How do you solve a problem like Georgia? That question is going through a lot of heads in Brussels ahead of the June 23-24 summit on the future of Europe.
On March 3, one week after Russia launched its war, Georgia lodged an application to join the European Union, along with Ukraine and Moldova, its partners in the so-called Association Trio.
How do you square the geopolitical imperative to welcome the three with the awkward fact that they are currently far from eligible for membership—while also bearing in mind that the Western Balkan countries are ahead of them in the queue and also deserve a fair deal? European Council President Charles Michel made some creative suggestions in a speech on May 18, saying “we must make the process faster, gradual and reversible” and that the EU should begin to build “a European geopolitical community” that covers a wider area with a big tent and does not preclude membership in the future.
The trio all have important differences and are not exactly coordinating their candidacy bids. Ukraine is a special case and will surely get a special offer from the EU that reflects that. Moldova has several advantages: benign neighbors, no border with Russia, and currently a strongly pro-European government.
Georgia is a headache. On some counts it is the leader of the trio. On the technical side—fulfilment of the Association Agreement signed in 2014—it is the best performer of the three. But by one crucial criterion—the state of its democracy—the government is now falling behind.
The geopolitical argument is strong. Georgia is, objectively speaking, even more vulnerable to Russia than Ukraine. Officials like to point out that the land area Russian forces have already occupied in Ukraine is greater than the entire territory of Georgia. The country is steadfastly pro-Western. Polls consistently show that more than 80 percent of the public supports joining the EU, even if their understanding of what it entails can be rather confused.
On Ukraine, the government lags behind the public. Georgia is still enforcing international sanctions on Russia and has voted against it at all international fora. It still has no diplomatic relations with Moscow. But the Georgian Dream government now looks afraid of its own shadow. Prime minister Irakli Garibashvili’s refusal to express solidarity for Ukraine or contemplate a visit to Kyiv has been an embarrassment.
There is a big leadership problem. Garibashvili does not provide it, while the man still presumed to be his de facto boss and Georgian Dream’s godfather, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is semi-retired, says little in public and provides no strategic guidance.
It makes no sense to call Ivanishvili a Kremlin agent as his angriest opponents do. He made his money in Russia but that was in the pre-Putin era. The problem is that he and his friends seem to have an entirely transactional view of geopolitics, dictated by who will best protect their business interests. A recent Transparency International report revealed that that includes keeping business partners in Russia.
The biggest issue is what was until recently Georgia’s strongest calling card in Brussels, the first point of the Copenhagen criteria: “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.”
Wherever you look the picture is bad: poor conduct of elections, the politicization of the judiciary, the way the authorities failed to prevent violence against journalists and Gay Pride organizers in Tbilisi, revelations about surveillance of EU diplomats.
All of this maps onto Georgia’s long-running political malady, polarization. The country’s two main parties, the government Georgian Dream and the opposition United National Movement, still look more interested in destroying each other than in national solidarity. Both undermined a political agreement patiently brokered by Charles Michel last year. Their fury is not appeased by the war in Ukraine but fueled by it and they still routinely accuse each other of being “traitors” and “enemies.”
Georgian Dream is stepping up the offensive. Last month the head of Georgia’s main opposition television station Nika Gvaramia was jailed. The public defender called the conviction a “gross violation” of both Georgian and European law. Leading government figures are now turning their abusive language onto Westerners, who dare to criticize them, denouncing members of the European Parliament and the former U.S. ambassador, calling former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt a “criminal.”
Salome Zurabishvili, the French-born president—a post with limited powers as in Germany—has done an admirable job of calling for unity and solidarity in the face of a resurgent Russia. But, despite being elected with Georgian Dream support, she is the latest target for their ire. The government even says it will sue her in the constitutional court for exceeding her constitutional powers. Her alleged crime? Visiting Brussels and Paris without their full authorization. No wonder the EU is bemused.
The message to the government is getting louder. In a recent speech, EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell said, “the EU is increasingly concerned about the country’s current trajectory.” He appealed for unity, saying, “Now is not the moment to prepare for a possible blame game, but to prepare for the long game.”
“Instead of outsourcing responsibility for failures, [the government] should take criticism seriously and try consensus democracy,” echoed Natalie Sabanadze, until recently Georgia’s ambassador in Brussels.
The June summit gives Brussels new leverage over Tbilisi. If there is one message the Georgian government needs to hear it is that Brussels will only take its EU bid seriously if it declares a truce with its political opponents.