On March 3, as Russia’s massive re-invasion of Ukraine entered its second week, the Georgian government unexpectedly followed Kyiv’s lead and filed a formal application to join the European Union. In commenting on the announcement, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili declared that Georgia is “a deserving member of the European space, European family” because it shares the influence of Greco-Roman culture, Christian beliefs and democratic values (Agenda.ge, March 3). Days earlier, Ukraine took a similar step, arguing that its fierce resistance to Russian military aggression should compel the EU to grant Kyiv candidate status. The chairperson of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, noted, “Our dream is for Georgia to become an economically strong and secure European country” (Facebook.com/GeorgianDreamOfficial, March 2).
On the one hand, Georgia’s decision looks logical: the country also suffered from Russian military aggression in 2008 and has continued to struggle against intense political, economic and military pressure from Moscow as well as partial occupation by Russia. Georgia and Ukraine had been moving toward the EU and NATO side by side for many years. Moreover, last year, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova formed the so-called Associated Trio in order to simultaneously accelerate their integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. But on the other hand, the Georgian move to join Europe seemed to come out of nowhere. Just a day earlier, the authorities were still saying that, Ukraine’s membership application notwithstanding, it was too early for Tbilisi to apply. The ruling party had officially planned to apply for EU membership in 2024 (Gov.ge, November 5, 2021), at which point it would have fulfilled two thirds of its obligations stipulated under the Association Agreement with the EU. Georgian officials attributed their about-face to the changing situation in the world.
But in fact, the sudden step toward Europe was driven much more by domestic considerations. When Russia massively attacked Ukraine late last month, the ruling Georgian Dream party found itself in an awkward situation owing first of all to the prime minister of Georgia categorically precluding that his country would join the punitive Western sanctions against Russia. Accusations of the Georgian authorities’ apparent subservience to Moscow quickly resurfaced, and a wave of protests gripped the country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted several times to the demonstrations in Georgia. He thanked the Georgian people for supporting Ukraine, while implicitly rebuking the extreme caution showed by officials in Tbilisi (see EDM, March 1). The Georgian authorities subsequently made more clumsy statements on this matter, and forbid a plane that was supposed to take Georgian volunteers to Ukraine from landing in Tbilisi. Zelenskyy called out the actions of the Georgian authorities as “immoral” and recalled his ambassador for consultations (YouTube, March 1).
Georgia’s government had been taking some diplomatic steps to support Ukraine in various international forums. For instance, Tbilisi backed the decision in the Council of Europe to suspend Moscow’s membership in that organization; and it voted for the recent United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine (Twitter.com/MFAgovge, March 2). Notably, Georgia was the only former Soviet republic other than Moldova and the three Baltic States (and of course Ukraine) that voted in favor of the resolution. Georgia is also among 38 countries that, under the leadership of the United Kingdom, appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes charges against Russia (Gov.uk, March 2).
Nonetheless, an accumulated series of misunderstood statements and cases of inaction by the authorities have offended not only the Ukrainian government but also Georgian society itself. It is obvious that the Georgian authorities did not initially plan to submit their application to the EU; they were forced to do so to offset growing pressure from Georgian society demanding that the authorities support Ukraine and, increasingly, that the government resign for its failure to act. And so, no Georgian official will be stepping down; nor will Tbilisi provide military assistance to Ukraine—out of the Georgian authorities’ continued fears of irritating Russia (see EDM, January 27, February 9, March 1). Instead, the government chose the most harmless and, in the present circumstances largely symbolic, solution: to apply for EU membership. This announcement has allowed the authorities to counter charges of subservience to Moscow; and it is having some success in uniting civil society behind this momentous decision. At least temporarily, Georgian Dream has managed to upend the political debate, which had heretofore focused on the opposition’s demands for the resignation of the government (see below).
Everyone in Georgia generally understands that the process of acceding to the European Union will take many years, even if its candidate status is formally approved by the bloc. The country will need to implement scores of difficult socio-economic and democratic reforms. Still, Prime Minister Garibashvili has expressed confidence that Georgia has never been as close to the EU as it is today (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, March 3). The current authorities of Georgia were originally going to make this historic decision only in 2024, as their main trump card during the next parliamentary elections. But the present situation forced Georgian Dream to pull this card out of the deck ahead of time.
What does this step mean for Georgian society? The announcement of Georgia’s European perspective has instilled euphoria among nearly all segments of the population. Georgia remains one of the most pro-European nations in the post-Soviet space. Representatives of the opposition and civil society, despite their vehement criticism of the authorities, nevertheless enthusiastically greeted this decision. Georgia’s Public Defender (Ombudsman) Nino Lomjaria, who has often clashed with the authorities over the speed of the country’s European integration, declared that the EU accession decision should be used to unite the nation (Netgazeti.ge, March 3). Representatives of Georgia’s civil society also welcomed the move of the authorities. However, they explicitly forewarned the ruling party that amidst the talk of joining Europe, Georgia cannot forsake active assistance to Ukraine or democratic reforms at home (Facebook.com/OpenSocietyGeorgiaFoundation, March 3). The Georgian government, thus, may not have much time to bask in the glow of its decision.