Input Paper “Ten argu­ments why Georgia should get the EU can­di­date status, despite its obvious demo­c­ra­tic backslide”

Foto: Zurab Kurtsikidze

As part of our project “Eastern Part­ner­ship Plus” we publish a series of input papers on the topic: Per­spec­tives and Path­ways to EU Can­di­date Status for Ukraine, Georgia and the Repub­lic of Moldova.

For Georgia, Sergi Kapanadze ana­lyzes the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and for­mu­lates his polit­i­cal rec­om­men­da­tions to deci­­sion-makers in Berlin and Brus­sels as to why the EU should become a geopo­lit­i­cal actor and grant the trio EU can­di­date status in June.

“Favor­able” geopo­lit­i­cal context

Russia’s aggres­sion against Ukraine makes it clear that Ukraini­ans are fight­ing for the freedom, secu­rity and Euro­pean future of the whole Eastern neigh­bor­hood. States between the West and Russia are in danger of losing their sov­er­eignty, freedom and ter­ri­to­ries. Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion to become a member of the EU hap­pened in this chang­ing geopo­lit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. Georgia’s and Moldova’s his­tor­i­cal quest to cut loose from Russian influ­ence and re-estab­lish them­selves as members of the Euro­pean family of nations was man­i­fested in the EU mem­ber­ship appli­ca­tions. There­fore, for the Trio part­ners, the EU mem­ber­ship appli­ca­tions are more than a simple bureau­cratic pro­ce­dure to accede to Euro­pean institutions.

Wor­ri­some domes­tic developments

Against this “favor­able” geopo­lit­i­cal context, recent domes­tic news from Georgia has not been encour­ag­ing. What the EU leaders and offi­cials in Berlin and else­where have heard in the last few years can be summed up as strands of wor­ri­some devel­op­ments, such as the prac­tice of infor­mal rule by an oli­garch, con­tro­ver­sial elec­tions, arrest of polit­i­cal oppo­nents, lin­ger­ing polit­i­cal crisis, torn up polit­i­cal agree­ment medi­ated by Charles Michel in 2021, ques­tions whether Russia is using Georgia to cir­cum­vent sanc­tions, wide­spread illegal wire­tap­ping prac­tice, attacks on free media, Government’s fre­quent crit­i­cism of the EU, non-com­pli­ance to EU rec­om­men­da­tions regard­ing polit­i­cal and insti­tu­tional processes and demo­niza­tion of the long­stand­ing friends of Georgia, who are now crit­i­cal of back­slid­ing democracy.

The wor­ri­some head­line of recent days is the arrest of the direc­tor of the largest oppo­si­tion TV station – Mtavari TV. Charges are ridicu­lous – Nika Gvaramia was sen­tenced to 3 years for using the vehicle of the company he pre­vi­ously managed (Rustavi 2 TV) for family and private use. Rustavi 2 was crit­i­cal of the Gov­ern­ment when Gvaramia managed it and became a pro­pa­gan­dist of the Geor­gian Dream after the owner and man­age­ment were changed in 2019. A few months earlier, the founder of another oppo­si­tion TV channel, Formula TV, was sen­tenced in absentia.

These are not the news a country seeking to join the Euro­pean Union should gen­er­ate. Fol­low­ing the dra­matic geopo­lit­i­cal shift in the region, Georgia applied for the EU mem­ber­ship on March 3 and filled in the Euro­pean Commission’s ques­tion­naire by the May 12 dead­line. Now the whole nation awaits the verdict of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the Euro­pean Council in June 2022.

Sce­nar­ios regard­ing Georgia’s EU application

We can draw several pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios about the EU’s response to Georgia’s mem­ber­ship application.

Sce­nario 1: Georgia will be granted the Euro­pean per­spec­tive, which it has sought from the Euro­pean Union since 2013. This will put Georgia on the enlarge­ment track, however, without a clear path, con­di­tions and timeline.

Sce­nario 2: Georgia will be granted the Euro­pean per­spec­tive and will be given a set of con­di­tions, suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion of which could lead to the can­di­date status. These con­di­tions could be vague and pro­tracted in time or con­crete and limited in time. The Euro­pean Council might con­clude that it will return to the deci­sion on Georgia’s can­di­date status after a con­crete period, pending the progress on the conditions.

Sce­nario 3: Georgia will be granted the EU can­di­date status; however, con­di­tion­al­ity will be applied to the start of the acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions. These con­di­tions are highly likely to be detailed and strict.

