By Giorgi Lomsadze
(Eurasianet) — It’s official. The European Union formally let Georgia into the reception area for prospective members. A summit of European leaders endorsed on December 14 a proposal to put the country on the EU membership waiting list, prompting grand celebrations.
But the real work for getting out of the post-Soviet woods and into the European thicket starts now.
From domestic political culture, to foreign relations, to human rights, Georgia needs to fundamentally change how it does things to meet club membership requirements. Ultimately, the nation’s leaders and political figures will need to change the rules of the game or make sure that there are rules to begin with.
One of these leaders, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, emphatically congratulated the nation late on December 14. He posted on Facebook a picture of Georgian and EU flags, emblazoned with the words “Congratulations: candidate status!” Other officials, opposition figures and diplomats followed suit.
Nabbing a spot in Europe’s vestibule was indeed a cause for celebration for the fervently pro-EU nation, but Georgia walked into a crowded room, where countries like Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro are still waiting for their turn to make their case for actual membership.
These countries’ progress from candidate to member had been stalled for reasons like – depending on the individual case – authoritarian urges, economic ties with Russia and messy domestic politics. Georgia has all that and more. Being the last in the line (both geographically and chronologically speaking), Georgia may get stuck in European purgatory indefinitely, unless it proceeds with its makeover in a meaningful manner.
The reform goals are clear. Brussels gave Tbilisi – with apologies to Hercules – twelve labors to complete, of which the country had already carried out three. The biggest monsters, however, lie down the road.
“Georgia started with the low-hanging fruit and checked off on the list those requirements that do not necessarily pose a challenge to anyone’s hold on power,” said Vano Chkhikvadze, European integration programs manager at the Open Society – Georgia Foundation. “The hardest part starts now because most of the required reforms are largely about sharing, controlling and yielding political power.”
Down with the oligarchy
One of the nine remaining conditions set for Tbilisi is what Brussels calls deoligarchization, or drawing a clear line between public interests and the private interests of the wealthy few. Other EU-aspiring nations also face that task, but Georgia might be the hardest to deoligarchize as, in the view of many, the country is essentially an oligarchy.
Georgia’s single richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is broadly believed to be running the country as his personal business, moving around the nation’s top officials and top trees as he finds fit. Little can stand in Ivanishvili’s way if he sets his mind to anything from replanting giant baobabs from Africa to Georgia, or people from his entourage to the government.
Georgia’s prime minister is Ivanishvili’s former factotum and the interior minister is his former bodyguard, to cite the most obvious examples of the billionaire’s hand in government. Ivanishvili founded Georgian Dream to begin with and the party is now composed of steadfast loyalists.
It is with a young pioneer’s fervor that executive officials and lawmakers sing the tycoon’s praises and vie for his favors. Still, when asked about the EU’s requests for deoligarchization, the officials pass the buck to moneyed individuals in the opposition camp.
Since the billionaire and his party have no plans of going away, some observers believe that Brussels for now might have to accept the Ivanishvili phenomenon as a fact of life in Georgia, but will try to bring him out into the open, and attach more accountability and transparency to his role.
“The EU will gravitate toward solutions that are legal, long-term and not personalized, but aimed at leveling the field and reducing corruption,” said political commentator Jaba Devdariani.
Stay calm and join the EU
Like any club, the EU is wary of letting in a member with anger issues. One of the tasks Brussels set for Tbilisi is to introduce the concepts of compromise and collaboration into the fiercely divided, cacophonic world of Georgian politics.
While the EU has plenty of divisions of its own, and both on supranational and national level, Georgia stands in a class by itself when it comes to polarization. Political tensions have gotten so bad that political opponents cannot even sit down in the same television studio for a debate. Each side speaks to its preferred news outlet and viewers need to flip between channels to get different perspectives.
When opponents are forced to be in the same room, such as during parliamentary debates, expect fists and insults to fly. During one heated debate, the parliamentary speaker physically lifted his female opponent and carried her away from the rostrum. Senior ruling party lawmakers famously started a brawl at a festive reception at the US embassy.
The opposition is also less than averse to starting a fight. Instead of properly apologizing (if not to one another, at least to the Georgian public and foreign diplomats), these politicians tend to offer boys-will-be-boys kind of excuses for their actions.
So Brussels is telling Georgia to chill or to move toward depolarization, to use the preferred nomenclature. The EU wants to see civilized debate, and cross-party “cooperation, compromise-building and inclusive consultations,” at least on the issues that most parties nominally support, European integration being one of them.
This request is not just for the party in power. Most opposition groups claim that joining the EU is their top priority, but often put their local political objectives first. In European diplomatic circles there is a sense that some opposition groups are filibustering, trying to negotiate advantages out of the European integration process before it can move forward.
It’s okay to lose an election
To move forward, the government and the opposition will have to accept that retaining or attaining power by any means is not acceptable. Letting a questionable democracy into the club is bound to be a headache for the EU, so Brussels wants to see good and clean elections in Georgia, ones that are broadly accepted by political actors, observers and the public.
To achieve this, Georgia was asked to democratize the nation’s election administration system as the governing party has secured disproportionate control over the composition of the main electoral body.
Through this year’s changes to the election law, the Georgian Dream party wrested away from the nonpartisan president the prerogative to select seven members of the Central Election Commission and its chairman. The establishment’s hand-picked nominees are expected to breeze through parliamentary approval, as the number of approval votes has been reduced from 100 to 76, which is exactly how many seats Georgian Dream has in the legislature.
The EU expects Georgia to improve the independence of the electoral system by the next parliamentary polls, due to be held next fall, and effectively tackle other long-running election issues such as voter intimidation and procedural violations.
