On June 20, approximately 30,000 pro-European Georgians gathered in the capital city of Tbilisi, on Rustaveli Avenue, near the parliament, where every important political event in modern Georgian history had taken place over the last 35 years (Svoboda.org, June 20).
The Monday rally was organized by the non-governmental organization Shame Movement, which stated that the main goal of the street demonstration was to protect Georgians’ European identity as well as present popular unity on the issue of European integration. The action was sparked by the recent decision of the European Union Commission not to recommend that this South Caucasus country be granted candidate status to join the EU. The protesters on Rustaveli Avenue held up posters reading “We Are Europe,” “Home to Europe,” “Stubbornly Toward Europe,” “I am Georgian, therefore I am European,” and others (Civil.ge, June 20).
The rally organizers voiced an address in English to the leadership of the European Union:
Dear members of the European Council, since you are going to decide the European future of our country, we, the representatives of the Georgian people, would like to remind you that Georgia is one of the oldest European countries. For centuries we have never questioned our European destiny and we have done our best to come closer to each generation’s dream of reuniting with the European family.
We believe in a European future because there has never been a better alternative. Now that the most important step on our European path is so close, we hope that you believe in us more than anyone else and you give Georgia candidate status together with our friends—Ukraine and Moldova. The Georgian people deserved the European perspective a long time ago and now we deserve the status of an EU candidate country. All of us hope for your support (Civil.ge, June 20).
After the address, organizers played the anthem of the European Union. Georgian, Ukrainian and Moldovan flags were omnipresent (Interpressnews, June 20).
It is unlikely that the rally or the sentiments expressed there will influence the European Council on June 24–25, when EU leaders meet to decide whether or not to approve the Commission’s proposals vis-à-vis candidate status for three neighboring countries of the post-Soviet space—Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia—that signed association agreements with the EU a few years ago.
On June 17, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine and Moldova be given the status of candidates to join the EU. But it recognized only the “perspective” of Georgia to become a member of the European community, while noting conditions the country still has to fulfill to consolidate its democracy (Civil.ge, June 17). Brussels called on Georgia to decrease polarization in the public sphere; ensure the “de-oligarchization” of domestic political and economic processes (namely, preventing interference therein by the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili); as well as to carry out deep judicial reforms and respect human rights, including the rights of the LGBTQ+ community (Civil.ge, June 17).
The organizers of Monday’s rally previously appealed to all of the country’s political parties “not to politicize the action.” Therefore, no political slogans could be seen or heard on Rustaveli Avenue yesterday. Generally, street protests involving the opposition in recent years would feature calls for early elections or the release of former president Mikheil Saakashvili from prison. Saakashvili is the founding leader of Georgia’s main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM). He and his supporters believe he is being held behind bars for political reasons (Kommersant, June 20).
After the European Council delivers its final decision (likely negative) on Georgia’s EU candidate status later this week, however, the Georgian opposition—civil society activists together with political parties—plans to launch a nationwide movement to force the authorities to fulfill all the preconditions delineated by the European Union. This includes the “de-oligarchization” of political and economic life in the country, which in fact means the termination of Ivanishvili’s hold on the ruling Georgian Dream party. Possibly, it might even mean this political faction’s dissolution as well as the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s government.
According to Petre Tsiskarishvili, UNM’s secretary general, the June 20 rally sought “to demonstrate to the West the true aspirations of the Georgian people, which often differ from those of the GD government.” He added, “At the same time, it was to urge the current government to implement the latest EU recommendations and consider them as a road map for EU integration.” Tsiskarisvhili underlined that the “Georgian public, civil society and the opposition parties will have to work hard, in coordination with our international friends and partners, to push for the de-oligarchization of Georgian politics and institutional reforms—so crucial for our country’s future” (Author’s interview, June 20).
Meanwhile, the Georgian authorities contend that the European Commission’s decision not to grant candidate status to the country was motivated not by any realities of Georgian democracy but by geopolitical calculations. Prime Minister Garibashvili kept silent on the issue for three days. But a few hours before the start of the assembly on Rustaveli Avenue, he told his cabinet that he considered the Commission’s judgement to have been unfair. Nonetheless, he explained the negative recommendation from the EU executive by the fact that “there is a war in Ukraine, and Moldova suffered as a result of this war, accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees.” At the same time, the Georgian head of government again underscored, “We do not want war” (Interpressnews, June 20).
Tornike Sharashenidze, the head of the International Relations Master’s program at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), disagrees with the prime minister’s reasoning. In a June 20 interview with this author, Sharashenidze asserted that Georgia did not receive candidacy status, because “the image of the Georgian government seriously suffered due to stumbles over issues such as freedom of the media, political polarization and independence of the judiciary.” According to the expert, “Georgia is still ahead of Ukraine and Moldova in terms of fighting corruption, transparency and effective governance; but our image has suffered, and it is logical Georgia was not granted candidate status under these conditions.”
Georgia now faces a long and difficult road ahead to reduce polarization and consolidate its democracy if the country hopes to still convince its Western partners that it belongs in the European bloc.