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How Georgia Stumbled on the Road to Europe

The European Union has a serious test ahead in keeping Tbilisi on track.

By , a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe.
A man holds a European Union flag.
A man holds a European Union flag.
A man holds a European Union flag during a rally in support of Georgia’s membership to the European Union in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 3. Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

The European Union has suddenly discovered geopolitics. On June 24, it offered Ukraine and Moldova candidate status, putting them on a path to eventual membership. Georgia was also given a new if lesser offer: a membership “perspective,” meaning it will also be a candidate to join the club but only if it fulfills certain conditions, such as a commitment to “de-oligarchisation” of the state system before the end of the year. Five or six years ago, that would have been a surprise: Georgia seemed to have the clearest route forward. But today, a polarized and resentful governing class has left the country further from accession to the EU than its counterparts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, determined to drag these countries back into Russia’s sphere, has shone a light on a path to the heart of Europe. This decision would have been unthinkable before Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. It is symbolic: Full membership is at least a decade away. Yet the EU redrawing its mental map to extend all the way to Kharkiv, Ukraine, is hugely significant. The visit by the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Romania to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on June 16 sealed the deal, swinging more skeptical European nations in line behind the advocates of enlargement.

That doesn’t mean the way forward is easy. Eventual membership will require the unanimous approval of all EU members: 27 as of today, plus several more if the countries of the Western Balkans also get membership in the next few years. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are all very poor nations with a GDP per capita less than half of the EU’s poorest country, Bulgaria. Each has deep problems with entrenched corruption and weak democratic institutions that leave them a long way short of EU standards.

The European Union has suddenly discovered geopolitics. On June 24, it offered Ukraine and Moldova candidate status, putting them on a path to eventual membership. Georgia was also given a new if lesser offer: a membership “perspective,” meaning it will also be a candidate to join the club but only if it fulfills certain conditions, such as a commitment to “de-oligarchisation” of the state system before the end of the year. Five or six years ago, that would have been a surprise: Georgia seemed to have the clearest route forward. But today, a polarized and resentful governing class has left the country further from accession to the EU than its counterparts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, determined to drag these countries back into Russia’s sphere, has shone a light on a path to the heart of Europe. This decision would have been unthinkable before Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. It is symbolic: Full membership is at least a decade away. Yet the EU redrawing its mental map to extend all the way to Kharkiv, Ukraine, is hugely significant. The visit by the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Romania to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on June 16 sealed the deal, swinging more skeptical European nations in line behind the advocates of enlargement.

That doesn’t mean the way forward is easy. Eventual membership will require the unanimous approval of all EU members: 27 as of today, plus several more if the countries of the Western Balkans also get membership in the next few years. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are all very poor nations with a GDP per capita less than half of the EU’s poorest country, Bulgaria. Each has deep problems with entrenched corruption and weak democratic institutions that leave them a long way short of EU standards.

That still makes a lot of people in Brussels very nervous. “We have to change our tactics. We don’t want to end up with three new Hungarys in the EU,” one European diplomat told FP, referring to how Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s increasingly corrupt and undemocratic Hungary is challenging EU norms from within. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel recently suggested that the EU should begin to devise some kind of interim level of membership that places countries in a wider “European political community” (Macron’s phrase)” or a “European geopolitical community” (Michel’s phrase) as they walk the long road to full membership.

The hardest case is Georgia, which got a much weaker offer than the other two. The geopolitical imperative is clear. Georgians point out that Russia has already occupied more land in Ukraine in 2022 than constitutes the entirety of their territory. In South Ossetia, the breakaway territory recognized in 2008 by Moscow as independent, Russia has stationed around 7,000 troops little more than one hour from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

But geopolitics is tempered by normative considerations. For the past two years, the Georgian Dream government in Tbilisi has moved Georgia further from European norms and defied the EU over judicial reform, the conduct of local elections, and the way it handled a gay pride rally in Tbilisi. There are concerns that Georgian Dream, which has been in power since 2012, wants to turn the country into a one-party state.

