On December 14, 2023, the European Union granted official candidate status to Georgia (Twitter.com/CharlesMichel,December 14, 2023; European Commission, accessed January 2). The decision will presumably have a significant impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. Inspired by Brussels’ pronouncement, Georgia intends to overtake Ukraine and Moldova on their path to EU membership, an objective the ruling elite have begun to declare publicly (Netgazeti.ge, December 22, 2023). The Georgian Dream government announced in an action plan presented on December 25 that, in a year, it hopes to open a dialogue with Brussels on official membership (Government of Georgia, December 25, 2023). The accelerated steps taken by Tbilisi to join the European Union will entail significant changes for the wider region.
Georgia’s neighbors had a range of reactions to this historic development. Türkiye, which has already been granted EU candidate status, met the approval of the new EU expansion package with some skepticism and resentment, as its prospective membership to the 27-member bloc has effectively stalled. Ankara declared that Türkiye “had long earned the right to join the bloc but was being kept waiting for political reasons.” Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has avoided the topic of Georgia’s candidate status and predicted that “the European Union will stall Ukraine and Moldova’s accession” (Ekathimineri.com, December 19, 2023).
The Azerbaijani government expressed congratulations for Georgia’s new status, while the public held contrasting views. President Ilham Aliyev stated, “We fully understand Georgia’s desire to join the European Union, and I wish our Georgian friends success on this path” (Interpressnews.ge, December 6, 2023). Azerbaijan is a participant in the EU’s Eastern Partnership with Georgia. Aliyev added that his country and Georgia could present themselves as a “united, strategically important team in Europe” (Agenda.ge, December 6, 2023). Azerbaijan has started discussing the possible creation of a “Benelux-style model for regional integration” with the participation of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia (Agenda.ge, December 7, 2023). It is still unclear how realistic the new integration project will be. Georgia is an EU candidate, while Armenia and Azerbaijan are only Eastern Partners. In a wider sense, Tbilisi hopes to create a model of cooperation not only with the countries of the South Caucasus but with the governments of the Black Sea region as well.
According to some Azerbaijani sources, many have expressed displeasure with Georgia’s candidate status. Some even went so far as to assert that “Tbilisi is a hub for the Azerbaijani opposition.” One source posted on X (formerly Twitter) called Tbilisi “the capital of the Caucasus” and mentioned that “whatever direction Georgia takes, it affects the [whole] region” Twitter.com/Samed_shixi, December 16, 2023). Another Azerbaijani X user quotes the words of Zahid Oruj, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament from the ruling elite: “A small country like Georgia is incapable of altering the geopolitics of the region with this kind of decision. The various scenarios of the [European Union] will come to a standstill and discontinue in the future, and in the end, Azerbaijan will be the savior of Georgians” (Twitter.com/AltayRashidoglu, December 15, 2023).
In granting candidate status to Georgia, the European Union has officially entered the South Caucasus. This includes the presumptive Europeanization of the entire region in the foreseeable future. Over the long term, the European Union may pursue the goal of stimulating democratic changes in Georgia and the South Caucasus as a whole. Such a prospect, fraught with loss of power, may frighten the current Georgian Dream government and neighboring Azerbaijan. The European Union’s entry into the South Caucasus as a player promoting democracy is perceived in Azerbaijan with caution and some suspicion.
Armenia sees beneficial consequences for itself in Georgia achieving EU candidate status. Yerevan has participated in the EU’s Eastern Partnership for many years. Armenian authorities, however, have only recently—against the backdrop of a “misunderstanding” with the Kremlin—begun to demonstrate a growing openness to integration with the European Union. In response to Georgia’s candidate status, President of the Armenian National Assembly Alen Simonyan stated that it was “an important event for the entire region” (Gruziya Online, December 22, 2023).
The decision to award EU candidate status to Georgia opens a path to Europe for Armenia. After the collapse of the self-proclaimed quasi-state of “Nagorno-Karabakh” and the betrayal of its ally Russia, Yerevan has been left with few partners in the region. As a result, the country is in the process of searching for new international patrons. For many years, Armenia could communicate with the outside world, especially with Russia, through Tbilisi. Now, Georgia can become a bridge between Yerevan and Brussels.
Some sources indicate that Armenian may have carried out behind-the-scenes work to facilitate Georgia attaining candidate state. The Georgian ambassador to Armenia, Giorgi Sharvashidze, commenting on a completely different topic, let slip that “Armenia has done a lot of lobbying work” on our behalf (Facebook.com/TVpirveli.ge, December 26, 2023).Neither side has reported further on these rumors. The transit of military equipment from France to Armenia through Georgian territory, however, seems to have played a role in this situation (Radio Tavisupleba, November 13, 2023). Georgia may have been pushed to authorize the action in exchange for Armenia’s lobbying support. Immediately after Georgia received EU candidate status, Yerevan expressed hope that it would soon be possible to establish a strategic partnership between the two countries (Gruziya Online, December 22, 2023).
Russia responded to Georgia’s EU by provoking radical ultra-right groups within the country. These small, but aggressive pro-Russian groups started a serial campaign in which they began to burn EU flags (outwardly imitating Middle Eastern extremists) and broadcasted it on social media networks (Facebook.com/Formula, December 20, 2023). The anti-European ritual also involved certain priests of the Georgian Orthodox Church who sympathize with the Kremlin. Overall, the church and its patriarch personally welcomed the European Union’s decision to award Georgia candidate status and characterized it as an opportunity to increase Tbilisi’s political influence internationally (Patriarchate of Georgia, December 15, 2023).
With EU candidate status, Georgia’s political weight in the wider region has increased and will likely continue to grow. The country now holds the keys to the possible Europeanization of the entire South Caucasus. Under the Georgian Dream government (which is taking Moscow’s interests into account), it is unlikely that Tbilisi will be able to cope with this historic task. Georgia itself, however, will strive to move ever closer to official EU membership with fervor and push the South Caucasus in a more westward geopolitical direction.