Europe’s Eastern Direction – Revisiting Georgia’s EU Ambitions
The Republic of Georgia has proven to be one of the more euro-enthusiast countries of the Post-Soviet zone, with 69% of Georgians declaring having trust towards the EU. Especially during the tenure of Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-13), the country embarked on a pro-Western course, naming membership in NATO and the EU as some of its top priorities. While the 2008 war against Russia and Saakashvili’s hasty departure from the Georgian political scene tempered these ambitions, they remain very much alive, as shown by the bold declaration of the current president Salome Zourabishvili, made on her recent visit to Brussels. While her declared goal of opening the EU accession process in 2024 might please many europhiles, the road ahead may prove to be quite tumultuous.
The post-Saakashvili Georgia
The most polarising figure on the south Caucasian political scene in the 21st century, Saakashvili left a significant mark on the current Georgian geopolitical orientation. Heavily criticized for his strongman politics, overstepping the bounds of the justice system and losing the war with Russia, he left the country following the crushing defeat of his party in parliamentary elections of 2012. The winner, the Georgian Dream Party, despite having a smaller presence in the Western media landscape than the former president, pursued his pro-Western course by considering EU membership as one of its priorities.
Enthusiastic declarations of politicians were followed by tangible progress, visible in important agreements Tbilisi managed to conclude with the EU. The Association Agreement of 2014 brought Georgia in the DCFTA (Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Area) – membership of which requires greater harmonisation of trade regulations, allowing for bigger and easier commercial exchange with the bloc, further reinforcing EU’s position as the biggest trade partner of the country. The good relations were strengthened even more by the 2017 removal of the short-stay visa requirement for Georgian citizens in the Schengen zone, an achievement that previous administrations were declaring as their top priority. As to the membership ambitions in NATO, the initial progresses was hampered by the Russian war, but Tbilisi continues to express active interest in the Pact, something it reaffirms at joint summits and conferences.
The “Building a European State” program announced last year by the Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia is the most recent of the Georgian ruling party’s declarations of unwaning commitment to European integration. While rephrasing some of the ideas from last fall’s electoral campaign, it outlines an ambitious, though often vague pathway to opening the accession process in 2024. However, the Georgian Dream’s declared euro-enthusiasm may not be enough to reach this milestone within the suggested timeframe as there are domains in which Georgia still has a lot of catching-up to do to reach European standards.
Obstacles to EU membership
The aspirations of the Georgian people can be tempered by the governing style of the Georgian Dream, founded and led by the controversial oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Their electoral success is attributed to their promise of fighting Saakashvili’s undemocratic practices, and indeed their rule saw Georgia improve in the independent rankings of democratic values. Nevertheless, their record is far from ideal, with acts of what could be called political revanchism following their win in 2012. The early years of their rule put a target on the back of politicians and activists tied to Saakashvili’s UNM party, using the state apparatus to prosecute them, bringing criticism from the Western countries.
Their victory was followed by an attention-grabbing takeover in the media sphere. The country did rise in the Freedom of Press ranking since Georgian Dream took over, as the overall safety of journalists increased, but the party did also take a swing at media plurality. The main oppositional TV channel, Rustavi-2, was recently taken over by businessmen in close relations with Ivanishvili, which lead to mass resignations of its journalists. This takeover means the loss of a major platform for the opposition and a significant imbalance in the Georgian media landscape.
While these actions might have gone under the radar of the general public in the West, the recent crisis surrounding last fall’s parliamentary elections made rounds in the European media. The OSCE observers report that the elections’ first round included vote buying, instances of pre-election violence, intimidation of voters, and other irregularities. These practices led to a boycott of the second round of the elections and the refusal of opposition parties to enter parliament, bringing ire and threats of prosecution from the Georgian Dream government. The atmosphere got further ignited by the arrest of Nika Melia, a high-profile opposition politician in February. The confrontation between the government and the protesters who fear a more Russia-oriented governing style was in the end defused by a spontaneous negotiation round moderated by Charles Michel, the President of European Council, who happened to be in Tbilisi on a pre-scheduled visit.
Michel’s efforts earned praise from both sides of the conflict, but his involvement may project a wrong image of the EU’s engagement in Caucasian affairs. While the last 10 years of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program significantly increased the volume of economic exchange and led to breakthroughs like the abolishment of short-term visas, we can notice that the bloc remains rather sceptical towards further expansion eastwards. It’s current preoccupation with the populist movements rising in both the newer and older member states makes it more wary of prematurely admitting new countries. Russia’s proximity is also not a helping factor, which Georgia and Ukraine both found out when they pursued the Western course too vigorously. For the moment, it seems that the EU’s enlargement efforts are mostly confined to the Western Balkan region, which shows both more political progresses and has more support in European capitals.
Bleak outlook for the nearest future
It is true that Georgia has made an enormous progress in bringing itself up to the European standards since gaining independence. The degree of the economic integration increased significantly and so did the political one. However, the recent events that took place in Georgia show that the country still has major problems connected with the transparency of its political life and the worrying influence of certain figures. Though the oligarch leader of the ruling party recently announced his retirement from politics, he is still accused of running the show from behind the scenes.
The ongoing problems of the Georgian political scene and its unenviable geopolitical position pose problems for potential integration with the EU, with Brussels being further distracted by the ongoing pandemic. Therefore, under the current circumstances it would appear that Tbilisi’s 2024 goal for the opening of the accession talks appears to be extremely challenging to realise. Unless serious changes are introduced in the near future, the aspirations of this euro-enthusiast society will be faced with a large disappointment.
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