As it flung its door open for Ukraine and Moldova, the European Union has left it ajar for Georgia.
In a landmark June 23 decision, EU leaders endorsed the European Commission’s recommendation to extend EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and offered a roadmap for Georgia to qualify for the same status.
“The enormous desire and the longing you have for the European Union” had been noted by Brussels, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, addressing the Georgian people. “Now it is needed to deliver on a few reforms that are important and to show political will, to engage with the civil society and to move forward with these reforms, and then the next steps are within reach.”
The decision to award the “European perspective” rather than formal candidate status to Georgia sparked a glass-is-half-full-half-empty debate in the country. The government touted the decision as a major accomplishment. “This is a well-deserved achievement,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said at a June 24 press conference. “It is a recognition of Georgia’s commitment to the European ideals and […] a recognition of 10 years of hard work by our government.”
Critics, meanwhile, argued that the offer of a “European perspective” was a polite way of turning down Georgia’s bid for candidacy and a tragically missed opportunity.
“It is unfortunate that by this decision the so-called associated trio [Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia] has been broken up and Georgia removed from the group of leaders in the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative,” a group of Georgian former foreign ministers and diplomats said in a joint statement.
Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have longed walked in lockstep toward European integration – they nearly simultaneously gained visa-free access to the European Union, concluded free-trade agreements with the bloc and applied for membership – and faced blowback from Moscow as a result.
But in recent years Georgia lost its status as poster child of EU-oriented reforms and instead gained a reputation for democratic backsliding, pushing the country toward the back of the queue.
In its recommendation a week earlier, the European Commission had outlined a number of reforms that Georgia would have to carry out before it could gain candidate status, including reducing political polarization, implementing reforms to strengthen the independence of the judicial system, and “deoligarchization.”
Officials from the ruling Georgian Dream party have responded with mixed messages, promising to carry out the required reforms while blaming the opposition for the disappointing result.
But in a press conference on June 24, Garibashvili belatedly appeared to take to heart the EU’s demands to tone down the polarization.
“The first condition and priority, which is in the interests of our people, is that there is peace in our country and not endless fighting and exchange of insults,” Garibashvili said. “This is partly our responsibility, but it is also the responsibility of the opposition. We also cannot comply with this condition without them.”
It remains to be seen if Garibashvili and other party officials can continue to stay on message. In a combative appearance in parliament on June 22, he had argued that Ukraine was only ahead of Georgia because it was at war, and Moldova for its geographic position. And he engaged in short-tempered, ad hominem exchanges with opposition lawmakers, calling them “pathetic” and “crazy,” while the targets of that abuse screamed and yelled back at him.
The episode drew a rebuke from President Salome Zourabichvili, who has taken an increasingly oppositional stance toward the prime minister for his cantankerous manner.
“When you are expecting such an important decision from your partners, you need to do at least two things: hear the voice of your own people and understand what it is that the gathering of your partners expects of you,” she said. “The partners expect a simple response from us that we have the political will to read and understand their recommendations.”
In his June 24 appearance, Garibashvili also conspicuously changed his tone with respect to the president and his political opponents, speaking only in respectful terms when they were mentioned.
One potential stumbling block as Georgia tries to fulfill the EU’s requirements: Georgian Dream’s unflinching reverence for its billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, the most obvious target of the EU’s “deoligarchization” demand.
“How dare you mention the name of Ivanishvili?” Garibashvili asked June 22 in an exchange with opposition lawmaker Giorgi Vashadze. “It was Ivanishvili and his team who brought about the association agreement, free trade and the new European perspective.” The prime minister further claimed that the “deoligarchization” condition referred not to Ivanishvili, but rather to a handful of well-heeled opposition figures and the mother of jailed former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Even as he moderated his tone on other topics following the EU announcement, Garibashvili doubled down on Ivanishvili.
“Mister Bidzina Ivanishvili is the biggest philanthropist this country has ever had,” the prime minister said at the June 24 press conference. While admitting that the billionaire does have influence on Georgian politics, he insisted that “Mister Bidzina Ivanishvili is not an oligarch.”
Meanwhile, pro-European Georgians have been taking matters into their own hands, organizing a series of rallies aimed at pressuring the political establishment to do everything it takes to comply with the EU’s conditions. One such rally, on June 20, was the largest demonstration Tbilisi had seen in years. Another was scheduled for the evening of June 24.
The EU, which will be evaluating Georgia’s progress later this year, noted the popular enthusiasm for Europe in the country, where polls show more than 80 percent of the population supports EU membership.
“The Georgian people went out into the streets and called for more Europe,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at the press conference in Brussels. He said that this groundswell of support for European integration is going to offer “the support for these reforms to be carried out.”