Georgia’s ruling party has stated multiple times that they intend to apply for EU membership in 2024, and it was one of the main political promises made during the 2020 election campaign. The ruling party leaders claimed that the country required more time to meet the European Union’s membership requirements. The political situation in the continent of Europe has shifted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24. Despite this barbaric aggression, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky officially signed Ukraine’s EU membership application on February 28, 2022.
Georgia is making an effort to adapt to these troubled times. Salome Zurabishvili, Georgia’s president, has been unusually active during this difficult time, visiting Paris and Brussels in the last week to express solidarity with Ukraine and discuss current events with European Union leaders. The president stated on February 28 that the European Union’s unity in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is “a window of opportunity, where Europeans are ready to look differently to the future of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova”. In addition, she also underlined that Georgia is ready to become the part of this unity. During the interview with CNN, the president stated:”You can try to frighten countries… But that does not mean you change their orientation, that you change their determination to keep their independence.”
Georgia, once regarded as a front-runner in the EU’s eastern neighborhood, has experienced democratic backsliding in recent years under the Georgian Dream rule, raising questions about the country’s readiness to join the European Union domestically and internationally. Regardless of the challenges, it would be unjust to say that Georgia does not deserve to be a member of the European Union, because Georgia has overcome many bloody and multifaceted challenges to get to this point. Broadly speaking, Georgian people, culture, and history have always been a part of European civilization.
To explain it in a more detailed way, Georgia has always been extremely vocal about its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and burning desires to join the European Union and NATO. The previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement even popularized the term ‘re-integration’ to refer to Georgia’s return to the European family, based on the country’s ancient history, religion, culture, and key European values closely linked to the Greeks and Romans.
Aside from culture and history, Georgia implemented critical reforms following the Rose Revolution in order to fully functionalize political institutions, reform old and ineffective structures, combat corruption and nepotism, and make the country a part of the democratic world. For all of these efforts and ambitions, Putin’s Russia punished Georgia in 2008 by starting the full-scale war in order to force the country to reject its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The Russian invasion of Georgia resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Georgians, the displacement of over 190,000 people, and the Russian occupation of so called South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which persists until now.
Despite that Georgia continued its European path, in 2009 Georgia became the leading country of Eastern partnership in terms of democracy, the human rights and the rule of law. Following that, in 2014, an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) were signed. It is also worth noting that, Georgia has also benefited from visa-free travel with the EU since 2017.
Regarding the Georgian Dream period, Georgia made some progress under this party, but there were many multifaceted challenges as well. Following the highly polarized elections in 2018, Georgian society became more divided. The elite corruption and the selective justice gradually became the country’s main challenges, clearly impeding the country’s European path. In recent times, the ruling party has made some scandalous decisions, including the refusal of a conditional EU loan, the unilateral withdrawal from an EU-brokered April 19 deal between the ruling and opposition parties, and the revelation that the secret services were spying on western diplomats. These scandals have prompted the European Union and the United States to harshly criticize the Georgian government, which has definitely harmed the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
The 2020 parliamentary elections were also a difficult time for the country, causing an unprecedented political crisis, and thanks to European Council President Charles Michel, the country at least managed to have a functioning parliament, but the political situation remains unsatisfactory, restricting the country’s ability to carry out the necessary reforms to meet the European Union’s criteria completely.
Despite these concerns, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the political elite to believe that Russia might not stop with Ukraine and that Georgia could be the next target. The Georgian public also pressed the government to act more boldly and apply for European Union membership as soon as possible. In recent days, the ruling party’s leaders appeared perplexed, even saying that if Georgia applies now, the application will be weaker than if Georgia applied in 2024. Two days before the announcement, Irakli Kobakhidze, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, even told journalists that hastening Georgia’s application to the EU “could be counterproductive because we have to satisfy certain terms over the next two years.”
Despite all of the concerns, confusions, and even fears, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili signed the official application to join the European Union on March 3. The prime minister delivered a speech before signing the document, in which he stated:
“Georgia knows that it belongs to Europe. Now Europe should make conclusions. It is essential for Georgia to get established within Europe, while the western nations – need to admit Georgia into their family”.
Even Irakli Kobakhidze, the chair of the Georgian Dream party, who was skeptical two days ago, stated that the country decided to apply immediately due to the current political context and a new reality. He also called for EU bodies to “to review Georgia’s application in an urgent manner and to make the decision to grant Georgia the status of an EU membership candidate”.
The European Union formally assessed Georgia’s, Moldova’s, and Ukraine’s applications on February 7. Each country agreed that, due to the rapidly changing security landscape, the European Union must consider membership bids as soon as possible. This is obviously a technical step, but it should be noted that the European Union has been extremely resistant to new applications in recent years.
The process of joining the EU can take years, and nothing can be predicted. However, the European Union continues to provide Ukraine with critical financial, military, and humanitarian aid. Finally, it is worth noting that the European Commission may propose a privileged partnership agreement for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova ahead of the EU leaders’ summit this week.