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The shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has re-opened the European Union’s (EU) enlargement door and given Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova a historic opportunity to become integral parts of the European family. While the EU granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in the summer of 2022, it gave Georgia a “European perspective” with 12 recommendations to follow in order to be reconsidered for candidacy by the end of 2023. Yet implementation reports by Georgia’s democracy watchdogs paint a grim picture of Georgia’s progress. According to the latest report by Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF, September 2023), the ruling Georgian Dream party has almost fully fulfilled only three out of EU’s twelve recommendations. The remaining recommendations have been the subject of heated political debates, and the government has wielded the “de-polarization” and “de-oligarchization” recommendations as instruments of political manipulation rather than vehicles for genuine reform. For example, the Georgian Dream party attempted to pass a law on de-oligarchization that the Venice Commission said could be used for “political abuse” and “arbitrary application” (Venice Commission, 2023). Similarly, it has justified some of its illiberal policies – such as passing [and after protests retracting] a Kremlin style foreign-agents law against civil society – by arguing it served to “de-polarize” Georgian society (Netgazeti, 2023).
More than a year since the EU issued Georgia with the 12 recommendations, the Georgian government has clearly instrumentalized them for its own illiberal agenda rather than for Georgia’s European future. This means that the EU’s recommendations need to be re-evaluated and revised to better suit the nature of Georgia’s illiberal regime. Re-working EU conditionality on the issue of Georgia’s membership bid is crucial even if the Union makes the political decision to grant Georgia candidate status (Jozwiak, 2023), as potential EU candidacy is likely to come with more conditionality for Georgia. Failure to fully utilize the EU’s leverage on Georgia risks the country either losing its historic window of opportunity to become an EU candidate state, or becoming a candidate state with an illiberal government on which the EU will have limited influence, like Turkey and Serbia. Either case gravely endangers Georgia’s democracy and security, and tilts the balance of power in the South Caucasus region in Russia’s favor given the Kremlin’s influence over Georgia. The continuation of illiberal rule in Georgia also undermines the EU’s transformative power given years of EU investment in Georgia’s democratization.
This policy memo begins with an overview of EU conditionality, focusing on two main mechanisms with which it can breed compliance amongst EU candidate or member states. There is both a top-down strategy focused on influencing governments and a bottom-up strategy focused on civil society, opposition, and the public. It then analyzes why the EU’s twelve recommendations to Georgia do not align with either of these strategies. On one hand, these recommendations undermine the government’s powerbase too much to expect genuine compliance. On the other hand, they lack the clarity and specificity required to empower the public and civil society sector to be the source of change in the country. In light of these challenges, this policy memo argues that EU’s conditionality should be reoriented towards empowering Georgia’s vibrant civil society and overwhelmingly pro-EU public to be agents of change before the country’s 2024 parliamentary elections.
Policy Memo #70 | October 2023
This publication was produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region and the Georgian Institute of Politics.