Barely a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgia submitted its application to accede to the EU on 3 March, following Ukraine and alongside Moldova. The European Commission has been invited by the European Council to deliver its ‘Opinion’ on each of the three cases, and these are expected at the beginning of June.
However, Georgia is a paradox. On the one hand, its implementation of the economic parts of its Association Agreement (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU has been impressive. In this respect it has surpassed not only Ukraine and Moldova, but also some of the candidate states of the Western Balkans. It has largely eliminated common corruption, with a better performance than quite a few EU Member States.
On the other hand, its political regime has for years been contradicting the EU’s fundamental values on the functioning of democratic institutions and the rule of law. At the heart of the problems lies the concentration of effective political power in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, embodying the paradigm of state capture.
Back in 2018, Mr Ivanishvili was responsible for the most egregious case of vote buying in the second round of the presidential election, paying off the bank debts of a considerable part of the population. A heavily contested parliamentary election in November 2020 was followed by the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leader Nika Melia, leading to a boycott of the new parliament by the opposition parties.
This ongoing political crisis was abated when Charles Michel, President of the European Council, on a visit to Tbilisi in May 2021, mediated a cooperation agreement between the parties. The EU was then astonished and dismayed when the government reneged on a key clause in the agreement in July 2021.
A further troubling feature of the political regime has been its interference in high-level court judgments concerning opposition politicians and leading media personalities. There have been recurrent cases of ‘politicised justice’, criticised widely by Georgia’s international partners and civil society.
The latest instance occurred on 16 May, when a court handed down a judgment and sentence of over three and a half years of imprisonment to Nika Gvaramia, director of TV Mtavari, a channel often critical of the government. The judgment’s timing came only weeks after the submission of Georgia’s application for EU membership, and around three weeks before the European Commission is expected to deliver its Opinion on the application.
One would have expected the historic decision to apply for EU membership to have been accompanied by signals that Georgia was now resolutely set upon reforming political and judicial practices in line with the highest European standards. Instead, the only observable news is the Gvaramia case, which even appears as an act of provocation that signals the government’s apparent inclination to become a troublemaking Member State.
One could hardly have imagined a more damaging step to take at this stage.
The external observer struggles to understand what the government and Mr Ivanishvili intended. Seeking a rationale, the membership application can be viewed as a symbolic and superficial tactic to try to satisfy the large majority of Georgian public opinion that wants a European future. At the same time the leadership seems to have no interest in making a success of the accession process and is proceeding in ways that would precipitate its failure.
In these circumstances, the European Commission could well acknowledge a membership perspective for Georgia as part of the European family. But it would seem premature in its forthcoming Opinion to propose an opening of the formal accession process. This would have to wait for a new and more propitious political environment in Georgia, characterised by a genuinely democratic culture and an independent judiciary that commands the respect of the population.