7 August 2023Georgia

Georgia an EU Candidate? When? On what terms?

Politicians and experts share their views

by OWM
© Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia

In June 2022, Ukraine and Moldova were granted EU candidate status; however, for Georgia, the decision on EU candidacy was postponed until the end of 2023, subject to the progress in fulfilling the 12 priorities. There are concerns among the political opposition and civil society representatives that the ruling Georgian Dream party is sabotaging the country’s European integration and, instead, is trying to align Georgia with Russia. The question of when and under what conditions the country should receive candidate status is perhaps the most discussed topic in Georgia. We reached out to representatives of the political opposition to comment on the issue: Giga Bokeria, chairman of the European Georgia party, Anna Buchukuri, member of the political council of the For Georgia party, Salome Samadashvili, political secretary of the Lelo party, and Thornike Gordadze, senior fellow at Paris Institute of Political Studies and fellow at Jacques Delors Institute.

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Anna Buchukuri
Salome Samadashvili
Giga Bokeria
Thornike Gordadze

Anna Buchukuri

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© Parliament of Georgia

Today’s Georgia is facing a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the government essentially does not comply with the 12 priorities set by the European Commission, which aim to grant the country EU membership candidate status. On the other hand, obtaining this status is critical for us, and here is why.

It is the Russian aggression in Ukraine that opened the window of opportunity for Georgia's integration into the EU. Previously, the enlargement policy of the EU was rather cautious, to say the least. We must not forget the 2008 war either. Nowadays, our European partners have come to realize that a different reaction to Russia's attack on Georgia could have deterred the Putin regime from being as bold in its decision to attack Ukraine. This is another reason for Georgia to maintain its European perspective.

At the same time, the window of opportunity will not remain open for too long. I proceed from the presupposition that the European perspective for Georgia should remain open, no matter what government runs the country right now, and despite the fact that this government does not fully implement the recommendations of the European Commission.

According to our estimations, only two of the 12 EU recommendations have been fulfilled so far. The government basically refuses to put into effect those recommendations that would undermine the foundations of its power: the balance of power, the separation of powers, anti-corruption reforms, and judiciary emancipation from the clan management. Not a single recommendation that conflicts with the political interests of the government has been followed through.

For example, significant progress has been achieved in the area of gender equality, since this issue does not involve any confrontation with the political interests of the government. For the same reason, the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights have been integrated into the national legislation system as recommended. The rest of the recommendations, however, give the government cause for fear at a loss of power and therefore those priorities are not being put into action.

Unlike most of the opposition, we were part of the informal groups working in association with the Georgian Parliament on the implementation of the EU priorities. In all these groups, we put forward our own recommendations and proposals, although none of them was accepted for this very reason — the government’s fear of losing power.

Regardless of the government we have, even though this government did not earn the status of an EU membership candidate, one thing is for certain: it is not the government that obtains the candidate status, but the state and its people. We should also take into account the geopolitical position of Georgia. Should the doors of the EU close in front of Georgia, this will mean the foreign isolation of our country. And isolation inevitably means lingering under Russian influence. All those talks about Georgia's neutrality that we hear from the government or from its experts on the payroll are nothing more than an echo of the Kremlin's narrative. Georgia has two options only: the free world — which is the EU and NATO — or Russian dominance.

Of course, there is some risk that the government may take credit for success if Georgia, indeed, obtains the status of an EU candidate and also there is a danger that the government will use this status for its own power consolidation. But we should be clearly aware of what is at stake: in my opinion, the most important thing for the country is upholding the European perspective. This is my basic assumption: Georgia should obtain the status of a candidate for EU membership precisely in reference to the geopolitical dangers. These dangers present a much more serious problem for Georgia than for other countries, since Georgia is an occupied country. Its territory has no direct connection with Europe, and so losing a European perspective would be particularly painful for the country.

Perhaps it will be necessary to link the status of an EU membership candidacy politically to the fulfillment of certain conditions. It is difficult to specify what these conditions will be. Perhaps it will involve an assessment of the 2024 parliamentary elections or some other additional qualifications, but it is important to make these conditions clear.

