Top EU official says 'real divergence' between Georgian rhetoric and reality on accession

Top EU official says 'real divergence' between Georgian rhetoric and reality on accession
After days of violent protests, the government early this month backed down on the foreign agents law, although the Georgian Dream Party has not excluded supporting some similar proposal later. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague March 30, 2023

There is a “real divergence” between the Georgian government’s statements and the concrete steps it has taken to meet the European Union’s milestones for candidate status, Katarina Mathernova, Deputy Director General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, told a webinar by think-tank the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on March 29.

Last June Georgia was denied candidate status – while Ukraine and Moldova progressed in the accession process – because of the ruling Georgian Dream government’s erosion of democratic norms. The country was given 12 milestones to achieve before it could become a candidate.

These milestones included: reducing political polarisation; strengthening anti-corruption institutions and the fight against organised crime; implementation of “de-oligarchisation” by eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests; guaranteeing a free media; strengthening civil society; and undertaking a judicial reform strategy

“A number of steps have been carried out,” Mathernova insisted. “The picture is really mixed.”

She said that for one third of the steps progress had been very good, one third had been good, but for the remaining third much more progress was needed.

On the most controversial step, the so-called de-oligarchisation law, she said when the government publishes its amended proposals the EU would be “very clear” on whether they actually will work.

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe gave its opinion on the government’s initial proposals in March, recommending that it take a systematic rather than a “personal” approach.

Georgian Dream legislators have insisted that their billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, would not be covered by the legislation. Opposition politicians fear that the government would use the bill to target the businessmen that support them.

“I hope that the [Venice Commission] recommendations will be taken aboard and followed,” Mathernova said.

Symbolic value

She also pointed out that Georgia would still be part of the EU enlargement discussions this autumn and that the award of candidate status had more “symbolic value”.

Nevertheless, it was one step out of “more than 100” for which the European Union member states would have to agree unanimously for Georgia to be able to proceed towards eventual membership.

Mathernova indicated that Georgia needed to shed its sense of “entitlement” and knuckle down to do the hard work to pass the milestones.

“Georgia has become used to ‘positive reinforcement’,” Mathernova commented. “Suddenly [in June] this was the first time the EU signalled its displeasure.”

She added, “the notion, ‘oh we deserve it’, is not very helpful”.

The Georgian government has reacted to the EU’s slap in the face by, in domestic politics, claiming that it didn’t happen, while internationally it has continued to complain that it is much better prepared for membership than either Ukraine or Moldova, which were granted candidate status.

While professing its determination to fulfil the milestones and be granted candidate status by the end of the year, the Georgian Dream government has attracted terrible international publicity in recent months for its democratic backsliding.

The government tried to push through a Russian-style “foreign agents law” targeting NGOs and media that receive foreign funding. The EU has warned Georgia that the foreign agents bill is incompatible with EU values.

After days of violent protests, the government early this month backed down on the law, although the Georgian Dream Party has not excluded supporting some similar proposal later.

It has also been criticised for the deteriorating health in jail of former president Mikhail Saakashvili, whom the government has refused to let leave the country for treatment. The EU issued a formal diplomatic note about the onetime leader of the opposition UNM in February.

Broken democracy

The other ECHR webinar panellists expressed fears that any laws that the government is forced to pass by the EU would be abused by the Georgian Dream-dominated judicial system to target the opposition.

“Georgian Dream has the whole political system locked up,” said Jaba Devdariani, founder of the news website, adding that “representative democracy was broken” and that is why protesters are taking to the street instead.

He accused the government of making only token efforts to achieve progress towards EU accession, while at the same time courting the Kremlin.

“Georgia has voted for sanctions against Russia…It has done what the West wanted,” he said. “On the other hand, the domestic political rhetoric has been the opposite.”

The government has also prevented some independent journalists critical of the Kremlin’s war policy from entering the country.

Journalist Regis Gente said the government could not make an “open move” against EU accession, given that three quarters of Georgians support membership, but he accused it of “distancing the country from the West and moving it to the Russian sphere of influence”.

Devdariani said the government’s rhetoric was often similar to Moscow’s and it had created an “alternative reality”.

“In this alternative reality the Georgian government is creating, Georgia is becoming part of the Russian orbit once again.”

Mathernova agreed that “Russia is a very active player” in Georgia, with “very strong hybrid warfare since 2008”, when Russia invaded the country and consolidated its hold on a quarter of its territory.