There is an under­stand­ing in Georgia that Ukraine’s case will be reviewed sep­a­rately by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the Member States. Because of the geopo­lit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of the deci­sion on Ukraine, there is a like­li­hood that Ukraine will receive special treat­ment in terms of the status, con­di­tion­al­i­ties and time frame. This is well under­stood and accepted in Tbilisi. However, Tbilisi also strongly believes that the Trio coun­tries should not be sep­a­rated in the context of the deci­sion on can­di­date status, though dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and more-for-more (and less-for-less) prin­ci­ples should be applied as the rela­tions proceed in the post-can­di­date period.

The polit­i­cal spec­trum in Georgia, civil society orga­ni­za­tions, and experts favor Sce­nario 3, even though the recent attacks on free media and polit­i­cal oppo­nents make it harder for the cham­pi­ons of Georgia’s EU inte­gra­tion to argue Georgia’s case. This dis­cus­sion paper attempts pre­cisely that – to argue Georgia’s case despite wor­ri­some demo­c­ra­tic backsliding.

Argu­ments in favor of Georgia’s EU can­di­date status

Below are the ten argu­ments which trump the bad news and show why Georgia should still be granted the can­di­date status. In other words, these are the argu­ments in favor of Sce­nario 3.

First and most impor­tantly: the EU’s deci­sion to grant can­di­date status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia must be geopo­lit­i­cal and not a bureau­cratic one. If the Euro­pean Union coun­ters Russia’s aggres­sion by pro­vid­ing the enlarge­ment track to the Trio coun­tries, that deci­sion ought to be a geopo­lit­i­cal one. Sim­i­larly, in a geopo­lit­i­cal move, in 2009, after Russia invaded Georgia, the EU decided to create the Eastern Part­ner­ship and grant Asso­ci­a­tion agree­ments, DCFTAs and visa-free regimes to the Eastern neigh­bors. With­hold­ing the can­di­date status now will be a serious blow to the geopo­lit­i­cal cred­i­bil­ity of the West and the EU in Georgia and the broader neighborhood.

Second: the EU can­di­date status is not a reward for the Gov­ern­ment and any par­tic­u­lar party but for the country and people. Over 80% of the Geor­gians strongly support the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion path. One of the reasons why no polit­i­cal party, includ­ing the ruling Geor­gian Dream, dared to deviate from the Euro­pean path openly is the poten­tial wrath of Euro­pean minded Geor­gians. Strong Euro­pean iden­tity has been the main instru­ment that the EU could have used for exer­cis­ing a more effec­tive con­di­tion­al­ity over the Geor­gian Dream in recent years. It was seldom so. Now is the time when by grant­ing can­di­date status, the Euro­pean Union can make the Geor­gian people its ally (or vice versa) in press­ing the Geor­gian Dream to get serious about the reforms.

Third: can­di­date status does not equal mem­ber­ship. Many friends of Georgia claim that the Gov­ern­ment, whose poli­cies are so unde­mo­c­ra­tic, has nothing to do with the family of Euro­pean nations. This might be true when it comes to mem­ber­ship. However, we all know that grant­ing the can­di­date status is only a step toward mem­ber­ship, which will only happen after a long road con­sist­ing of opening acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions, opening and closing 35 chap­ters of the acces­sion treaty and final polit­i­cal deci­sions by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, Member States and the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. This process could take years and will undoubt­edly be longer than the time horizon of the current ruling party. Albania received can­di­date status in 2014, opened nego­ti­a­tions six years later and is nowhere close to the EU mem­ber­ship yet.

Fourth: the EU’s can­di­date status must come with strin­gent con­di­tions on the inde­pen­dence of the judi­ciary, halting of attacks against polit­i­cal oppo­nents, the release of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, ensur­ing freedom of media, tack­ling cor­rup­tion and other reforms from the Copen­hagen polit­i­cal cri­te­ria play­book. These con­di­tions should be linked with the start of acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions and be mea­sur­able and limited in time. The EU must connect these con­di­tions with the 2024 elec­tions time­frame to oblige Geor­gian Dream to imple­ment them imme­di­ately or risk losing elec­tions. In other words, the EU has real lever­age now, and if it grants Georgia the can­di­date status, the lever­age can actu­ally be effec­tive. If, however, can­di­date status is not given, Georgia might revert to the post-Soviet abyss, and the Gov­ern­ment of Georgia will have a free hand to con­tinue non-demo­c­ra­tic reforms and drag Georgia down the Lukashenka path.