Checks and balances
But changing the electoral environment might do little if there is no independent court in place to address voting violations. Big question marks hang over the independence of Georgia’s courts, especially when it comes to cases of importance to the ruling establishment and Ivanishvili.
To rid the courtroom of political influences, “the EU wants to see a system in place for vetting judiciary appointees for integrity,” said Chkhikvadze. “We need to design this system ourselves, but the idea is that key judiciary positions are filled by highly trusted individuals, with a proven record of political independence.”
The EU also wants Georgia to strengthen the independence of other government institutions, such as the police and the national bank. In a problem that is older than the Georgian Dream, the nation’s security services, police and financial authorities are criticized for acting as guardians of the ruling establishment’s interests.
The EU calls for greater parliamentary and public oversight of the security services’ work and delinking of key government agencies from the ruling elite, and offers specific steps to be taken. There is a lot of homegrown skepticism over Georgia’s willingness to take these steps as greater independence of state institutions and leveling of the political field will be pushing the ruling elite out of its comfort zone.
Be a team member
Aside from democracy-building requests, Brussels expects its prospective members to harmonize their foreign affairs priorities with the root notes of the EU’s foreign policy. In this regard, Georgia has been singing out of tune for quite some time.
Tbilisi has been reluctant to join the Euro-Atlantic community in shaming and isolating Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Tbilisi in fact has been enjoying an odd rapprochement with Moscow, letting Russian goods, tourists and investment roll in, just the EU was moving in the opposite direction.
Georgia formally regards Russia as an invading force, occupying the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Still, Tbilisi avoids criticizing Moscow and makes no qualms about earning pats-on-the-back and economic sops from the Kremlin, even as Russian troops continue to torment Georgian civilians (killing one man recently) in the South Ossetia conflict zone.
In its defense, the Georgian government says it can’t risk antagonizing an increasingly aggressive Moscow. Government critics claim that Georgia Dream sees Russia as a source of income and a fall-back option if ties with the West go south.
Either way, Georgia will have to clearly choose sides as the EU asks all prospective members to back up the bloc’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). This will entail signing off on the EU’s statements and actions toward Russia. “They will need to align with the CSFP and there is a very little wriggle room there,” said Devdariani, though he added that, “in practice, one can just show gradual progress and it will still be counted as progress.”
Pick your friends
While hesitant to call out Russia, the Georgian government had been willing to shoot from the hip when it felt angry with strategic allies such as the EU and the U.S. When domestic and international critics requested Georgian Dream to man up and criticize Moscow over its atrocities in Ukraine, the party began indiscriminately accusing its Western friends of attempts to drag Georgia into a war with Russia.
Soon Georgian Dream and its enforcers began leveling this accusation in response to almost any kind of criticism, be it the lack of judicial independence or official corruption. The government’s mantra, “Do you want a war?” became a popular phrase that Georgians now humorously say when someone says something even mildly critical or provocative.
The EU made clear that Georgia can’t expect to make headway toward European integration as long as such disinformation campaigns rage on. The Georgian government did tone down its anti-Western rhetoric as the decision about Georgia’s status drew nearer and made steps toward synchronization of its foreign policy statements with the EU.
Still, there are lingering doubts about Georgian Dream’s true intentions. By nabbing the status of candidate Georgian Dream scored a major point with the voters and delivered a blow to its political rivals, who accuse the ruling party of being in cahoots with the Kremlin. It was a short-term political success that does not guarantee a long-term change. Georgia can make itself comfortable in the waiting room and do little to progress further, observers warn.
The EU will be checking in every year to see how Georgia is doing vis-à-vis its obligations and readiness for membership. The compliance rate will be measured and the goalposts may be moved depending on new challenges.
Georgian civil society pins big hopes on this process, hoping it can bring better protection of minorities, reduce corruption and strengthen the rule of law. “The main benefit of European integration is that it has a transformative effect on nations,” Chkhikvadze said. “This is not a videogame where you simply progress through levels by solving puzzles. The idea is that you improve, become a better version of yourself.”
Local watchdogs are given an important role in this process. Knowing the situation on the ground, they have the capacity to see if the authorities are actually making changes or trying to window-dress issues. One of the EU requests is to engage civil society in the process and this is also a test for the authorities.
Georgian Dream has grown increasingly thin-skinned toward criticism from the nation’s vibrant collection of democracy and rule-of-law watchdogs. The authorities often lump civil society organizations with the political opposition or describe them as parts of a supposed global deep-state force, a world war-pushing Bond villainesque entity that only the Georgian Dream can see.
What do Georgians want?
The progressive, liberal part of Georgian society sees European integration as a mechanism for bringing to Georgia respect for human rights, fair elections, free media and protection of minorities – everything that most EU citizens take for granted. Most of the EU’s asks for Georgia are focused on just that.
The Georgian population at large appears to be tying EU membership to welfare and prosperity, however. “When it comes to why Georgians support the country’s membership in the EU, the main reasons are economic,” commented Dustin Gilbreath, a researcher with the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, citing polling data.
“It is likely reductive to say that it is only the economy,” he added, saying that a closer, more nuanced look could tie support for the EU to a whole range of issues. Economy and security are prime concerns for Georgians, and these issues come up on top of most surveys that gauge the mood in the largely poor, war-torn country. But “this does not mean that these are the only issues they care about,” Gilbreath said.
Whatever their motivations are, the Georgian people are the main drivers and guardians of Georgia’s journey to Europe. The last time the nation careened off the track, crowds took to the streets and whipped the government back into line.
Given past snafus, Georgian politicians are yet to prove that their long-term commitment to Europeanization is for real, but the Georgian people are likely to keep the pressure up to make sure the country goes the whole nine reform yards.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.