As Ukraine and Moldova are expected to be granted formal European Union (EU) candidate status this week after the European Commission’s recommendation[↗], Georgia is still waiting in the wings. Long seen as being on the same timescale as Ukraine in its path to Euro-Atlantic integration, Georgia may be falling further behind owing to corruption concerns that threaten Georgian democracy.
Like Ukraine and Moldova, the European Commission recommended[↗] that Georgia make further progress on media, judicial, and electoral reform, while also taking steps to end political polarisation, and fulfil the ‘de-oligarchisation’ of the Georgian economy. However, the EU also took issue with the ruling Georgian Dream party; the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the EU to impose sanctions[↗] against Bidzina Ivanishvili, party founder, for his ‘destructive role’ over Georgia’s politics and economy. The Georgian Dream party has also been reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia as a result of its war in Ukraine, with Ivanishvili reportedly retaining close ties to Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a sanctioned Russian oligarch.
The near 120,000 Georgians[↗] who recently made their voices heard in the streets of Tbilisi shows that support for Georgia’s EU accession has not waned, and is in fact growing. ‘Europe is a historical choice and an aspiration of Georgians, for which all generations have given sacrifices’, as the rally organisers of the recent pro-EU march proclaimed[↗].
While Georgia’s geography may make it more distant to Europe than Ukraine, Georgia has been on a slow but steady path to Euro-Atlantic integration since the Rose Revolution of 2003 and NATO’s declaration[↗] at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia and Ukraine ‘will become members of NATO’ at an unspecified date. For Georgia, Euro-Atlantic integration is about survival and prosperity, ensuring that its values and interests are represented under equal terms in its geographic home and not as a client state of a post-imperial Russia.
Given this history, both Brussels and London should pay attention to the aspirations of the Georgian people. Just like providing critical military support to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, enhanced political support for Georgia in its bid to join the EU is within the United Kingdom’s (UK) interests.
So long as former Soviet republics remain mired in frozen or even hot conflicts that suspend them in geopolitical limbo the European neighbourhood will remain at risk from Russian revanchism. As we see in Ukraine, these ambitions are increasingly mixed with genocidal language about the erasure of national cultures and people, presenting a clear and present threat to European security.
In its statement recommending candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, the European Commission said it would reassess Georgia’s candidate status at the end of 2022, while granting Georgia a ‘European perspective’ in the interim. While Ursula von der Leyen called this a ‘huge step forward’ for Georgia on its path to EU membership, it also raises several risks and vulnerabilities for Georgia.
Like Ukraine, Georgia remains vulnerable to Russian aggression and hybrid warfare methods, with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia most at risk of further Russian provocations. Likewise, a polarised population at the hands of a centralised, oligarchic media presents numerous opportunities for disinformation and demoralisation to bear fruit on Georgia’s long path to Europe.
While not a member of the EU anymore, the UK still has an important role to play in ensuring that the EU’s neighbourhood remains safe from Russian aggression, with all states free to choose their geostrategic orientation and which political, military, or economic blocs they wish to be aligned with. Like Ukraine, Georgia has a growing group of young people who only see their future in Europe and not as an appendage of an increasingly isolated and sanctioned Russia that has little respect for the wishes of its sovereign neighbours. Despite its many quarrels with the EU, the UK deeply understands the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Georgia’s fight for EU membership is one that London should be ready to get behind.
Georgia is simply trying to choose its own destiny and not be unduly influenced by outside powers. You could even say Tbilisi wants to ‘take back control’ and ‘level up’, ensuring a greater degree of economic and political coherence with the West and the ability to control its own affairs. For Britain, Georgia’s cause should sound familiar, despite it coming from a small nation straddling the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
In supporting Georgia’s continued march towards Europe, the UK can also help increase its standing with Brussels at a time when it is desperately needed given the divisive ongoing legal battles over the Northern Ireland Protocol. And in expressing its support for the rule of law to flourish in Georgia, London would be wise to re-examine its own legal commitments to the EU. Britain’s language towards states like Georgia trying to enter Europe should fully match its actions towards those same EU institutions as it continues to negotiate aspects of its withdrawal from the bloc.
Georgia and the UK have very different views of the EU when it comes to ensuring prosperity and progress as sovereign states. Unlike in the UK, where some believe the EU served as a straitjacket for Britain’s ambitions, the EU can act as a lifebuoy for Georgia as it gets pulled by geopolitical currents. The EU may not be able to guarantee the flourishing of democracy in its potential members, and democratic backsliding remains a constant concern in several current member states. However, both London and Brussels have an opportunity to support Georgia in establishing the best conditions possible for democracy to thrive, all while increasing their own democratic credentials in the process.
Alexander Brotman is a political risk and intelligence analyst based in Washington DC. He writes in a personal capacity and not through any professional affiliation.
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