For example, when the government revoked the law on foreign agents copied from the Russian model, three factors were set in motion together: parliamentary processes, the protests of a large part of the citizens, and very clear signals coming from our partners, which did not confine themselves to general statements only. All these factors did not allow the Georgian government much room for maneuver. Of course, the same methods will not always produce the same results, but if synergy takes place it will always have a certain effect. This is the reason why it is of high importance that our partners for the EU candidacy status have a clear position.

Speaking of the question whether the receipt of the status and the implementation of its conditions will be tied to a certain moment — both possibilities seem acceptable to me: we might be granted the status first and then fulfill the conditions or, conversely, we might have to comply with the conditions first and then we will receive the status. The most important thing is that the Georgian people and Georgia as a state should know that the doors of the EU will remain open for us. For 80–90% of Georgian citizens their future is associated with the country’s integration into the EU and NATO. If these doors close, Georgia will be thrown back into the past for the next 20 or 25 years.

Salome Samadashvili

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© Mirian Meladze

If we look at EU-Georgia relations from the historical perspective, or the relationship between the EU and our region, it took a major security crisis to take EU policy a step closer to building a strategic relationship with countries like Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.

The 2008 War was a trigger for EU-Georgia relations, when Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its aftermath made it clear that the spill-over was a security crisis which would need to be cleaned up by the EU. The Eastern Partnership Initiative was very much a response to this crisis, the first real strategically important initiative to build a closer relationship between our countries. However, the EU membership perspective was not only never envisioned by the EU at the time, but despite tremendous efforts, the first EAP Summit in Prague failed to include the reference to the European perspective for these countries in the Summit Declaration document. Member states of the EU, at least many of them, were quite adamant to highlight that the EAP was not a path towards membership.

Sadly, it took another major security crisis, that of a larger scale Russian-Ukrainian war which started last year, for this to change. The war made what was impossible possible, Ukraine and Moldova were granted the status of candidate countries and Georgia was given European prospective candidacy status depending on its ability to deliver on the EU requirements consisting of 12 points which envision judicial, anti-corruption and other reforms.

This has been a big step forward and a major geopolitical shift in EU policy thinking. These three countries have moved to the EU’s enlargement basket from that of neighborhood policy.

However, what lies ahead is still unclear, especially for Georgia. While the European Council will decide by the end of the year whether or not to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia is still waiting for a decision on its candidacy status. The Eastern partnership trio is likely to become a ‘duo’ if this does not happen and Ukraine and Moldova will move forward without Georgia.

An interim report from the European Commission was not encouraging as only three recommendations were implemented out of the 12. The response of the government of Georgia, with the Prime Minister declaring in his address to the parliament on June 30 that all conditions are met was equally discouraging. It is clear, that the GOG has no intention to act differently and pursue with more vigor the reforms demanded by the EU. Just the opposite, the ruling majority is planning to overcome the Presidential veto on changes to the election law, which strengthens its grip on the electoral administration. No plans for reform of the judiciary or anything else, which the EU is expecting. The message is clear: the EU can take us as we are, unreformed, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian. It seems that the governing party is preparing for the eventuality of not gaining candidacy status by blaming either the opposition and NGOs for preventing it from gaining this status, or the EU itself. The Prime Minister has declared in parliament that the EPP is a global war party, once again reviving the narrative that the EU is asking for a second front against Russia in order to grant Georgia candidacy status.

Should the EU reward an anti-European, deeply corrupt government, which often takes the Russian line on the Russian-Ukrainian war with candidacy status? Will the Russian oligarchic rule in Georgia be prolonged? It is clear that the governing party views the candidacy status only in terms of its electoral value and has indeed started bracing itself for the eventuality of a failure to deliver. The events of the March 2023 protests demanding recall of the Russian law on agents and June 2019 (an international conference chaired by the Russian communist MP, Gavrilov, hosted in the Georgian parliament) are a powerful reminder of how the Georgians react to a step away from a European future and towards Russia. If these were the tests of a Russian allied government to see how the Georgian people react to open divergence from the path of Euro-Atlantic foreign policy, the Georgians have passed this test and made it very dangerous for any political party to openly support the pro-Russian course. So, if the GD wants candidacy status and this is a big ‘if’, does it want it only as a tool to secure its re-election in 2024?

