Georgia’s EU application is being called into question

Rayhan demytry* says Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are all looking for a way into the European Union. However, Georgia’s democratic credibility has been questioned by the European Parliament.

Heads of State and Government of the European Union are due to decide later this month whether to accept Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as candidate countries for the European Union.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted the three former Soviet republics to file emergency petitions in the early weeks of the war.

Prospects for Ukraine and Moldova look promising, but Georgia has been showered with a damning European Parliament resolution, which one MP described as a final “wake-up call” to the government in Tbilisi.

Ukraine has led the way by arguing that joining the EU has become a geopolitical imperative, although the three states are known as the Association Trio for their cooperation with the EU on everything from political reforms to free trade are.

Ukraine’s Parliament Speaker Ruslan Stefanchyk told MEPs in Strasbourg earlier this month that granting candidate status would empower the Ukrainian people, while “any other signal would only benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime”.

Speaking to the European Parliament last month, Moldova’s pro-EU President Maia Sandu said her country still had a long way to go.

However, she reminded them that many Moldovans could hear the bombing of the Ukrainian city of Odessa from their homes.

In the run-up to the EU decision, the Brussels think tank Center for European Studies published reports on the applications from Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.

It said Ukraine was facing an existential crisis, while Moldova was “next at risk” from Russian aggression.

It recommended that the EU extend candidate status to both countries โ€“ this status is far from guaranteeing accession to the EU but represents a significant step along the way.

Regarding Georgia, the report states that the formal access process is premature.

Its economic reforms have surpassed both Ukraine and Moldova and other EU candidate countries, she said, but on democracy the government has contradicted “the core values โ€‹โ€‹of the EU”.

The European Parliament backed a strongly worded resolution calling on Georgia to uphold the highest standards of democracy and the rule of law.

She said freedom of the press had declined dramatically and condemned the intimidation and persecution of journalists.

Last year, more than 50 media workers were injured in far-right violence, but the government failed to prosecute one of the organizers.

Instead, it has launched criminal investigations into owners of independent media outlets critical of the government.

The head of Georgia’s leading opposition broadcaster Mtavari, Nika Gvaramia, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in what Amnesty International described as “an obvious act of politically motivated prosecution”.

“I am a political prisoner and the timing of my detention is deliberate,” Mr Gvaramia (pictured) wrote in a letter to the BBC delivered by his lawyers.

Mr Gvaramia, who was found guilty of misusing company funds, said his detention was a message from the Georgian government “aimed at the open and aggressive sabotage of Georgia’s European future”.

The Georgian government has dismissed the criticism, labeling Mr Gvaramia an opposition leader hiding behind journalism.

The Prime Minister added that the Brussels resolution had nothing to do with European values.

Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said earlier this month he expected a “wise decision from the European Union”.

“Let’s be open and honest here. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, nobody in the world imposed sanctions,โ€ Gharibashvili said.

“This created a sense of impunity in Moscow, which led to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the start of an all-out war against Ukraine in February.”

The Prime Minister said Georgia deserves as much recognition from the EU as Moldova and Ukraine.

“The West’s response must be appropriate and relevant: it must be proportionate,” he said.

However, the treatment of former President Mikhail Saakashvili and other opposition figures has raised alarm.

Mr Saakashvili, who was in power at the time of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, was arrested when he returned to support the opposition in the elections last year.

Both he and Mr Gvaramia say they are victims of a political revenge by the country’s only female oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Mr Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, founded the ruling Georgian Dream Party in 2011. Although he is no longer its leader, his influence in politics remains a concern for Brussels.

A recent investigation by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia claimed that Mr Ivanishvili may still have business interests in Russia.

The European Parliament resolution calls on the businessman to face EU sanctions and emphasizes his personal and business ties to the Kremlin. He denies being close to the Russian leadership.

Like Ukrainians and Moldovans, Georgians are overwhelmingly in favor of EU membership, according to opinion polls.

The question is whether the EU wants to risk disappointing the majority of Georgians.

* Rayhan demytry is a journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation based in Tbilisi, Georgia, covering the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

This article first appeared on the BBC website.