Germany's top diplomat is visiting Tbilisi amid uncertainty over Georgia's commitment to pursuing its EU path.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived late on March 23 and is holding meetings with the country's leaders and civil society.
The visit comes as worries grow both in Brussels and in Tbilisi that the Georgian government may not be entirely serious about pursuing its declared goal of EU membership candidacy, particularly in the wake of the ruling party's attempts to push through controversial "foreign agent" bills.
"During my trip, I want to make it clear that Germany is fully committed to Georgia's prospect of EU membership," Baerbock said prior to her arrival. "We see the attempts to divert the country from the pro-European course that the overwhelming majority of Georgians want."
Baerbock also spoke about the pressure the country has faced "from within and without" and said she would discuss with Georgian officials and civil society representatives "the steps the country still needs to take in order to acquire candidate status," with a particular focus on "freedom of the media, the preservation of a vibrant civil society, and respectful public debate."
Her remarks reflect mounting questions about Georgia's EU commitments and foreign policy direction. On March 20, Politico cited Baerbock's French colleague Catherine Colonna, and other EU foreign ministers, as calling for sanctioning "oligarchs" involved in "destabilization attempts" in Moldova and Georgia. In Georgia, talk of "oligarchs" automatically brings to mind Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling party who is widely believed to wield informal power despite having officially retired from politics.
Later this year, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, will be reassessing the country's progress in addressing the 12 reform priorities on which Brussels conditioned Georgia's candidate status.
Georgian leaders have claimed they made important progress towards those reforms, but the recent controversial decision of the ruling Georgian Dream party to push "foreign agent" laws led many to question their commitment to democratic principles. The bills were widely seen as copying Russia's undemocratic practices in stigmatizing critical voices, and Brussels repeatedly warned they would stand in the way of Georgia's EU integration efforts.
In the end, it was massive and fierce pro-Western protests that forced the party to kill the bills. And as images of EU flag-waving Georgian demonstrators braving police water canons made it around the world (and apparently also impressed Baerbock), a perception emerged of a seemingly Euroskeptic government being at odds with the will of its overwhelmingly pro-EU populace.
"We want to see Georgia in the EU… we will support you on this path," Baerbock said in her joint press briefing with her Georgian counterpart Ilia Darchiashvili. She would reiterate this support several more times during the briefing.
The door to #EU candidate status is wide open for #Georgia. The 12 agreed priorities are in arms’ reach with a bit of goodwill & joint effort. To get there it takes both the government & people. - @ABaerbock in a press conference with Illia Darchiashvili @MFAgovge in #Tbilisi 1/2 pic.twitter.com/R3aCTc1ETm— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) March 24, 2023
The minister stressed that Germany was closely following the developments related to "foreign agent" laws, expressing her firm support for a "strong civil society." Baerbock said that following the defeat of the bill, the country must focus on overcoming polarization, confidence-building, and pushing EU-requested reforms.
Baerbock also acknowledged Georgia's difficult position in light of Moscow's opposition to its neighbors seeking European integration and expressed appreciation for Georgia's "clear position" against Russian aggression on Ukraine.
In the meantime, Georgian civil society actors are advocating for the EU to grant candidate status to the country despite the ruling party's questionable commitment.
"Our main message was that in Georgia, our citizens, our public wants the status from the EU and we deserve this status," Eka Gigauri, head of the local NGO Transparency International Georgia, told reporters after the meeting with the German diplomat early on March 24.
Other highlights of the minister's visit include meetings with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, President Salome Zourabichvili, and Georgian students, as well as a trip to the administrative boundary line with the Russia-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia.
After the European Commission's report comes out this fall, it will be up to all 27 EU member states to make a final decision on Georgia's candidacy, and the support of the bloc's most populous and economically powerful country will be vital.
But Tbilisi's messages remain mixed: On one hand, Georgian Foreign Minister Darchiashvili duly holds meetings with EU leaders to discuss progress on reforms while the parliament works on relevant legislation.
And on the other hand, Tbilisi pushes controversial laws and engages in confrontational rhetoric toward the West, which many saw as one of the main reasons behind the initial failure to get candidate status last year.
"It is clear that this person is out of touch with reality," Kakha Kaladze, Tbilisi mayor and Georgian Dream's secretary general, told reporters who asked him to comment on Baerbock's remarks about the country's diversion from the pro-European course. "This is a continuation of the line that we have been hearing on Georgia over the past few days -- it's an absolute lie."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.