On August 13, 2022, the European Union (EU) published an annual report on Georgia’s implementation of the Association Agreement. While the document mentions some progress on the implementation of the Association Agreement, it underlines the need to continue inclusive reforms. This report was published ahead of the next meeting of the EU-Georgia Association Council on September 6, 2022.
The document included critical statements that hindered Georgia’s EU membership status. In this context, the Georgian opposition argued that the country should forget about integration with the West if the ruling Georgian Dream Party is in power. According to the written statement made by 48 deputies from the opposition parties, the ruling party is required to “ensure the integration of the country with the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)” in accordance with Article 78 of the Constitution; but this is not done. Therefore, there are allegations that the Georgian Dream, which is in power, violates the national interests of Georgia. Again, according to this approach, due to the government’s policies, Georgia is moving away from its Western allies and partners and is left alone with Russia.
EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, stated that Georgia was in a difficult situation after the Covid-19 pandemic, and said that the Tbilisi administration was trying to reform despite the tense political environment prevailing in the region due to the events in Ukraine. However, he also noted that setbacks were seen in key areas of the rule of law, governance, and human rights.
Borrell said that, “As Georgia enters a new phase in its relations with the EU, it should adopt a responsible and conscientious approach, consistent with the stated goals and aspirations of its citizens.” In his words, he made recommendations about the process. Borrell also emphasized that the EU continues to strongly support Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.
Oliver Varhey, Commissioner for European Neighborhood and Enlargement, pledged to support Georgia’s reform efforts in the fields of human rights, the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime. At the same time, Varhey emphasized that Tbilisi should fulfill its obligations to reduce political polarization, strengthen the rule of law, and provide a pluralistic and independent media environment, and stated that this is “a priority for Georgia’s movement towards Europe”.
Varhey said that if Georgia fulfills these priorities, the EU will give candidate membership status to the country. In addition, he stated that the EU supports Georgia’s efforts to address these priorities, and that it will continue to support the country’s economic development and recovery through the Economic and Investment Plan for the Eastern Partnership.
On the other hand, the expectations and warnings of the EU regarding Georgia were also on the agenda of the opposition. For example, the European Commission has raised issues related to high-profile litigation. The report criticized all punishments for opponents (National Movement Chair Nika Melia, Lelo Party leaders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, and Mtavari (Ana) TV Director Nika Gvaramia). In addition, the publication of a video recording of former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in prison was also criticized.
According to Roman Gotsiridze, one of the leaders of the National Movement, the report contains the most severe criticisms the EU has directed towards Georgia. According to Gotsiridze, if the situation does not change soon; that is, if Tbilisi does not comply with the EU’s wishes, Georgia will not only lose its candidate status for EU membership; it will also lose its visa-free regime with Europe. In this context, Gotsiridze stated that the number of political prisoners, which used to be less, is now increasing.
The leader of the Lelo Party, Mamuka Khazaradze, is among those who made negative statements about the report. Khazaradze said that he believes that if the government does not change, Georgia will not be able to get the status of “candidate country” from the EU and the Russian influence in the country will increase.
Georgian Foreign Minister Ilya Darchiashvili, commented on the EU’s report on the implementation of the Association Agreement by Georgia, suggested that concrete results will be achieved very soon in relations with the EU.
In fact, Darchiashvili’s approach has some justification. Because on June 23, 2022, the European Council declared that it was ready to give Georgia the status of “candidate member” as soon as the “set priorities are fulfilled”. On June 17, 2022, the European Commission published 12 recommendations for Georgia to receive the status of “candidate country” and gave six months for the implementation of these recommendations. On July 13, 2022, the President of the European Commission, Michael Rupp, said that the evaluation of the reforms required to become a “candidate country” in Georgia will not be made before 2023.
Currently, Georgia has two options. The first of these is to accept the proposals of the EU and to carry out reforms within the country, to receive serious support from the union and subsequently to obtain candidacy. The second possibility is to face uncertainty by continuing the domestic political competition with other methods.
Fulfilling the EU’s demands will show that the Tbilisi administration wants to continue the integration process with Western institutions. At the same time, this will mean that Georgia makes its own choice in the changing international conjuncture. In other words, Tbilisi moves away from the neutrality policy it pursues in the region and gets closer to Europe and carries out a policy that coincides with Europe’s policies in the region.
The fulfillment of the EU’s expectations will also affect the political situation within the country. In this context, developments such as the release of political prisoners may occur. Of course, such a scenario can make the opposition feel more confident.
As in Georgia’s domestic policy, the Russian factor should not be ignored in its foreign policy. The Moscow administration has long wanted the actors close to it to become stronger in Georgia. Although the opposition accuses the government of being pro-Russian, it is seen that the government does not act in accordance with Russia’s expectations on strategic issues. For example, the Kremlin expects Tbilisi to initiate a dialogue with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to participate in 3+3 talks for this purpose. However, Georgia rejects this demand of Russia. One of the positive steps taken by Georgia with Russia was the lifting of trade bans and border trade in some items. Considering the economic situation Georgia is facing, it can be argued that this step is in the interest of the country.
Another move of Georgia was that it did not participate in the decisions of sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Ukrainian War. Although this decision was negatively received by Kyiv, Tbilisi states that it took this decision in line with its national interests.
As a result, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is changing the geopolitical environment in the Caucasus. It can be said that Georgia, which is on the East-West transportation lines, is preparing to make a choice in this process. Basically, Georgia’s policy is to connect Europe and Asia as a transit country on the Middle Line. As a matter of fact, after the Russia-Ukraine War, European interest in the Caucasus began to increase. In this process, various reforms are expected from Georgia. In return, the EU promises Georgia to give the status of “candidate country.”
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