The EU will regret denying Georgia immediate candidate status Opinions

June 17, 2022 will probably be remembered as a turning point in the modern history of Georgia. On that day, the European Commission finally made qualified recommendations for Moldova and Ukraine’s candidacy for the European Union. However, although the country has been charting a Euro-Atlantic course for more than 20 years, it has decided not to recommend Georgia for the same. The decision has caused great disappointment in Tbilisi and prompted many Western-minded Georgians to begin questioning the trust they place in Brussels.

The Commission’s long-awaited opinion on granting candidate status to the three former Soviet nations was written in its (notorious) bureaucracy, full of double and triple words.

Indeed, at first glance, the text gives the impression that the Commission’s position on Georgia’s candidacy is favorable. But careful scrutiny shows that, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, it will have to meet a long list of conditions before it can be officially declared a candidate for EU membership.

Many of the Commission’s concerns about the state of democracy in Georgia and the criteria it wants to meet before gaining candidate status appear to be related to the behavior of the current Georgian Dream Party government, effectively controlled by billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In its opinion, the Commission expressed concerns about the capture of the country in Georgia, citing concerns about political polarization, “oligarchisation”, threats to the independence of the judiciary and state institutions, organized crime, corruption and lack of freedom of the press, among others. .

These fears are not unfounded. Ivanishvili still dominates Georgian politics and effectively runs the ruling party, although he has not held an official post since 2013. His co-investment fund gives him broad control over the economy.

He is also stepping up control of Georgia’s cultural scene – the internationally acclaimed film Taming the Garden, which criticizes Ivanishvili’s Black Sea theme park, for example, was recently blacklisted in Georgia as too “political”. Just last month, a Georgian court sentenced the presenter and owner of the pro-opposition Mtavari TV, Nika Gvaramiya, to three and a half years in prison, raising serious questions about both the independence of the judiciary and the state of press freedom in the country.

The response to Georgia’s ruling on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its reluctance to join the West’s economic war against Moscow also added to Brussels’ concerns about the state of affairs in Tbilisi. Despite enormous public pressure to do so, the Georgian Dream government has refused to impose meaningful sanctions on the Kremlin, voicing fears of a Russian reaction. The recently leaked recording of a telephone conversation in April that Ivanishvili and sanctioned Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov allegedly raised eyebrows in Brussels.

In its opinion, the Commission also rightly noted that Georgia is suffering from political polarization. In fact, in recent years, almost all elections in the country have been an effective runoff between Ivanishvili and his betenoir, former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Widely known even in the West as Misha, Saakashvili is a prominent political player. After emerging as a key leader of the 2004 Rose Revolution in Georgia – the moment that led her to the hard pro-Western path after 13 years of stagnation, corruption and civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union – Saakashvili has become something of a poster boy for the democratic agenda and cultivate a stable partnership with the EU and the US.

During his term, he repaired the police, improved the electoral system and left behind organized crime. But he is also concentrating power in his own hands, brutally shattering protests, shutting down political opponents and targeting opposition-linked media.

After losing the 2013 presidential election, he left the country. But he did not disappear from the political scene. Based on his reputation as an anti-Russian reformer, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko granted him Ukrainian citizenship and appointed him governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region in 2015. He was fired the following year.

In 2017, he was arrested while trying to escape from the police on the roofs of Kyiv. Saakashvili would blame the oligarchic influence in Ukraine for parting ways with Poroshenko, and he may have been right. But Saakashvili is not a saint and does not want to give up his personal vendetta by partnering with anyone he thinks can strengthen them the most.

Saakashvili is understandably favored by the West, but he and Ivanishvili deserve equal blame for limiting Georgia’s political progress – and the Commission seems to have acknowledged this in its view.

Overall, the points made by the Commission against the immediate granting of candidate status to Georgia seem valid. But this does not mean that the decision is not biased or harmful.

Despite Georgia’s delayed political and democratic progress, anyone who has paid some attention to the state of affairs in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova in recent years can tell you that Tbilisi has made greater progress in moving closer to European democratic and political standards than Moldova and Ukraine.

This does not mean that Chisinau and Kyiv do not deserve EU candidate status – they do. But Moldova and Ukraine also suffer from oligarchization, party media organizations and serious challenges to the rule of law. After all, Russia has spent the last 20 years doing everything possible to ensure that this is the case.

Despite their undeniable struggles against democratic progress, the European Commission has recommended Moldova and Ukraine for candidate status as a symbolic gesture. He had to do the same for Georgia, despite the many wrong steps and its relatively close relations with Russia in its current exit.

It is an unknown reality that the decision is not motivated by the desire of Moldova and Ukraine or Georgia to join the bloc soon. Candidate status requires the unanimous approval of the existing 27 members and the support of the European Parliament. Once approved, it is just beginning the accession process, although this is not a guarantee of progress. Turkey has had candidate status since 1999, Northern Macedonia since 2005, Montenegro since 2010, Serbia since 2012 and Albania since 2014. None of them is expected to become a full member in the foreseeable future.

The decision to grant candidate status is a signal effort. Brussels has sent the wrong signal to Georgia, which could push the government further away from its Euro-Atlantic aspirations – and that is encouraging Moscow.

Brussels’ wrong move risks a frightening déjà vu. In April 2008, NATO approved the idea of ​​Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance, but refused to provide a formal action plan for membership. Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia, nominally in support of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The Georgians bravely resisted, but their army was not equal to that of Moscow. They were broken for days. Moscow effectively took over the territory, as well as the region of Abkhazia. As a result, there has been no progress since Georgia’s NATO membership. The Russian game about Ukraine was written in Georgia.

Brussels’ decision not to recommend Georgia for EU candidate status is likely to only deepen the country’s political polarization. And the Kremlin will see this as an opportunity to increase its influence in Tbilisi.

From the beginning of Russia’s overall invasion of Ukraine, the Georgians have made it clear that they stand with the Ukrainians and the EU in this battle. Hundreds of Georgians have volunteered to defend Ukraine, Tbilisi is full of Ukrainian flags, and Georgian business is taking its own steps to deny deals with Russia. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees have found a home away from home.

The Georgian government has failed the Georgian people by refusing to take a strong stand against Moscow and its brutal invasion. Now Brussels has also failed them by punishing them for the actions of their government.

The European Commission’s decision not to recommend Georgia for candidate status was a short-sighted mistake that not only Brussels but the entire region will regret.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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