Georgia embarks on a journey toward EU membership

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

A little over than a month ago, the European Commission recommended that the EU grant Georgia candidate status. Then, on December 14, during the EU Council meeting, Georgia was finally granted this status. The council, made up of the leaders of EU member states, announced the decision on Thursday evening. They also announced the EU would open accession negotiations with fellow Eastern Partnership members Ukraine and Moldova, keeping them one step ahead of Georgia in entering the bloc.

Thousands of Georgians took to the streets to celebrate the decision.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili congratulated people on getting the EU candidate status, while Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili also hailed the EU’s decision on December 14 as “a monumental milestone for Georgia and our European family!”

Georgia formally applied for European Union (EU) membership on March 3, 2022, with Prime Minister Irakli Garabishvili calling it “yet another milestone on the path of European integration of Georgia.”

In a statement posted on the government's website the same day, Garabishvili said, “[I]t is a stage which turns a new page in our history and continues the effort of our ancestors, which is aimed at the accession of Georgia into a common European family.”

Following Ukraine’s decision to apply for EU membership on February 28, 2022, amidst the Russian invasion of its country, the Georgian government announced its intent to apply for membership on March 2.

The move represented a U-turn for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which up until recently insisted it would not accelerate its initial timeline of applying for membership in 2024.

The shift was largely driven by increasing pressure from the domestic opposition, as well as thousands of protesters who took the streets as part of the “March for Europe,” organized by Georgia's liberal activist group, the Shame movement, and other pro-democracy groups in a bid to “demonstrate the commitment of Georgian people to its European choice and Western Values.”

In June 2022, Georgia's candidate status was declined, instead giving Georgia a list of 12 conditions the country had to fulfil before their application could be reexamined.

The December 14 decision comes amid a growing rift between Georgia's ruling government and Western allies as well as the local civil society groups insisting that the government has failed to fulfill 12 priority areas or conditions.

Among these conditions were reducing political polarization, reforming the judiciary, ensuring functioning state institutions, strengthening anti-corruption measures, including de-oligarchisation, and others.

In a press briefing on November 8, EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell said Georgia delivered on only three of the twelve “priorities” for candidate status so far — gender equality and fighting violence against women, human rights judgments in court deliberations, and appointing a public defender through a transparent process. “Work needs to be done first on depolarisation of the political life, de-oligarchisation of the economic, political and social life, on justice reform, on electoral reform, on media pluralism and on human rights. There are no shortcuts,” noted Borrell.

These and other concerns were also outlined in the Commission’s first annual enlargement report on Georgia, which was released on November 8.

Georgia's Prime Minister Gharibashvili and the leading members of the ruling Georgian Dream party insist the state has fulfilled the necessary requirements.

Pundits say the decision is both good and bad. Good as it reflects the overwhelming support among Georgians for the country's membership, but bad, as it may “also help the less-than-Euro-enthusiastic ruling party in the 2024 parliamentary elections,” wrote in his analysis Emil Avdaliani, a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of silk roads.

In an interview with Euronews, Natia Seskuria, director of the Regional Institute of Security Studies in Tbilisi, said the decision had “a lot of symbolism,” even if it may take years before Georgia becomes a full member. The reference to symbolism is made in relation to Russia's influence in the country as well as the region, broadly speaking. Seskuria told Euronews the EU's decision to open membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova and offer Georgia candidate status was “a very important message to Russia.”

One EU official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity following the December 14 decision confirmed the messaging was intended for Russia. “EU's next move is about finding balance,” as it attempts not to alienate the country from falling under Moscow's sway, explained the official.

Russia did not take the decision too well. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, said the move was “politicized” and aimed “to spite Russia further and set these countries against Russia.”

Others like Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics think-tank, do not overrule the possibility that Georgia's membership talks may resemble that of the talks with Turkey. The latter was granted a candidate status in 1999 but has made little progress towards membership since. “I think there is that risk, especially if Georgia continues backsliding in terms of democracy and there are no changes in terms of policy or foreign policy orientation,” Kakachia told Reuters.

The ruling government of Georgian Dream has taken a U-turn on freedoms and human rights since October 2020, when the country held a contested parliamentary vote on October 31 and entered an ongoing political crisis. Since then, the country has witnessed violent dispersals of protests; attacks on the independent media; and a widening rift between society and state leadership.

In September 2023, the ruling party attempted to impeach the country's president but failed to do so.

The country's track record on freedoms and democracy has been deteriorating. And the ruling Georgian Dream party has faced criticism for its anti-LGBTQ+ stance, all the while cozying up with Russia ever since the latter invaded Ukraine.

For the people of Georgia, however, the December 14 decision is a dream that may one day come true. As one celebrant in the capital, Tbilisi told Reuters on December 14, “That's probably my dream, to see Georgia as part of the European family.”

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