Input Paper: Why Georgia should get the EU candidate status, despite 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.


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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