After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine’s decision to apply for EU membership, Georgia and Moldova quickly followed suit and submitted their applications in March 2022. Now, Georgia and the EU are standing at a historic crossroads. The Georgian government’s insufficient democratization efforts, its lack of determination regarding the country’s European orientation, Georgia’s domestic polarization, and broader EU challenges affect both parties’ abilities to bring the membership bid on track. In light of this, ‘potential candidate’ status is the most reasonable policy option.
As one EU diplomat put it last year – EU membership applications should not be made if the applicant country does not know what the answer is going to be. However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, a.k.a. the Associate Trio, all submitted EU membership applications without being certain about the EU’s possible answer. In one way or another, the EU will have to respond to Georgia’s membership bid, and it better have a comprehensible and coherent answer ready for the European Council summit scheduled for 23-24 June in Brussels.
Current state of play
Eight years after the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), the Georgian government decided to follow Ukraine’s path and submitted the country’s application for EU membership. This move came as a surprise and under strong pressure from society, which feared being left behind and losing its European perspective in the wake of others’ advancement and continued Russian aggression. The ruling party Georgian Dream (GD) had initially planned to submit the application ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections, a move that would have showcased commitment to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and probably would have resulted in additional votes from those 82% of the population that support EU membership. However, things have been moving quickly in these extraordinary times, and Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova might now leave the waiting room created in the format of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Soon after the submission of the membership application, the European Council requested the European Commission to prepare an Opinion/Avis on whether to grant candidate status to the applicant countries. Then, the Trio countries received official Questionnaires to assess their readiness to meet the membership criteria. It is expected that the European Commission will deliver three Opinions by June, which would be followed by a European Council decision on granting candidate status to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
An EU membership application during times of democratic backsliding
Georgia and the European Union are now facing a moment of truth. While filling the Questionnaire, the Georgian authorities had to provide answers to questions covering the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, personal data protection, freedom of expression, etc. – fields in which Georgia has been backsliding during the last few years. The EU and USA – Georgia’s key partners – have been outspoken about the GD’s poor performance in democratization, as reflected, for instance, in the US State Department’s latest Human Rights Report and the EU’s 2021 Association Implementation Report. Georgian civil society has been most vocal about Georgia’s democratic shortcomings, arguing that Georgia is becoming a captured state in which oligarch and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, with a personal wealth that in past years amounted to about 30% of the country’s GDP and that was mostly generated in Russia, influences political decision-making processes to his own advantage.
Failure to carry out comprehensive judicial reform and ensure judicial independence has been one of the biggest criticisms towards the Georgian government. Among others, in 2021, the Georgian Dream appointed judges at the Supreme Court in a clandestine manner, undermining the Georgian public’s and the international community’s confidence in Georgia’s judiciary and risking to undermine Georgia’s democratic development. The failure to reform the justice system caused Georgia to lose the EU’s macro financial assistance of EUR 75 million, although the GD communicated to the public that it did not seek the assistance in the first place. The ruling party also abandoned the multiparty agreement titled “A way ahead for Georgia” brokered on 19 April 2021 by the European Union (with the personal involvement of European Council President Charles Michel) that was aimed at overcoming the political stalemate in the country and would have required further judicial reform.
The recently published Nations in Transit 2022 report stands as another testimony of Georgia’s worsening democratic credentials. Georgia performs poorly when it comes to democratic governance, which is traced back to the failure of implementing the 19 April agreement; the deteriorating environment for civil society caused by a “permissive environment for violent far-right groups”; and the ongoing crisis in the judiciary. This is not to say that Georgia has not produced any successes during the past 20 years; for instance, achievements were made in the fields of anti-corruption and public administration. While Georgia has also made progress on the implementation of the Association Agreement, it still scores lowest among the Trio countries with regard to policy convergence with the EU. Overall, Georgia has thus lost the image of a reformist country and is no longer the EaP reform champion.
Growing dependence on Russia: moving North instead of West?
After winning the parliamentary elections in 2012 and ousting the United National Movement (UNM) from power, the Georgian Dream proposed a 14 points document on Georgia’s foreign policy. The ninth point of the proposal suggested launching a dialogue and overcoming the differences with Russia, which was at that time widely supported by the Georgian population. The stated aim of dialogue was to achieve Georgia’s “de-occupation and protection of its sovereignty”. However, little surprisingly, Georgia was not able to make any progress on these issues; in fact, the borderization process has continued and hundreds of ethnic Georgians have been arrested by the South Ossetian de facto authorities. Moreover, the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia has continued at an even faster pace. The outgoing de facto leader of South Ossetia has now announced that the territory will hold a referendum on joining Russia on 17th of July, 2022.