Fifth: the EU should intro­duce the sus­pen­sion clause for the can­di­date status if the reforms are not duly and fully imple­mented. With this clause, the EU could effec­tively enforce con­di­tion­al­ity, some­thing it has not done before vis-a-vis Georgia. The pos­si­ble sus­pen­sion will be like a threat of a polit­i­cal nuclear bomb and Damo­cles’ sword of con­di­tion­al­ity. Fear of losing the can­di­date status will strongly dis­cour­age Geor­gian leaders from con­tin­u­ing their unde­mo­c­ra­tic rule. Failed polit­i­cal agree­ment medi­ated by Charles Michel is a good example. Because Geor­gian Dream knew that no reper­cus­sions would follow, it with­drew from the agree­ment it had signed months earlier and window-dressed the reforms it was sup­posed to under­take. Fur­ther­more, with the sus­pen­sion clause in place, Geor­gian Dream will not manage to “sell” the can­di­date status as a “reward” for its “demo­c­ra­tic” gov­er­nance – the argu­ment that the con­cerned friends of Georgia often use.

Sixth: Georgia’s pro-western oppo­si­tion, media and civil society need support from the West. That requires straight-jack­et­ing of the Gov­ern­ment into the set of heavy demo­c­ra­tic con­di­tions. Without the can­di­date status, these con­di­tions will never be treated seri­ously, and the Gov­ern­ment will have no stim­u­lus to abide by them. Pro-Western forces in Georgia, sim­i­larly, will have no con­di­tion­al­ity to refer to and will have even less power than today to press the Gov­ern­ment internally.

Seventh: the EU risks making the same mistake as NATO in 2008 when Georgia was promised mem­ber­ship but was not given a Mem­ber­ship Action Plan. If Georgia receives the Euro­pean per­spec­tive but is not given the can­di­date status, par­al­lels will be impos­si­ble to ignore. It will encour­age Russia to seek more influ­ence over the deci­sion-makers in Tbilisi and develop addi­tional lever­ages, whether eco­nomic or mil­i­tary. When Moscow senses weak­ness, it usually acts swiftly and ruth­lessly, while the EU often pursues a path-depen­dent course of action. Not grant­ing the can­di­date status to Georgia will be inter­preted by Moscow as a carte blanche for more aggres­sive actions in the next few years.

Eighth: if the EU does not grant Georgia the can­di­date status, pro-Russian forces in Georgia will gloat and strive. Their message that the EU only wants Ukraini­ans and Geor­gians to fight Russia while not giving in return even the “sym­bolic” can­di­date status will be hard to counter. Dis­in­for­ma­tion, the main instru­ment of pro-Russian forces in Georgia, will be re-equipped with a solid argu­ment – ‘EU and NATO only snub Georgia, while Russia is strong and dan­ger­ous, so why look West?’ The resur­gence of pro-Russian forces could, in turn, be exploited by the Geor­gian Dream gov­ern­ment, which has pre­vi­ously gone at length to pacify pro-Russian forces through con­ces­sions and empow­er­ing. Geor­gian Dream banned the sale of agri­cul­tural land and defined mar­riage as a union of man and woman through con­sti­tu­tional changes to appease these forces. They might under­take further non-Euro­pean steps that limit free­doms and lib­er­ties but are music to the ears of the Kremlin and its cronies in Georgia.

Ninth: Russia is now waiting for July for South Osse­tians to hold a ref­er­en­dum on whether to join Russia. This ref­er­en­dum will likely be held in the same package as ref­er­enda in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson. Suppose Georgia steps into July without the can­di­date status; in that case, Russia will likely black­mail the Geor­gian Gov­ern­ment with the threat of annex­ing South Ossetia unless the Geor­gian Gov­ern­ment back­tracks on the EU mem­ber­ship. Annex­a­tion of the Geor­gian ter­ri­tory by Russia, even if it does not change much in terms of the status quo, will be a severe de jure devel­op­ment. It will throw any hopes of ever restor­ing ter­ri­to­r­ial integrity into a long box. Without the can­di­date status, no mem­ber­ship to aspire to and a threat of annex­a­tion immi­nent — the Geor­gian Gov­ern­ment might yield further to the pres­sure. And pro-Kremlin forces inside Georgia will gloat and revive again.