What does that mean for the European Union? The EU is facing a dilemma: does it apply geopolitical reasoning and grant Georgia status in order to keep the trio together or take a merit-based approach which will require delaying the decision on granting candidacy status until Georgia has the government which delivers?

Meanwhile what the Georgian people want is not just candidacy status – the majority do not even know what this means – they want a European future, they want a functioning market economy, independent state institutions, jobs, security, freedom and prosperity, which being European means for them. Delivering this means delivering reforms, the reforms which the current government has failed to do and, if its power is entrenched further, most probably will not deliver in the future and might actually move to consolidate its autocratic rule even further, going after what remains of the independent opposition and media in the country after the next elections. The recent violent campaign against opponents, which has been given a green light by the GD politicians, is a good indication of where the GD plans to take this country. The GD will do anything to stay in power because it has too much to lose. The more corrupt the government, the more dangerous regime change is for it.

Meanwhile, Georgia needs not only candidacy status but also the speedy process of real European integration. We do not need another Balkanization process, by which I mean what has happened in some Balkan countries where the EU process is used only by self-serving elites to stay in power, and where there is no prospect of quick progress on membership due to the lack of reforms. Georgia needs EU membership, not a candidacy status which might last for decades, quick progress requires political change. Hence, the EU needs to find a way that will help the Georgian people to obtain what they want: more democratic, more accountable and more efficient government. The EU candidacy should be viewed as the tool to obtain that end.

Giga Bokeria

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© Tata Shoshiashvili / OC Media

The status of a candidate country for EU membership is an important political tool for Georgia. However, this tool will only be operational if our country has a government that is committed to use it for a real rapprochement with the EU, to join NATO, and to return to the Western world in a broader sense. Today we find ourselves in the opposite situation.

The regime of the oligarch Ivanishvili, using the false narrative of dragging the country into war, has embarked on the road of confrontation and demonization with the West, trying to convince Georgian society that the West is Georgia's enemy, that it “wants to use us for his purposes”, in particular, for “opening a second front” and plotting bloodshed in our country. This political stance, coupled with growing authoritarianism and significant restrictions on civil liberties within the country, makes the effective application of the mechanisms which are associated with the status of a candidate for EU membership impossible under this regime. We believe that our society today should prioritize democratic changes within the country today. We shouldn’t harbor the illusion that the status of being a candidate for EU membership as such, without a change of regime, would be of help to the country.

The European Georgia party will make every attempt to convince our fellow citizens that we must foster our efforts and do our best to replace this regime with a pro-Western democratic government. In any case, regardless of whether Georgia ends up obtaining the status of an EU membership candidate or not, we have to act in anticipation and counter the regime's propaganda machine with our own strategy.

If Georgia does receive the candidate status for geopolitical reasons, while still experiencing growing authoritarianism and isolation from the West, the regime’s propaganda machine will try to convince the pro-European part of the citizens that its political line, after all, is not entirely opposite to European integration and that the situation, at least, is far from a critical emergency. In this case, in order to maintain a state of uncertainty, the regime will continue to send conflicting signals to different audiences while, in fact, it will further consolidate its pro-Putin positions and further promote Black Hundred (ultra-nationalist) sentiments among citizens.

Should Georgia fail to obtain the EU candidate status, the Ivanishvili regime will propagate the idea that the West has not just rejected the Ivanishvili regime itself but rather the Georgian people in general. By doing this, they will try to further instigate nihilism and despair, arguing that the West has abandoned Georgian society to sink or swim.

