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Georgia must get its act together to become an EU candidate country 

Amanda Paul , Iana Maisuradze

Date: 27/03/2023
In June 2022, the EU granted Georgia a membership perspective and the prospect of receiving candidate country status, subject to Tbilisi meeting 12 conditions. However, with growing concerns about democratic backsliding, Georgia’s EU ambitions are being jeopardised. It is time for Georgia – the government and the opposition – to stop this self-sabotage and start working together towards a common goal.

From trailblazer to slacker

Once a frontrunner in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy, today, democracy in Georgia, while not dead, is in intensive care. Concerns over democratic backsliding and prolonged political polarisation have cast doubt over the commitment of Georgia’s political elites to democratic governance and the rule of law, thereby jeopardising the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

The proposed ‘transparency of foreign influence’ bill, known as the ‘foreign agents’ law’ was at the centre of the latest crisis. Drafted by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD), if it had passed, it would have required all media outlets and NGOs that receive 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. Furthermore, this would have subjected them to monitoring and possible sanctions. It significantly threatened freedom of speech, the media, and civil society, as they largely depend on foreign funding.

Another concern was that the bill was a carbon copy of Russia’s law on foreign agents, which President Putin has widely used to crack down on his critics and foreign NGOs. This fuelled claims by opposition parties and others that the government is under Kremlin influence, which has been repeatedly denied.

The fact that the bill hindered the potential fulfilment of two of the 12 priorities set by the European Commission related to media and civil society is startling. Still, it did not prevent GD from passing the law in its first reading.

Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic partners quickly condemned the bill. The US Embassy in Tbilisi issued a statement calling it a dark day for democracy in Georgia, while the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, tweeted that the law “is not compatible with the EU path, which the majority in Georgia wants.”

People power

Furious that the bill could threaten their country's European and Euro-Atlantic integration prospects – both enshrined in Georgia's Constitution and supported by 83% of the population –  tens of thousands took to the streets. Despite facing water cannons and riot police, they stood their ground. The country's President, Salome Zourabichvili, also weighed in, insisting that the law be revoked.

The size and intensity of the peaceful demonstrations showed that the Georgian people would fight tooth and nail for democracy and their European dream. That they forced GD to withdraw the bill was a major success of people power and the population’s readiness to exercise their right to freedom of speech, assembly, and expression. The Georgian people know exactly what they deserve – a European future.

While people power and pressure from Georgia's partners led to the bill being withdrawn, it is difficult to understand what rationale GD could have had for initiating the bill. It seriously damaged Georgia’s reputation, giving the impression that the Georgian government was self-sabotaging its national interests. It is not the first time.


Unfortunately, this crisis is only the latest in a series of events that have damaged Georgia’s image. This negative trend began following the 2020 parliamentary elections. Opposition parties refused to accept the internationally assessed election results. Instead, they boycotted the parliament, plunging the country into a crisis, which further deepened following the arrest of Nika Melia, leader of the main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM).

EU mediation efforts led by Charles Michel resulted in the 19 April Agreement. While the parties signed the agreement and Melia was released, the deal was never implemented. In July 2021, GD left the agreement. However, the standoff between GD and UNM continued. Furthermore, GD refused the second tranche of an EU financial aid package two months later. Georgia had failed to meet the conditions for it anyway, namely, increasing the independence, accountability, and quality of the judicial system.

The arrest of former President Mikheil Saakashvili on charges of abuse of power during his time in office, in October 2021, upon his illegal crossing of the Georgian border has also become problematic. His deteriorating health has left him on the brink of death. While Saakashvili claims he was poisoned, the government insists his poor health results from his hunger strike and failure to take his medication.

An offer from Warsaw not only to send Polish doctors to examine the former President but also to treat him in Poland was refused. In a statement, President  Zourabichvili  said, “the decision discredits the country abroad, impedes cooperation with partners, undermines solidarity with Ukraine, and harms Georgia’s European perspective.” Indeed, if Saakashvili dies, Georgia’s candidate status will almost certainly become a victim too.

Stop shooting itself in the foot

If Georgia wants candidate country status, it must stop shooting itself in the foot and turn this situation around. It cannot afford any more mistakes. Candidate status is merit-based and attainable under certain conditions. Georgia must not squander the opportunity.

The government and the opposition claim that Euro-Atlantic integration is their top priority. This can be done quickly if the necessary political will is there and polarisation is reduced. Georgia has already implemented large parts of its Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU. Furthermore, it has begun to implement the Commission's 12 priorities.

This process is necessary to ensure not only candidate status but also Georgia's resilience and national interests – namely, a strong, democratic, and prosperous country with good governance and the rule of law. Sustainable reforms must be implemented and protected.

When the European Commission presents its yearly Enlargement Package this autumn, the twelve priorities should be at least a work in progress. The government must have a clear roadmap for full implementation by the autumn. While the quality of the legislation is crucial, the issue of ending political polarisation – priority number one – will be particularly decisive in the EU's decision.

The strategic dimension

Recent developments in Georgia should not justify the EU’s refrain from making a strategic decision vis-à-vis Georgia. Leaving Georgia in a geopolitical no man’s land will be manipulated by the Kremlin, leading to pro-Russian narratives and further destabilisation attempts.

While Georgia’s progress on reforms is crucial, there is also a geopolitical element. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlined what many experts had been saying for years – that the EU cannot be a bystander regarding security in its neighbourhood. Russia has been a major security threat to Georgia’s independence and sovereignty for years. It occupies twenty percent of the country’s territory and uses every instrument in its vast hybrid toolbox to spread disinformation.

The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine has not stopped it from further flexing its muscles in its vicinity. While weaker than before, Russia is still strong enough to use its coercive power to squeeze Georgia and other countries. The constant barrage of Russian narratives and mass immigration from Russia has created a potentially dangerous uncertainty in a new geopolitical situation, which Russia can take advantage of.

Giving the Georgian government a green light for candidate country status while democracy is retreating should not happen, but at the same time, the EU should not leave Georgia in limbo or make the 12 priorities a moving target. Having already recently enhanced its security role in the South Caucasus with the deployment of the EU Border Monitoring Mission in Armenia, the EU should not make the mistake of taking Georgia’s Western orientation for granted. Putin's war has taught us that presumption is not a policy. Wishful thinking is not a strategy – neither from the Georgian nor the EU’s side. The next stage in the strategic relationship between the EU and Georgia is candidate country status, and this historic opportunity should not be missed.   

Iana Maisuradze is a Programme Assistant of the Europe in the World programme.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

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