Challenges For Georgia’s EU Membership – Analysis


By Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash

As Georgia moves closer to being a member of the European Union, excitement looms over the South Caucasian Republic. On 15 December, the EU fast-tracked Georgia’s application for EU membership and granted it candidate status, thereby expressing support for Eastern European and Caucasian nations facing the spectre of Russian aggression. Challenges persist in the potential membership of Georgia in the European Union, not only from its ontological prior—Russia—but also from within.  

The quest for European integration 

The demand for integration with Europe is not new in Tbilisi. Since the dissolution of the erstwhile USSR, anti-Russian sentiment has defined the contours of Georgian politics. From the backend of the ’90s to the early 2000s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expanded rapidly with, Georgia actively seeking membership. Seeing the potential crossing of a red line, Russian troops, under the pretext of alleged genocide, were mobilised to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with Moscow supporting the two regions’ claim to sovereignty. Since then, the political elites in Georgia have pursued their European integration ambitions cautiously.

In 2014, they signed an association agreement with the EU. Simultaneously, Georgia’s political elites were focused on rebuilding their relations with Russia.  In 2014, direct flights resumed between the two countries, including visa-free travel. High volumes of bilateral trade further helped in easing tensions with Russia. Georgia’s imports from Russia increased by 79 percent in 2023 to US$1.8 billion, as compared to 2022. Georgian exports to Russia increased by 32 percent in the same year. 

Despite the normalisation of ties with Russia, the number of takers for the European project increased proportionally to the increasing anti-Russia sentiments year-on-year. However, the feeling is not shared by the political elites in Tbilisi—who, despite talking about a Euro-Atlanticist future and having aspirations for NATO membership, justify the Russia-Ukraine war by blaming it on Kyiv’s aspirations for NATO membership, employ wider anti-Brussels rhetoric, and continue to maintain ties with Russia. Accepting the conditions set and implementing them may pose a challenge for the currently ruling Georgian Dream Party, as a few of their political interests go head-to-head with the Euro-Atlanticist aspirations of the Georgian people.  

Enacting EU reforms 

At present, Tbilisi’s rate of compliance with the EU foreign and security policy is 43 percent. For a higher compliance rate, the EU set nine conditions for Georgia’s membership in the EU. The conditions range from combating disinformation and foreign interference, aligning Georgian foreign policy with EU foreign policy, strengthening Georgia’s democratic institutions, implementing the recommendations of the Venice Commission, and “de-oligarching” sectors of the Georgian economy. 

The Georgian political elite has been slow to enact reforms, despite 89 percent of Georgians wanting to join the European Union as of 2022. This illustrates the dichotomy between the aspirations of the population and the politics of the elite. Yet for the EU, Georgia has little to offer economically and risks weakening the Union, given that its GDP is half that of Bulgaria—the EU’s poorest member. To make matters worse, Tbilisi does not share a land border with any EU country. Even in a normal scenario, accession to the European project is a herculean task, with the process spanning, on average, nine years. For Georgia, it would require the Georgian Dream Party and EU oversight committees to work in overdrive on bringing reforms, including reforms distancing Georgia from Russian influence. 

Russian dependence 

Decoupling from Moscow will prove difficult, as Russia’s influence in Georgia is only increasing. In 2022, more than 15,000 Russian companies were registered in Georgia, an increase by a factor of 16 from 2021. Regarding economic ties, Russian exports to Georgia have surged since the beginning of the invasion, leaving the share of Russian energy in Georgia at 51 percent. with petroleum imports grossing US$482 million, gas imports from Russia surged by 32 percent in the same year, and coal imports by 157 percent, amounting to US$70 million. The number of visitors from Russia has surged by 20 percent since 2021. 

Increasing interaction with Russia will be a concern for EU membership. Furthermore, connectivity will be an issue as Georgia does not have a border with an EU country. with the Bulgarian town of Kapitan, being the closest EU crossing point, 1,500 kilometres away. Considering the distance, and, as previously noted, with a GDP 50 percent less than Bulgaria, Georgia has little to offer to the EU economically. The war in Ukraine has further deteriorated EU-Russia ties, and Georgia’s trade with Moscow and the creeping Russian influence in Georgia will be a problem for the EU. 

Apart from Russia, creeping Chinese influence in Georgia may be troublesome. Georgia is a critical hub for the Belt and Road Initiative. Projects such as the Anakila Deep Sea Port, the Middle Corridor, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, and the free trade agreement signed between the two countries have intensified cooperation. Such levels of interaction could be a concern for Brussels, given that the EU and several member states are in the process of recalibrating their relations with Beijing.

Everyday politics in Georgia  

Georgian politicians are divided on the EU question. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Prime Minister of Georgia and the founder of the Georgian Dream Party is an oligarch who amassed a vast amount of wealth under Russian President Boris Yeltsin and set Georgia on a course away from the West. On the other hand, pro-EU President Salome Zourabichvilli does not enjoy the unconditional support of the Dream party and was at risk of impeachment when he travelled across European capitals to discuss Georgia’s EU membership on grounds of acting against the country’s constitutional court. 

Georgia faces the challenge of balancing its pursuit of EU membership with the risk of Russian adventurism, necessitating a cautious approach to avoid potential repercussions in the northern regions of Georgia. 

The EU expansion will not only set the groundwork for a multi-speed Europe—describing an EU where different nations in the EU would integrate at different levels and paces depending on the political situation in each country—but can also provoke further Russian aggression. This is why the political elite of Georgia is cautiously dealing with the accession question. As Georgia slowly marches towards Brussels, the Georgian Dream Party is confident of a victory in the elections this October. As for the country’s long-term future in the EU, only time will tell. 

  • About the author: Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash is a Research Intern with Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation 
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation 

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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