Tenth: the Trio will be broken up if Ukraine receives the can­di­date status and Georgia (and Moldova) don’t. These three Eastern Part­ner­ship states created the Trio format in 2021 with an under­stand­ing that Euro­pean inte­gra­tion only happens one region at a time. All three coun­tries know that they will need to even­tu­ally pursue intra-Trio inte­gra­tion, similar to the Berlin Process for the Balkans. But if the three are put in two sep­a­rate baskets, this could back­fire, as Ukraine will attempt to de-link from Georgia, while Georgia might remain on the wrong side of the new iron curtain.

How about the Balkans?

We have often heard that any accel­er­a­tion of the EU inte­gra­tion track for the Eastern Part­ners will be “unfair” to the Balkans. Austria and Germany are some of the several EU members who defend this argu­ment. However, it is highly likely that the Balkan can­di­dates will still join the EU well before the Eastern part­ners, so these con­cerns seem to be exaggerated.

The chart below shows that the time frame for the Balkan states receiv­ing can­di­date status until the opening of acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions varies from 1 (Serbia) to 15 (North­ern Mace­do­nia) years. Thus, grant­ing the can­di­date status to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will only put these coun­tries in the same enlarge­ment basket as the Balkans and not in a more favor­able posi­tion, as is often implied. If the polit­i­cal deci­sion is made in the EU to allow best per­form­ing Balkan states to join, it could be done rel­a­tively fast. What will be more unfair is if the Eastern part­ners are put on the waiting list for the can­di­date status because of the lack of polit­i­cal deci­sion on Balkan enlargement.

More­over, the EU has con­sis­tently argued that each aspi­rant country has to be judged on its merit. Accord­ing to the study pub­lished by the CEPS (Center of Euro­pean Policy Studies) in 2021, Balkan and Eastern part­ner­ship states are “broadly com­pa­ra­ble on the sum of polit­i­cal, legal and eco­nomic policy cri­te­ria”. Balkans are a little ahead on the polit­i­cal and legal cri­te­ria, while East Euro­peans fare better on trade and eco­nomic policies.¹ The report also illus­trates that the three East Euro­pean states are closer to the better Balkan states than the two lag­gards – Bosnia and Kosovo. There­fore, putting the Eastern Part­ner­ship states on an equal footing with some Balkan states is quite fair. This, however, does not mean that the Trio will leapfrog the Balkans in the mem­ber­ship race.

Con­clu­sion

Georgia is at the cross­roads of its Euro­pean inte­gra­tion path. Russia’s aggres­sion in Ukraine created momen­tum for the fast-track­ing of EU inte­gra­tion for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Of the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios, the most appeal­ing for Georgia’s demo­c­ra­tic devel­op­ment is grant­ing a can­di­date status with heavy con­di­tion­al­ity in rela­tion to the pos­si­bil­ity to open acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions once the demo­c­ra­tic reforms are con­ducted. Despite the serious back­track­ing of democ­racy in Georgia, the Euro­pean Union could grant Georgia the can­di­date status but intro­duce the sus­pen­sion clause if the demo­c­ra­tic rever­sal continues.

The Euro­pean Union must hold Georgia account­able to high demo­c­ra­tic stan­dards and press the Geor­gian Dream to imme­di­ately stop the unde­mo­c­ra­tic prac­tices it has been engaged in for the last several years. This can be done more effec­tively with Georgia receiv­ing the can­di­date status in June 2022. The few weeks between the pub­li­ca­tion of the Commission’s opinion and the meeting of the Euro­pean Council on June 23 will be crucial for pushing the Geor­gian Dream to imple­ment some of the long-overdue reforms and address the ques­tions of politi­cized justice. Coun­tries often deliver during the last days of the polit­i­cal deci­sions, so, if played well, the EU could exert maximum con­ces­sions from the Geor­gian Dream on the demo­c­ra­tic reforms.

The prob­lems with democ­racy that Georgia now faces will be over­come even­tu­ally by the Geor­gian people, as they have done so in 2003 and 2012 when the rel­a­tive depri­va­tion of needed reforms has cli­maxed into the col­lec­tive action. Geor­gians will do so again. And having the can­di­date status will only strengthen the resolve of the Geor­gian people and demo­c­ra­tic forces in the country to fight for their Euro­pean future. While with­hold­ing the candidate’s status might demo­ti­vate Geor­gians and turn the nation into an easier prey for Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion and even­tual take-over.

¹ Michael Emerson, “Build­ing a New Momen­tum for Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion of the Balkan and Eastern Euro­pean Asso­ciates States”, 09.03.2021, Center of Euro­pean Policy Studies


Sergi Kapanadze, Georgia’s Reforms Asso­ciates (GRASS)

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