June 17, 2022, will likely be remembered as a turning point in Georgia’s modern history. On that day, the European Commission finally gave qualified recommendations for European Union candidature to Moldova and Ukraine. However, despite the country charting a Euro-Atlantic course for more than 20 years, it opted not to recommend Georgia for the same. The decision caused much disappointment in Tbilisi and led many Western-oriented Georgians to start 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 (in)famous bureaucratese, full of double- and triple-speak.
Indeed, at first glance, the text gives the impression that the Commission’s view on Georgia’s candidature is favourable. But upon close inspection, it becomes clear that, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, it will need to meet a long list of conditions before officially being declared a candidate for EU membership.
The Commission’s many concerns about the state of Georgia’s democracy and the criteria it wants the country to meet before achieving candidate status seem to relate to the conduct of the current Georgian Dream Party government, effectively controlled by billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
In its opinion, the Commission states its misgivings about state capture in Georgia, citing concerns over political polarisation, “oligarchisation”, threats to the independence of the judiciary and state institutions, organised crime, corruption, and lack of press freedom among others.
These concerns are not unwarranted. Ivanishvili still dominates Georgian politics and effectively runs the ruling party despite not holding a formal office since 2013. His co-investment fund gives him ample control over the economy.
He is also increasing his control over Georgia’s cultural scene – the internationally acclaimed film Taming the Garden, criticising Ivanishvili’s Black Sea pleasure park, for example, has recently been blacklisted in Georgia for being too “political”. Just last month, a court in Georgia sentenced anchor and owner of pro-opposition Mtavari TV, Nika Gvaramia, 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 Georgian government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and reluctance to join in the West’s economic war against Moscow, also added to concerns Brussels already had about the state of affairs in Tbilisi. Despite overwhelming public pressure to do so, the Georgian Dream government has refused to implement meaningful sanctions on the Kremlin, professing concerns about a Russian backlash. The recently leaked recording of an April phone conversation purportedly between Ivanishvili and sanctioned Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov further raised eyebrows in Brussels.
In its opinion, the Commission also correctly noted that Georgia suffers from political polarisation. Indeed, in recent years, nearly all the elections in the country have been an effective runoff between Ivanishvili and his bête-noir, former President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Widely known even in the West as Misha, Saakashvili is a flamboyant political player. After emerging as the key leader of Georgia’s 2004 Rose Revolution – the moment that put it on its firm pro-Western path after 13 years of stagnation, corruption and civil war that followed the Soviet collapse – Saakashvili became something of a poster boy for the democratic agenda and cultivated a solid partnership with the EU and the US.
During his tenure, he overhauled the police, improved the electoral system and went after organised crime. But he also concentrated power in his own hands, brutally cracked down on protests, jailed political opponents, and targeted opposition-affiliated media.
After he lost the 2013 presidential election, he left the country. But he did not disappear from the political scene. On the basis of his reputation as an anti-Russian reformer, Ukraine’s then-president, Petoro Poroshenko, granted him Ukrainian citizenship and appointed him as governor of Ukraine’s Odesa Oblast in 2015. He was sacked the following year.
In 2017, he was arrested while attempting to flee police across Kyiv’s rooftops. Saakashvili would blame oligarchic influence in Ukraine for his falling-out with Poroshenko, and he may well have had a point. But Saakashvili is no saint, and has been unwilling to give up his personal vendettas, partnering with whoever he thinks can amplify them loudest.
Saakashvili is understandably favoured by the West, but both he and Ivanishvili deserve equal blame for limiting Georgia’s political progress – and the Commission seems to have acknowledged this in its opinion.
All in all, the points made by the Commission against Georgia immediately being granted candidate status appear to be valid. But this does not mean the decision is not partisan or harmful.
Despite Georgia’s stunted 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 more progress in approaching European democratic and political standards than Moldova and Ukraine.
This is not to say Chișinău and Kyiv do not deserve EU candidate status – they do. But Moldova and Ukraine also suffer from oligarchisation, partisan media organisations, and serious challenges to the rule of law. Russia has, after all, spent the last 20 years doing its best to ensure that is the case.
Despite their undeniable struggles with democratic progress, the European Commission recommended Moldova and Ukraine for candidate status as a symbolic gesture. It should have done the same for Georgia, despite its current government’s many missteps and relatively close relationship with Russia.
It is an unstated reality that the decision is not motivated by a desire to see Moldova and Ukraine, or Georgia for that matter, enter the bloc anytime soon. Candidate status requires unanimous approval from the existing 27 members and backing from the European Parliament. Once approved, it only begins the accession process, though this is no guarantee of progress. Turkey has had candidate status since 1999, North Macedonia since 2005, Montenegro since 2010, Serbia since 2012, and Albania since 2014. None is expected to become a full member in the foreseeable future.
The decision to grant candidate status is a signalling effort. Brussels has sent the wrong signal to Georgia, one that could cause the government to move further away from its Euro-Atlantic aspirations – and that emboldens Moscow.
Brussels’ misstep risks a frightening déjà vu. In April 2008, NATO endorsed the idea of Ukraine and Georgia eventually joining the alliance, but refused to grant a formal membership action plan. Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia, nominally in support of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Georgians resisted valiantly, but their army was no match for Moscow’s. They were routed in days. Moscow effectively seized the territory as well as the region of Abkhazia. As a result, there has been no progress on Georgia’s NATO membership since. Russia’s playbook for Ukraine was written in Georgia.
Brussels’ decision not to recommend Georgia for EU candidate status will likely only deepen political polarisation in the country. And the Kremlin will see this as an opportunity to increase its influence over Tbilisi.
Since the beginning of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Georgians have made it clear that they stand with Ukrainians, and the EU, in this fight. Hundreds of Georgians have volunteered to defend Ukraine, Tbilisi is awash with Ukrainian flags, and Georgian business are taking their own steps to refuse dealings with Russia. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees found a home away from home in the country.
The Georgian government has failed the Georgian people by refusing to take a strong stance 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 to not 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 the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.