Georgian leaders lash out after ominous signs on EU candidacy
As signals from Brussels appear to foreshadow bad news for Tbilisi, the government is preemptively making excuses and the president is working on damage control.
Georgia’s president has stepped in to try to stop the bleeding as bad news trickles out from Brussels about the country’s prospects for gaining EU candidate status, and as many Georgians fear their government’s aggressive response is only making things worse.
President Salome Zourabichvili addressed the nation late on the evening of June 14, blaming both the ruling party and the opposition for their overheated rhetoric on the looming EU decision, and calling on Georgians to rally for a public demonstration of the country’s European aspirations.
She cited a “grim picture” emerging from Brussels, but argued that the situation was not hopeless. “At the same time, we are receiving messages from the European Parliament and the European Union that everything is not lost, we can keep hope,” she said.
She called on Georgians to gather on the evening of June 16 at central Tbilisi’s Europe Square to demonstrate their support for European integration.
The speech came after several days of mixed messages, including accusations, threats, and conspiracy theories, from the country’s ruling Georgian Dream party on its EU prospects.
Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, applied for EU membership in early March after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to have shifted thinking in Brussels about whether the three post-Soviet countries were deserving of starting the accession process.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, is expected to deliver its opinion about the applications of three countries on June 17. That in turn will influence the final decision by EU leaders a week later on granting formal applicant status to the three countries.
But there have been ominous signs in recent days from Brussels, including that Georgia may be facing even slimmer prospects than Moldova or Ukraine.
Compared to Moldova, the commissioners “were less confident about Georgia, which has suffered from pervasive political turmoil and notable democratic backsliding in recent years,” Politico reported on June 13, citing EU officials.
That followed a June 9 harshly worded European Parliament resolution on the dire state of media freedom in Georgia, which went so far as to call on the EU to consider sanctioning Georgia’s informal leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The Georgian government reacted harshly to the resolution, with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili calling it “irresponsible and offensive towards our people.”
“If the decision [on candidate status] will be similarly unfair, similarly offensive to our country and our people, I will no longer have reservations about lifting the curtain on everything and telling our people everything,” he told reporters on June 11.
While he didn’t specify what he intended to disclose, Garibashvili’s remarks were of a piece with recent conspiracy theories mooted by ruling party officials and pro-government media that the West may be trying to drag Georgia into the Ukraine war by opening a “second front” against Russia. On June 14, the American ambassador in Tbilisi issued a statement saying the claims were “one hundred percent Russian disinformation.”
Overall, ruling party rhetoric has been a mix of seeming complacency about the bright prospects of Georgia’s chances and dark scenarios about what will happen if the country is denied.
“We ask for nothing that is not deserved,” Garibashvili said on June 11, calling for a decision from the EU based on Georgia’s merits. “We are 10 times ahead of Moldova and Ukraine, in every direction,” he added two days later, saying that the country also outperforms many EU and European countries in international rankings on open governance, transparency, anti-corruption policies and media freedom.
Some ruling party members, meanwhile, have warned that denying Georgia candidate status could be perceived in Moscow as a “green light” to expand its influence in the country. But others, including Garibashvili, have downplayed it as merely “symbolic” and carrying no practical significance.
One ruling party member of parliament, Dimitry Khundadze, even suggested that Georgia might even itself reject candidate status if it comes at the expense of “the country’s dignity.”
The combative rhetoric has worried many pro-Europe Georgians, who fret that their leadership’s erratic response is further damaging its chances for a positive reception from the EU, which have already been damaged by the country’s democratic backsliding in recent years.
“Georgia and the Georgian people should not pay the price for the wrong steps of the government,” a group of opposition political groups said in a late May statement. The opposition argued that a positive decision from the EU would help the country develop democratically, implement reforms, and counter Russian influence.
The view is also widely shared among analysts who have argued that a perceived rejection from Europe could diminish Georgian enthusiasm for Europe, fueling anti-Western narratives by right-wing groups. Currently, over 80 percent of Georgians favor EU membership, according to an NDI/CRRC poll released in April.
Amid all this, however, Zourabichvili tried to rally Georgians’ hopes.
“This is quite a grim picture and despite this, a small but real chance remains,” she said in her speech.
Zourabichvili was elected in 2018 with the support of Georgian Dream but in recent months has turned into an outspoken critic of the party. She has channeled many Georgians’ support for Ukraine, even as the government has been deeply cautious about criticizing Russia.
In the speech, she argued that the resolution language on sanctioning Ivanishvili came with “factual inaccuracies and unfounded accusations.” But she said there was plenty of blame to go around, citing the “consistent work of some radical opposition and the silence and inaction of the government.”
To demonstrate the country’s desire for European integration she appealed to Georgians to gather the night before the European Commission is expected to issue its opinion. “Let us see each other and show Europe ourselves, our unity, our will,” Zourabichvili said.
She presented the event as apolitical, with “no speeches, no announcements, no posters” and where everyone would come as an “ordinary citizen” rather than as a political partisan.
Her event appeared to be an attempt to preempt one with a similar theme that was organized for June 20 and endorsed by some opposition parties.
That will be the three-year anniversary of the violent police dispersal of an anti-Russia rally in Tbilisi. Zourabichvili called on organizers of that event to consider postponing it as “this is no time for political ambitions and dividing people.”
Leaders of some opposition parties, including Lelo for Georgia and the Party of Citizens, said they supported attending both demonstrations, citing the need for unity. But Nika Melia, the chairman of the United National Movement (UNM), the largest opposition party, criticized Zourabichvili’s address and called on supporters to go to the June 20 event.
Georgian Dream, too, distanced itself from Zourabichvili’s gathering. The party's chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, said the event was “unprepared” and that it was “not serious” for the president to call for unity with “the party of war,” a term the party uses to vilify the UNM.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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