The policy brief “The ticking clock for Georgia’s European Future” written by Ivane Chkhikvadze of the Open Society Foundation, and commissioned by the think-tank Zentrum Liberal Moderne offers an insight into the state of affairs related to Georgia’s European candidacy bid and recommendations concluding that “the situation in Georgia is paradoxical: the country has an anti-European government and a pro-European population” and stressing that in formulating the decision on candidate, the EU will “have to consider what leverage it will retain over the country’s government if Georgia is granted candidate status.”
The report comes just days ahead of the European Commission’s assessment of Georgia’s progress in implementing the 12 priorities set by the EU for Georgia to achieve EU candidate status in December this year. On November 8 EC will present a so-called enlargement report, containing the assessment and relevant recommendations on Georgia.
Reforms and implementation of 12 EU priorities
The report notes that Georgia missed out on candidate status last year, along with Moldova and Ukraine, which got it, and that according to the EU Commission’s June interim report, Georgia had only fully met three of 12 conditions, making no progress on recommendations such as de-oligarchization, independent media or political depolarization. On the contrary, the government attempted to pass a Russian-style law on foreign agents, suppressed independent media, re-established flights with Russia, strengthened the judicial “clan” and took other controversial steps. „It was the decline of democracy and lack of political will related to EU accession that caused the EU to grant Georgia only a European perspective at the June 2022 summit and make candidacy subject to fulfillment of 12 conditions,“- says the report.
The US sanctioning of Georgian judges for corrupt practices shows the seriousness of the problems in the judiciary. According to the report, the GD government’s protection of the judges indicates that the Georgian judiciary is run by a clan with close ties to the government. This was followed by the sanctioning of the former Prosecutor General Otar Pratskhaladze, for cooperating with the Russian Federal Service and influencing Georgian society and politics in favor of Russia. The report notes that the National Bank helped Partskhaladze to avoid sanctions as its acting president Natela Turnava issued an exceptional order, changing the regulations and effectively shielding Parstkhaladze from the effect of sanctions.
Reviewing the trend of democratic decline in Georgia, the report notes developments such as the ruling party’s withdrawal from the so-called Charles Michel Agreement in 2020, the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court contrary to EU recommendations (as a result, Georgia lost €75 million of conditional EU micro-financial assistance), the continued impunity for the organizers of the violence of July 5, 2021 against media representatives, the amendments to the so-called Surveillance Law that contradict EU requirements, verbal attacks on diplomats from EU member states and the US, the illegal interception of personal correspondence and wiretapping of diplomats, and attacks on the independent media.
With regard to the 12 EU priorities, it is noted that although the timeframes for their implementation were short, the main problem was the failure of the government to demonstrate the political will and the “right track” for their implementation. As a result, only those priorities that didn’t prevent the ruling party from expanding its power base were fully implemented (appointment of an independent ombudsman, gender quality, transposition of ECHR rulings into national legislation), while little or no progress was made on priorities “that might jeopardize the Georgian Dream’s hold on power, such as ensuring the independence of the judiciary and the media, fighting elite corruption and involving civil society in decision-making”.
On the other hand, the report stresses that the Georgian population is overwhelmingly pro-European, as evidenced by opinion polls.
The report therefore argues that it is important that any decision by the EU – positive, negative or with additional conditions – be accompanied by a detailed communication explaining the basis for it, and advises that civil society and political actors be consulted in the process of formulating it. In particular, the report stresses the importance of any additional conditionality being clearly defined and measurable, with no room for interpretation. It points out that whatever the EU decides on the candidacy, it should consider “whether it will still have effective leverage over the Georgian government to encourage pro-European reforms”.
The Russian Factor
According to the report, the war of aggression unleashed by Russia against Ukraine did not allow for Georgian authorities to pursue “a balanced policy between Russia and the EU”, as it “erased the shades of grey” making the countries to chose between supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia’s aggression, or siding with Russia.
According to the report, it is becoming increasingly clear that the line between Georgian Dream’s “pragmatic policy” towards Russia and its “flattering behavior towards Russia” is becoming blurred.
It is noted, that for its part, “Russia often praises the Georgian government for its policy and even rewards it”, the cancellation in May 2023 of the visa regime for Georgian citizens that had been in place since 1999 being a case in point.
Although Georgian government has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and provided shelter to 24,000 Ukrainian refugees, and supported statements on Ukraine in international organizations, “the political support for Ukraine is virtually non-existent in Georgia, which (along with Cyprus, Malta, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and North Macedonia1) is one of the very few European countries whose head of state or government has not traveled to Ukraine to show solidarity since the war began. The government also refused to join the EU’s Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia.
Another area of concern is Georgia’s alignment with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which has declined over the years. [Although not part of the official recommendations, CFSP alignment is an important criterion for political affinity with the Union-ed]
The report makes note of such important developments as losing traditional friends by Georgia in the EU, withdrawal of GD party from the European Socialists’ Party in May this year (ahead of its imminent expulsion), siding with Hungary’s anti-liberal Viktor Orban, increasing dependence on Russia in economy and energy areas, as well as general rapprochement (restoration of direct flights, abolishment of visas, allowing an influx of Russian citizens and businesses”
Meanwhile, “according to data from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the number of Georgian emigrants emigrating per year increased by 7% from 2010 to 2020, and a total of 861,000 15 Georgians emigrated in that decade (23% of the country’s population).”
According to official data, 54,509 17 of Georgian nationals left the country in 2022. In recent years, the numbers of applications for asylum in EU countries from Georgian citizens and numbers of Georgian citizens participating in the US Green Card lottery have increased significantly.
Why the EU matters
The report notes that “the currency of the EU candidacy topic is largely due to the fact that parliamentary elections are due to be held in Georgia in autumn of 2024” stressing that it’s going to be an important factor in the upcoming elections, with political parties positioning themselves to “reap political capital from the respective success or failure.”
The ruling party’s goal is to gain candidate status on its own terms, notes the report, “which amounts to gaining status without introducing democratic reforms or building/strengthening independent institutions, which might jeopardize its hold on power.” At the same time, the Georgian Dream party needs to acquire candidate status in order to keep pro-European voters, states the report.
If candidate status is denied, the ruling party will try to blame the EU, the opposition and civil society. The report predicts that the government will also use propaganda, broadcast on state television channels, “to present the Georgian population with an artificial choice between peace and European Union accession, with the explicit expectation that the country’s population, traumatized by the 2008 war, will choose peace”.
As for the opposition, it has been unable to agree on a positive agenda, and if the country does not get candidate status, it will try to blame the ruling party and rally its pro-European voters to its side.
The European Union should bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of Georgians are pro-EU when it takes its decision on Georgia’s candidate status at the end of the year, the report argues. The EU should put in place the right communication strategy and messages, while ensuring that it retains the leverage it needs to persuade the country’s government to pursue democratic reforms. The European Union should also ensure that it retains the leverage it needs to persuade the country’s government to pursue democratic reforms, the report concludes.