The European Commission’s provisional endorsement of Georgia’s EU chances contained a not-so-subtle message couched in diplomatic jargon: Tbilisi must forge stronger national consensus on European, liberal values for the country to remain a viable candidate for EU membership. It is not immediately clear whether the governing Georgian Dream party got the point.
The commission recommendation, issued November 8, said Georgia could become eligible for EU candidate status “on the understanding that a number of steps are taken.” Another document issued in 2022 identifies 12 conditions that must be met for Georgia to continue on its accession path. An overarching condition, outlined in the commission’s key findings this year, is that the government and political opposition in Tbilisi need to take steps to heal a deeply polarized society.
“The reform process has been hampered by continuing political tensions, deep polarization, the absence of constructive engagement between political parties and the challenges of building consensus on key matters of national interest,” the commission stated in its assessment of the country’s political climate.
The chief catalyst for polarization has been the Georgian Dream government’s embrace of illiberal policy positions, underscored by its failed attempt to push through legislation in the spring of 2023 that would have placed severe restrictions on non-governmental organizational activity. Amid the government’s steady drift away from liberalism, President Salome Zourabichvili has emerged as the representative voice of opposition and a prominent advocate of the liberal values embedded in the EU’s structure.
In the aftermath of the European Commission announcement, Zourabichvili held out an olive branch to the Georgian Dream. Casting the commission’s recommendation as a rejection of “Russian occupation,” the president said Georgia had no alternative other than full integration into the European system. “Any other path leads to slavery,” she stated.
Zourabichvili also noted that she would be attending in a peace forum in Paris on November 10 along with her main political antagonist, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. She went on to express hope that their joint presence would “establish an example of depolarization.”
A November 8 statement issued by civil society activists in Tbilisi who are generally critical of government policies echoed a desire for a greater degree of political harmony. “The common national goal – to become a member of the European Union – transcends all political and other differences,” the statement read. “Today, we must unite our voices for the future.”
Garibashvili and other top government officials have yet to reciprocate when it comes to sending signals about political conciliation. Following a November 9 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Garibashvili’s office issued a statement that glossed over the European Commission’s conditionality, noting brusquely that Georgia “expects [candidacy] status to be granted by the European Council in December.”
Meanwhile, Macron reinforced the EU message to Georgia, writing in a Facebook post. “Unite your efforts for advancement. France stands with you.”
During a news conference on November 8, Garibashvili heaped scorn on Georgian Dream’s political opponents, some of whom have described the commission’s recommendation as an endorsement of the large majority of the Georgian people’s desire for EU membership, in spite of obstructionist government policies. The premier maintained the government deserved sole credit for Georgia’s EU advancement.
“The radical opposition has done nothing on our country’s path to European integration,” Garibashvili said. “I repeat, if anyone, any government, ruler, has done anything tangible, it is Georgian Dream’s government.”
Garibashvili went on to suggest that Georgia had already largely fulfilled the 12 conditions outlined by the European Commission for candidate status. “We have been working round the clock to deliver on the 12 recommendations, [conditions],” Garibashvili said. “We saw a report, which is clearly and vividly positive. This [EU] decision is based on the achieved results. “
The commission’s key findings, however, differed sharply from Garibashvili’s assessment of the government’s performance.
The commission noted that “substantive cross-party work in Parliament was hampered by limited inclusion (by the ruling party) of the opposition in drawing up legislation.” Brussels also emphasized that “several key issues remain to be addressed, notably discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as the independence, accountability, and transparency of the judiciary.”
The commission’s findings also made clear that media freedom in Georgia was hampered by government-driven “intimidation and physical and verbal attacks” on journalists, and Georgia’s foreign policy priorities were out of sync with the EU’s, especially when it comes to the Ukraine war.
“Georgia did not align with the EU’s restrictive measures (sanctions) regarding Russia, including airspace closure,” the commission findings flatly stated.
Reading between the lines of the EU epistle to Georgia, it is clear Georgian Dream must make drastic policy corrections in order to satisfy Brussels.
Source : Eurasianet