“We welcome this positive assessment,” said President Salome Zurabishvili. “The document highlights the progress made by our country,” said Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, while Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili said, “The report is extremely positive, and the European Commission has recognized the important progress made by Georgia in almost all areas.”
The EU reports, published on February 3, were perhaps not quite as positive as these comments suggested. The documents track both the attempts of candidates to meet the obligations required by EU membership and offered guidance on reform. Ukraine and Moldova went through the same process (with notably better results.)
The Commission’s report on Georgia outlined the alignment of its laws with EU equivalents, with topics ranging from fundamental rights and the judiciary to public procurement and security. It then assessed progress on a five-scale system. These range from the lowest, early stages of preparation, to well-advanced.
The second-lowest designation was “some level of preparation”, which was where the report assessed Georgia to be in most areas. In other words, the Commission believes that Georgia has a lot of work to be done before it is granted EU candidate status.
The report stated that Georgia made “some level” of preparation on key topics including financial control, financial services, free movement of goods, company law, intellectual property rights, consumer protection and public health, information and media, taxation, transport, energy and others. Of the 33 assessments in total, Georgia was judged to have met the lowest or next lowest level in 25. Of the top two marks, it achieved none. At no point did the Commission use the hackneyed old-school report phrase, “Could do better”, but it might reasonably have done so.
Sadly, the information outlined in the Commission’s report is nothing new. In June, the Commission stated that “recent developments have undermined [Georgia’s] progress” toward integrating with the West. Unlike Ukraine and Moldova, who were granted EU candidate status, the Commission recommended additional reforms in Georgia before it could be considered.
The Georgian government has been slow to respond and it is easy enough to understand why. As demonstrated by the opposition’s enthusiastic emphasis on the negative aspects of the EU report, political polarization remains the curse of Georgian politics. As the EU paper said: “Crucial challenges . . . remain, in particular, due to the overly divided political scene. There is an urgent need to address this political polarization and enhance democratic oversight.”
Thus the EU-recommended law to combat the influence of oligarchs (one of whom, Bidzina Ivanishvili, still runs the ruling party, Georgian Dream) seems to have lost momentum, not least because it failed to define the term with any clarity. Many opposition supporters are deeply unhappy. Anti-government sentiments are common, though they have not coalesced into meaningful large-scale protests to force changes in official policies. These divisions in the opposition simply serve to embolden the government.
On several occasions, Georgians have organized demonstrations in favor of European integration and to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of citizens have gathered at these events to denounce their government for being too slow on European reform and demanding that it speeds up its efforts.
The domestic political culture is problematic. Last year, the ruling party “unlawfully obtained and purposefully edited audio recordings from an opposition media newsroom.” Some while later, Georgian Dream adopted amendments allowing the government to wiretap its citizens. President Zourabichvili vetoed the amendments, but the parliament adopted them anyway. This is some way from standard European political behavior.
“Either we are still within the Soviet legacy, or we are moving towards a truly European system,” the Georgian president stated. “This is not a European life . . . It’s a different system, and we must get out of it.”
The EU has consistently engaged with the Georgian parliament to guide it toward potential integration with the West. The organization has provided a thorough set of recommendations for the Georgians, and the EU has expressed its support to aid their integration efforts.
But ultimately, the decision lies with the Georgian Dream party even as Georgian citizens and EU leaders complain, with the risk that they lose patience. There is still time for the country to turn matters around and climb back onto the European path. It’s not too late. Not yet.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.