Georgia used to be praised as the most progressive of the three countries known as the “Association Trio,” along with Moldova and Ukraine, which signed Association Agreements with Brussels in 2014. But the direction of travel has shifted. Both Ukraine and Moldova still have deep problems with the rule of law and corruption. Wartime Ukraine has, for understandable reasons, suspended normal democratic practices. Yet Ukraine has now tied its future inextricably to Europe. In Moldova, the charm offensive by the pro-European government, Moldovan President Maia Sandu and Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, has made an unanswerable case for inclusion.

Contrast this with Georgia. The country’s pugnacious prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, lashes out at European and U.S. officials when they dare to criticize his government’s actions. In 12 conditions the EU asked Georgia to meet to qualify for candidate status by the end of 2022, it specifically mentioned polarization, meaning Georgia’s angry toxic political culture, as an obstacle to the country being given candidate status. Yet, speaking in Parliament, just after the European Commission published its recommendations to Georgia, Garibashvili doubled down and called opposition politicians “traitors,” “enemies,” and “maniacs.”

Last year, Garibashvili withdrew the governing party from a political agreement personally brokered with the opposition by Michel. He also rejected an EU loan worth 75 million euros (or $76 million) because of his government’s insistence on controlling appointments to key positions in the judiciary.

Another key condition made by the EU was to “implement the commitment to ‘de-oligarchisation’ by eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political, and public life.” The “excessive influence of vested interests” is a feature of Ukraine and Moldova (and increasingly of Hungary as well). In Georgia, it comes down to one man, the founder of Georgian Dream and the party’s first prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose private wealth is estimated to be worth $5.6 billion or almost one-third of the country’s GDP and who is regularly accused of running the country from behind the scenes.

Ivanishvili is a reclusive figure who is almost certainly not in day-to-day control. Although he made his money in Russia in the 1990s, there is also little to suggest that he is collaborating with the Putin regime—his party, after all, signed the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014, and it maintains a policy of keeping no diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 war.

The issue is more subtle and pervasive. Large parts of the ruling elite have some relationship to Ivanishvili, and many of them have worked for him personally. The overlap between his business interests and those of the Georgian state are increasingly blurred. Many in Georgia worry their country is being subjected to “state capture,” the process by which a small group subordinates a state to its own mercantile interests.

Georgia’s mainstream opposition—especially the former United National Movement ruling party, led by now-jailed former President Mikheil Saakashvili—also offers little to the public other than angry rhetoric and denunciations of the government. Surveys show that only about 10 percent of Georgian voters closely identify with Saakashvili’s party.

Even if the government isn’t enthusiastic about membership, the public feels very differently. Opinion polls consistently show that the Georgian public want to be part of Europe, even if their understanding of what that means can be rather naive. In a recent survey, 82 percent of people supported joining the EU—a higher level even than in Moldova and Ukraine. A public movement organized pro-European rallies in the center of Tbilisi that attracted tens of thousands of protesters. There were calls to form a “government of national unity” to meet the EU’s demands. The government responded by announcing the formation of a series of working groups, as though this was a technical issue and not a highly political one. Georgia’s leading nongovernmental organizations have a much more substantial action plan.

Given the government’s foot-dragging, the EU’s decision on Georgia is probably the right one. It is still risky. Georgians may get disillusioned if they get the message that the EU does not want them anymore. The geopolitical environment is still volatile, and some people worry that Russia will seek to take advantage of Brussels’s less than total commitment to Georgia’s candidacy.

During previous enlargement negotiations in more peaceful times, the EU has been able to hide behind the technical side of the picture—in particular, the need for a candidate country to converge with the formidable acquis communautaire, the huge body of laws and treaties, running into tens of thousands of pages, that form the union’s rulebook. That is no longer an option. Having presented the Georgian government with a list of conditions, the EU needs to treat them for what they are: political, not technical, demands.

Despite the best efforts of the Georgian protesters, the Georgian Dream government is unlikely to back down and meet demands that ask its political masters to foreswear state capture before the end of 2022. That hands the EU a big geopolitical responsibility. Georgia will be the first and most urgent case of whether Macron’s and Michel’s ideas of a new political community can amount to anything.

Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe.

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