Simultaneously, however, there was ‘progress’ in the field of trade. In 2013, Russia dropped its sanctions on Georgia and resumed imports of Georgian wine and mineral water. GD sold this as a major success and benefit for the Georgian producers, who gained the apparent opportunity to return to the Russian market. In fact, this move of Russia made Georgia more vulnerable and increased its dependence on Russia. For instance, until 2021, the share of the Russian market in the Georgian wine export increased to 54.8%. Moreover, Georgian overall exports to Russia gradually increased from USD 47 million (accounting for just 2% of total export) in 2012 to USD 610 million in 2021, which accounts for 14.4% of total export. In the last few years, the share of Russian gas in Georgia’s import has also significantly increased, from 2.8% in 2018 to 23.1% in 2021. Georgia is particularly dependent on Russia when it comes to wheat and wheat flour. 94% of the flour consumed in Georgia comes from Russia. Overall, Russia has returned as a key trade partner for Georgia.
Moreover, Georgia has not been able to fully capitalize on the opportunities provided by the DCFTA. While exports to the EU have increased, they remain on a “low level”. Preliminary data from 2021 indicates that a mere 16.8% of exports head to the European Union. In addition, research has shown that the DCFTA has particularly benefited companies linked to the ruling elite and “so far predominantly helped to maintain the country’s oligarchic structures”. Thus, while diversification of trade relations is certainly wise, the eagerness to re-open the Russian market and rebuild good trade relations with Russia seems not to have been matched by the same eagerness to push onto the European market, which has raised doubts about the GD’s pro-European orientation. These fears have recently multiplied, as the Georgian Dream has positioned itself rather cautiously towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the much-cited desire to avoid another war with Russia is certainly reasonable, it cannot be denied that business and economic interests, including those of the ruling elite, might play a role as well.
Common goal, but no common approach or cooperation
Popular support for Georgia’s EU membership is extremely high, and almost all of Georgia’s civil society organizations (CSOs) are in favour of it. CSOs see the country’s EU integration as a leverage to advance much-needed, but painful reforms and democratization. However, there is very limited efficient and result-oriented cooperation between the authorities and civil society. The same is true when it comes to the political parties. Despite the fact that almost all politically relevant actors support Georgia’s EU membership bid, there is very little joint engagement on this matter. Although Georgia was, remarkably, the only Trio country that made part of the Questionnaire publicly available, it was also the only country that had no consultation with civil society while filling the Questionnaire. What is more, GD representatives frequently lash out against civil society and the opposition. In turn, some political parties and civil society organizations label the ruling Georgian Dream party as pro-Russian and regularly demand the resignation of government members, including the Prime Minister. While the government has a special responsibility for pragmatism, populist rhetoric on all sides does not help to bring CSOs, opposition political parties and authorities around one table. As a result, joint action has become impossible even on an issue as crucial as Georgia’s EU membership – the topic they all support, at least on paper.
Internal and external challenges facing the EU
After Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the European Union is facing a new reality on the continent. This is a decisive moment not only for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, but also for EU itself. The European Council meeting scheduled in Brussels on 23-24 June does not only have to respond to the membership applications, but also to the question whether the EU is a global political player or remains primarily an economic block. This is, moreover, a test for whether European solidarity can be extended to other European countries and peoples that have been sacrificing their lives for Europe while remaining excluded from the European Union. At the same time, we should not underestimate the challenges facing the European Union. One of the main issues to consider is the stalling of the accession processes in Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia, where a quick candidate status for the Trio countries and even more so, the opening of accession negotiations could be perceived as unfair. Notably, the Western Balkans accession processes are not only hindered by the respective countries’ lack of fulfilment of the Copenhagen Criteria, but also by political blockades by certain EU member states for fear of domestic backlash. The possibility of similar obstructions needs to be factored in for the Trio applications as well. An even bigger question relates to the future of the EU’s institutional architecture and decision-making processes. In light of already existing challenges to maintain unity due to illiberal EU governments with and without close ties to Russia, member states that are serious about value based EU integration have valid reasons to be sceptical about a further widening of the Union.
Potential candidacy: the most reasonable option
Given these challenges both in Georgia and in the EU, granting ‘potential candidate’ status to Georgia is the most reasonable policy option. It is clear that delaying – let alone rejecting – Georgia’s application would cause major disappointment among the Georgian society and empower illiberal and anti-European tendencies. Even ‘potential candidate’ status could be instrumentalized by the ruling party and would certainly become part of the domestic ‘blame game’. At the same time, simply granting candidacy to Georgia, while Georgia has in fact moved further away from fulfilling some of the Copenhagen Criteria, would amount to a failure on the part of the EU to use its political leverage for democratic transformation and undermine its credibility as a value-based actor. Steering a middle course is therefore the smartest policy option. Similar to the 2010 EU Commission Opinion on Albania’s membership application, the EU could promise Georgia to grant full candidacy and open accession negotiations once Georgia improves its record in a number of fields, including judicial independence, minority rights, and anti-corruption. This would be tantamount to strong conditionality with clear and measurable benchmarks. It would likely put pressure on the Georgian Dream to return to the path of democratization and deliver on some of the key democratic problems – if only to save itself in the run-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections.
This article was first published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region. The contents of the publication are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.
 According to the European Commission, potential candidates “have a clear prospect of joining the EU in the future but have not yet been granted candidate country status.”