We should prevent this kind of propaganda and counter it with the understanding of our primary task which is regime change and we have to convince our society of this idea. When we have a pro-Western government, it will finally be possible to take real steps towards Euro-Atlantic integration. In this case, we will be able to use the status of a candidate for EU membership as a tool for the historical return of our country to the family of Western nations.

Thornike Gordadze

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© Jasmine Martin

From the EU perspective, the European Commission is interested foremost in having Georgia hold the status of an EU membership candidate country and continuing the process of Georgia's European integration. The European Commission adheres closely to the procedural format: the process has been following the same pace and going on this way for many years, and any deferral would set a bad precedent and have a negative impact on its functioning.

Paradoxically, the Georgian government is going out of its way to prevent Georgia from obtaining the status of an EU candidate country. Even if it does receive the status, the authorities will uphold their policy of favor towards Russia.

Why does the EU need Georgia? The EU values the country for its location in a geopolitically important region, which serves as a crossroads for many transit routes connecting Europe with Asia. Recently, the Middle Corridor, passing through the South Caucasus and Turkey, has garnered significant interest from many parties due to Russia’s gradual disconnection from the global economic flow as a result of international sanctions.

We should, however, distinguish between the EU, the European Commission, and the EU member states, as their positions on EU enlargement have always varied. With this context in mind, if the EU grants Georgia the status of a candidate country, it is likely to happen on geopolitical grounds, which are becoming increasingly important even for the EU, despite its traditionally skeptical attitude towards geopolitics.

The problem lies in the fact that the Georgian government is taking action to secure the status of the country becoming an EU candidate. To address this issue and explore a positive solution, the EU and the European Commission can find their only ally in the vast majority of the Georgian population who strongly support the country’s integration with Europe as confirmed by all surveys. At the moment, the region is oscillating between integration into Russia and integration into the EU. This is the reason why for 80 or 85% of Georgian citizens the EU represents an alternative to Russia and is associated with a higher quality of life, increased income, social protection, healthcare, education, and so forth.

Should the EU grant Georgia the status of a candidate country? Undoubtedly, it should, but the main question is — how and on what terms? It is evident to everyone that the current government of Georgia is not adhering to the EU recommendations. While two or three less important recommendations have been implemented, approximately the same number have been only half-fulfilled. The most crucial ones, such as de-oligarchization, changes in electoral legislation and judicial reform, are not just far from being executed but in fact show an opposite trend toward major regression. The Georgian government claims with presumptuous arrogance that we deserve the candidate status no matter what, based on our precedence over Ukraine and Moldova. As a result, if the status is not granted, they will attribute the fault to the EU, as well as to the political opposition and the civil society of Georgia who have criticized the authorities.

The government has a prepared response to either course of events: in the case of the first scenario, it will be followed by escalated repression, an acceleration of authoritarian tendencies, and the oppression of the last pockets of freedom, such as the universities and the media that are still not state-controlled. Consequently, an even greater geopolitical rapprochement with Russia will take place. This process is irreversible, given that states of this type always gravitate into the Russian orbit.

If Georgia does receive the status of a candidate, then Ivanishvili's regime will attribute it to the fulfillment of the EU priorities. The status will present no obstacle in terms of their geopolitical orientation including rapprochement with Russia, since they view the candidate status (unlike EU membership itself) as not imposing corresponding geopolitical obligations. Serbia, for example, is a candidate for EU membership, but maintains close relations with Russia.

Considering that the EU’s decisions are based on political grounds, and not just on economic or other criteria, a very sensible decision is required here. On the one hand, it should not inflict any harm on the larger, pro-European part of the Georgian population. On the other, it should not allow the Georgian government room for maneuver or give it new opportunities to exacerbate authoritarianism and accelerate the country’s transition to the Russian orbit. If Georgia does receive the status of a candidate country for EU membership, it will be necessary to unequivocally articulate that this achievement is not done by virtue of the 'merits' of Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party. Instead, it results from the consistent policy of recent decades, satisfies the expectations of the Georgian population and civil society, and demonstrates a positive assessment of all the work they have done.

Translated from Russian by Kun

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