BRUSSELS—Years before the war in Ukraine, Georgia was the victim of Russian aggression that prompted Washington and Brussels to swing behind it.
The Black Sea republic was ahead of other ex-Soviet states on democratic reforms, with ambitions to join the European Union.
Washington poured in billions of dollars, trying to shore up a potential partner in the region after Russia invaded in 2008. Georgia responded by committing thousands of troops to U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, the airport highway begins with George W. Bush Street.
But when EU leaders cracked open Thursday the door to membership for Ukraine and Moldova, they snubbed Georgia. Instead of granting immediate candidate status, as the bloc did with Ukraine and Moldova, the EU gave Georgia a list of reforms to complete before being offered a pathway to membership, from lessening the sway of domestic oligarchs to improving judicial independence and tackling corruption.
The three countries all applied for EU membership in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. While Ukraine and Moldova face many of the same problems as Brussels flagged in Georgia, EU leaders see the other governments as firmly committed to change and unquestionably opposed to Moscow’s influence.
Georgia “must now come together politically,” European Commission President
Ursula von der Leyen
said Wednesday. “It must design a clear path towards structural reform and towards the European Union.”
The ruling Georgian Dream party’s chairman called the Commission’s decision “heartbreaking.” Other party members said people and organizations in the West and Georgia’s opposition party had sabotaged its bid and were trying to drag it into war with Russia.
Georgia’s fall from Western graces shows the vulnerability of reform movements in the former Soviet sphere and the limits of Western influence. For Brussels and Washington, Georgia presents a dilemma because they want to support countries seeking to escape Moscow’s pull, but not at any price.
Pro-Western, anti-Kremlin sentiment runs high in Georgia, which borders Russia and lost roughly 20% of its territory to Russian-backed separatists in the 2008 war. Over 80% of the Georgian public favors joining the EU, polls show.
However, the current government has halted Georgia’s shift toward Western-style democracy, observers say, and EU officials worry about Moscow’s influence behind the scenes. Ukrainian President
has accused Georgia of helping Russia evade sanctions and withdrawn the country’s envoy.
Representatives of the government and Georgian Dream didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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Powerful Georgian business leaders have strong ties to Russia and pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian propaganda is on the rise. The European Parliament recently said media freedom had “rapidly deteriorated” while Russian disinformation campaigns and anti-EU propaganda have surged since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Georgian Prime Minister
said the statement was full of “shameful accusations [that] lack facts and evidence.”
Georgia represents a cautionary tale, said Michael Emerson of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “For the EU, it is existential that new members observe high standards of democracy and rule of law.”
The West’s concerns over Georgia’s backsliding have intensified in recent years. Contested parliamentary elections in 2020 led to a boycott by the leading opposition party, the arrest of its leader and a political deal that was brokered by the EU, pledging electoral and judicial reforms. The agreement collapsed within two months when Georgian Dream pulled out.
Ross Wilson, who was the top U.S. diplomat in Georgia from 2018 to 2019, said the EU membership push has fallen victim to political fights between polarized camps, each determined not to pursue political or judicial reforms that could weaken their grip on power.
“Consensus doesn’t exist in Georgia…It doesn’t exist because they’re in a bitter contest,” he said.
Tens of thousands of protesters recently marched through Tbilisi to show that “the Georgian people have chosen Europe,” said Nodar Rukhadze, a co-founder of the Shame Movement, a civil-society group that helped organize the protests. The message to the government, he said, was: “We are here and we are watching.”
Georgia has close economic ties with Russia, its third-largest trading partner after the EU and Turkey, and a vital source of fuel and wheat. Since Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, analysts say it has tried not to irritate its northern neighbor. That cautious approach has come into far sharper focus since Feb. 24. The party has refused to join most international sanctions against Russia, saying they would hinder economic growth and cause security issues.
“Everything done by Georgian Dream is to create a favorable environment for Russian actors,” said Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International Georgia. “When we need open statements against Russia or Russian aggression, the Georgian government is not active enough.”
Maintaining the EU’s commitment to Georgia’s reform is essential, diplomats and analysts say, as political factions spar over who is to blame for the Commission’s decision.
“Sooner or later, I am convinced that the strong pro-European outlook of the Georgian public will push all sides to end this toxic polarization,” said Carl Hartzell, the EU’s outgoing ambassador to Georgia. “But Georgia must grasp its European opportunities in the coming months and years.”
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