An EU diplomat has given assurances that Brussels will deliver a "merit-based" assessment on Georgia's membership bid this fall amid claims by Tbilisi officials that Georgia was unfairly rejected last year.
Yet he implied that Tbilisi's many domestic political woes may still influence the positions of individual member states whose consensus will be needed for the bloc's final decision on granting Georgia the much-awaited candidate status.
Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova applied for EU membership last year in the first weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In June, the two other co-applicants succeeded in getting EU candidate status, while Georgia was told to report back after making progress on 12 reform priorities laid out by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
The Commission will report on that progress in mid-October.
"This will be a report that will be merit-based," Pawel Herczynski, EU ambassador to Georgia, told Interpressnews, a Georgian online outlet, on February 13. A "very unpolitical, merit-based report," he assured.
His remarks follow a recent set of analytical reports that the Commission published based in part on the thick volumes of responses to the questionnaires that the three applicants submitted last year. The reports assess the progress of the three countries with regard to their alignment with the EU acquis, the union's body of common rights and obligations, and complement the initial opinions on which last summer's decisions were based.
The reports, unanimously received as "positive" by the Georgian government, the opposition, as well as the EU ambassador, show Georgia's performance in various spheres of reform.
While Ukraine outperforms Georgia in some important areas, the progress of Georgia is more evident compared to Moldova: Georgia was assessed as "moderately prepared" in nine out of 32 chapters, compared to three in Moldova's case and five in Ukraine's case. But only Ukraine managed to achieve a "good level" of preparation in four chapters, including two of them in foreign policy-related fields, while its peers were not given this kind of assessment in any chapter.
The Georgian authorities both rejoiced at the reports' findings and complained of being treated unfairly last summer.
"This assessment again proves that, if the decision had been based on merit, Georgia should have become an EU membership candidate country already last summer," Parliament Chairman Shalva Papuashvili wrote on Facebook on February 3.
"I would leave it to the public to judge how fair the political decision taken by EU structures last year was," Kobakhidze told reporters on February 3, echoing earlier government claims that the EU's initial decision was dictated by geopolitical considerations, including the argument that Georgia is less affected by the Ukraine war than the two other applicants.
For many years, Tbilisi was considered a frontrunner among the EU's eastern neighbors in implementing European reforms. Its failure to get candidate status on the first attempt was widely attributed to persistent political polarization and democratic challenges the country had faced in recent years.
But many believe the biggest damage to Tbilisi's bid was caused by its own rhetoric, which both contained a sense of entitlement to membership candidacy and served to promote anti-EU cynicism.
For example, last year Georgian Dream officials bid a bitter farewell to Herczynski's predecessor, Carl Hartzel, whom they accused of not doing enough to help Georgia's candidacy.
And there is People's Power, a group of MPs aligned with the ruling party who promote conspiracy theories about the West trying to drag Georgia into the Ukraine war that has now begun openly questioning Georgia's EU aspirations.
And the recent positive report may not help Tbilisi if it fails to deliver enough progress on the Commission's 12 priorities. While many agree that the country achieved some progress in recent months, the government and its critics disagree on how sufficiently the key reform areas have been addressed. And whatever the Commission's recommendation is later this year, it is expected to influence – but not necessarily determine – the final decision to be taken unanimously by the 27 member states of the bloc.
"This decision will be made based on the report that will be published by the European Commission in October this year," Herczynski told Interpressnews. "But for sure, member states will also assess the overall progress of Georgia when it comes to approximation with European Union standards and values."
According to the ambassador, the member states will consider relevant issues like the rule of law, the vibrancy of civil society, and the independence of the media.
And one issue that may or may not influence Brussels' decision is the condition of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who remains imprisoned in Georgia amid concerns about his worsening health.
Brussels has repeatedly said the Georgian government is responsible for ensuring Saakashvili's access to the care he needs, but it has refrained from directly calling for his release to seek treatment abroad given the limits of the Georgian healthcare system. Meanwhile, the European Parliament as well as individual countries in Eastern Europe (Georgia's traditional allies on its Western integration path) have repeatedly called for the release of the ex-president on humanitarian grounds and as a way to reduce polarization.
Ambassador Herczynski confirmed that the issue exacerbates the existing polarization, while it is precisely "depolarization" that tops the EU's list of 12 priorities.
Indeed, the court's recent refusal to release the ex-president or defer his sentence led the Saakashvili-founded United National Movement, now the largest opposition party, to again boycott parliament sessions. This despite repeated EU calls for the opposition to continue working on reforms from within the legislative body.
And Brussels seems committed to avoiding further escalation on the Saakashvili issue.
"We, as European Union, are ready to assist Georgian authorities in any way they feel it would be useful in order to find a solution to this issue," Herczynski said, as quoted by Interpressnews. "And I sincerely hope that we will never end [up] with a situation in which the ex-president's health will be irreversibly damaged."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.