers, given the lack of comprehensive progress. However, the decision makes more sense once factoring in the strategic interests of the EU. Brussels faced significant challenges concerning Georgia’s accession. On the one hand, EU reports claim Tbilisi had made minimal progress on the EC’s 12 items outlined last year. However, failure to acknowledge at least some accession progress, could well result in disillusioning the Georgian public on EU membership, though 89% of Georgians say they remain committed to their country’s possible European future

Further, a failure to provide some hope would leave the ruling Georgian Dream party with few incentives to seek to balance relations between Brussels and Moscow.  By granting candidate status to the Georgians, Brussels would, so to speak, place the ball in Tbilisi’s court and offer incentives at both the elite level and the street level to mobilize in order to attain membership. 

Nevertheless, the European Commission also noted that candidate status is contingent on the nine points outlined in its communication on enlargement. Crucially, these include combatting misinformation, ensuring free and fair elections in 2024, further improvements on judicial reform and human rights, and perhaps most crucially, foreign policy alignment with Brussels. Georgia, which borders Russia, and for whom 20% of its internationally recognized territory is occupied by Russian-backed separatists, has sought a different route than the staunch anti-Russia position dominant in Europe. Instead, Georgia has tried to balance its relations with neighboring Russia and is reticent to impose sanctions on Russia, resuming commercial flights between the two countries. Furthermore, Georgia has allowed over 100,000 Russians to cross the border from Russia, many of whom still work for Russian companies and pay taxes to the Russian state. 

Taking a hawkish stance against Russia may, in fact, prove to be one of the toughest components of EU accession for the Georgian Dream. The party acted with trepidation toward a more aggressive stance toward Moscow and has accused critics of hoping to open up a “second front” of the Russia-Ukraine war in Georgia, branding their primary opposition the “war party.” Georgia, a country of only 3.5 million people, is hugely economically reliant on Russia, and implementing sanctions on the scale Brussels may ask could prove disastrous for the Georgian economy. 

Another of the nine conditions for Georgia, improving political cooperation among parties and actors, could also prove challenging. Speaking during a recent interview, Germany’s ambassador in Tbilisi stated that this may be the “basis of all” progress towards EU membership. However, Georgian politics have become highly polarized between factions in recent years, with the governing party and opposition groups accusing one another of attempting to sabotage the EU accession process for their own gains. The conflict between Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and President Salome Zourabichvili has become a near constant in Georgian politics, with the parliament attempting to impeach the President earlier this year.  The President and Parliament now regularly exchange highly critical statements.

Whether Georgia can meet foreign policy and domestic political cooperation requirements is yet to be seen. The Georgian Dream party will likely remain the dominant political force in Tbilisi following next year’s election. While the party is not broadly popular, only around 25% of citizens of Georgia state they would vote for them in the upcoming election, they are far ahead of smaller opposition groups. Barring a strong opposition challenge, even if most Georgians are dissatisfied with their governance, it seems likely that they will remain in power following next year’s elections. The Georgian Dream party will therefore be faced with a number of tasks to attain EU membership, which will likely test their commitment to joining Europe.

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