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Georgia Eyes EU Candidate Status But Membership Still a Distant Dream

Participants carry a giant EU flag during a procession in support of Georgia's membership in the European Union in Tbilisi, Georgia, Dec. 9, 2023.
Participants carry a giant EU flag during a procession in support of Georgia's membership in the European Union in Tbilisi, Georgia, Dec. 9, 2023.

While Ukraine's hopes of beginning membership talks will take center-stage at this week's European Union summit, another potential member, Georgia, will also be seeking progress towards eventual entry to the coveted club.

Surveys show that up to 90% of Georgia's 3.7 million people support EU accession, and blue and yellow European flags are ubiquitous in the capital Tbilisi, fluttering from government buildings, businesses and private homes.

For Giorgi Popiashvili, a 40-year old art director, Georgia's future clearly lies with Europe, not Russia, which effectively ruled the South Caucasus country for 200 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"That's probably my dream, to see Georgia as a part of the European family," he told Reuters in Tbilisi. "We also love freedom... We've been fighting for our freedom for centuries."

Such enthusiasm, however, will not be enough to secure candidate status for Georgia. The ruling Georgian Dream party officially supports EU and NATO membership, but its track record on reforms has raised questions over how serious it is.

The government's conciliatory stance towards Russia has also irked Brussels.

"In the case of Georgia, we have a government that is seemingly more interested in doing business with Russia than advancing on the EU path," said a senior EU official involved in talks with countries which want to join.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Georgia had gone backwards on some key reforms, although the EU did not want to alienate a country that might otherwise fall back under Moscow's sway.

"So the EU's next move is about finding a balance..."

Soft on Moscow?

Georgia, which is sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and has no land border with the EU, applied for EU membership in March 2022 alongside Ukraine and Moldova.

At the time, the EU said Georgia needed to do more to fight corruption, improve the independence of its judiciary and depolarize its bitterly partisan domestic politics.

Last month, the European Commission recommended that Georgia be granted candidate status - something Ukraine and Moldova have already achieved - but made clear this could be withdrawn if it did not deliver on agreed reforms.

One important sticking point is foreign policy, where Georgian Dream has moved to improve ties with Moscow since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia is deeply unpopular among ordinary Georgians, partly because it helped two breakaway Georgian regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - to secure de facto independence in wars in the 1990s and again in 2008.

But although Moscow and Tbilisi have no formal diplomatic relations, Georgia has declined to impose sanctions on Russia as the EU and other Western countries have done, and has restored direct flights which had been suspended in 2019.

In May, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said NATO enlargement was "one of the main reasons" for the war in Ukraine, a view rejected by Western nations which regard the invasion as an illegal land grab.

Another of the EU's demands is for Georgia to reduce the political influence of wealthy tycoons.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is not only Georgia's richest man, but also founder of Georgian Dream and a former prime minister, making him, in many people's eyes, the most powerful figure in the country.

FILE - Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's former Prime Minister, stands at a polling station during a municipal election in Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct. 2, 2021.
FILE - Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's former Prime Minister, stands at a polling station during a municipal election in Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct. 2, 2021.

The party has also presided over what critics describe as creeping authoritarianism.

In March, it presented a bill branding non-governmental organizations and media outlets receiving money from abroad as "foreign agents," echoing a similar Russian law that the Kremlin has used to repress civil society.

The government withdrew the bill after large protests in Tbilisi. The EU had said the legislation could doom Georgia's accession hopes.

Long road

How the Dec. 14-15 summit plays out is difficult to predict, partly as Georgia's prospects are tied up with those of Ukraine.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts about his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has signaled he will block the opening of EU accession talks with Ukraine. Orban is more favourably disposed to Georgia's EU bid, though, seeing Georgian Dream's conservative stance on social issues and its accommodating stance towards Russia as mirroring his own.

Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics think-tank, says the Tbilisi government does want EU integration, but not at the cost of losing power domestically.

He added there was a chance that Georgia's EU application may go the way of Turkey's, which was granted candidate status in 1999, but has made little progress towards membership since.

"I think there is that risk, especially if Georgia continues backsliding in terms of democracy and there are no changes in terms of policy or foreign policy orientation," said Kakachia.

Analysts also point to conservative social attitudes in Georgia, whose influential Orthodox Church has called for laws prohibiting LGBT "propaganda."

Yet for many Georgians, EU membership is a no-brainer.

Temur Ninoshvili, who owns a winery and hotel in the winemaking region of Kakheti, sees accession as a way to redirect Georgia's wine exports, a major contributor to its economy, towards new markets.

Georgia, he said, currently sends around 75% of its wine exports to Russia.

Tina Bakhtadze, 30, a Georgian language teacher, acknowledged that the goal of EU membership would take time and much effort, but said "emotionally we are ready."

"For Georgia as a country, it's becoming more and more developed as we proceed further to this goal."

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