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Georgia has work to do before it is considered an EU candidate country

The EU’s decision to not offer Georgia candidate status disappointed a nation that has long aspired to join the bloc. Despite this, European institutions have offered advice to get the country back on track in the face of various domestic issues.

June 30, 2022 - Mark Temnycky - Articles and Commentary

Flag of Georgia and EU. Photo: MD Photography / Shutterstock

On June 23rd and 24th, the European Union’s 27 member countries will vote on Ukraine and Moldova’s EU applications in what will be a historic event. The European Parliament and European Commission have already reviewed their applications, recommending that EU candidate status be given to these countries.

Notably absent from the group, however, was Georgia. Once seen as a reform leader in Eastern Europe, the European Commission decided on June 17th that although Georgia was on the right path, the country would need to further reform its government before being reconsidered for candidate status.

What changed?

When Transparency International first included Georgia in its Corruption Perceptions Index in 1999, it was ranked 84th out of 99 countries. Corruption was rampant throughout Georgia, and the international community expressed concern for various countries that had emerged in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. These independent states needed assistance with their democratisation efforts, and financial overhauls were necessary.

Over time, the Georgian government began to reform itself, stating that it wanted to adopt western democratic thought and principles. This was especially true when Mikheil Saakashvili was elected as Georgia’s president. During his time in office, the president established a massive reform programme. As part of this initiative, hundreds of Georgian politicians, public servants and police officers were fired in light of their corrupt activities. Many oligarchs were punished and forced to pay massive fines.

Saakashvili’s government also worked tirelessly to reform the economy. Tbilisi simplified the tax code, addressed tax evasion and introduced privatisation. By pursuing these efforts, the Georgian budget increased dramatically. This led to the improvement of infrastructure and services throughout the country. Finally, Saakashvili reformed the military, education and healthcare sector.

Due to these intensive and systemic overhauls, Georgia’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index quickly improved. When Saakashvili was elected in 2004, Georgia ranked 133rd out of 146 countries. By the end of Saakashvili’s first term, Georgia ranked 67th out of 180. Given the success of these efforts, Saakashvili began to pursue closer ties with the European Union and NATO.

But not all were pleased with his presidency. During his second term, many Georgians accused Saakashvili of abusing his power. Corrupt officials and oligarchs were also dissatisfied with his swift reform efforts. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe condemned his decision to hold snap parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, the United Nations expressed outrage when videos surfaced from Georgia’s prisons, where inmates were physically abused. Due to these events, he would not be re-elected for a third presidential term.

Following his departure from office, opposition parties filed criminal charges against Saakashvili, arguing that he had exceeded his powers while in office. Saakashvili countered, claiming that the charges were politically motivated. He then moved to the United States and Ukraine to work in anti-corruption affairs. Saakashvili was then arrested in autumn 2021 when he returned to Georgia.

Outside of these events, the West has often noted that Tbilisi has begun to backslide in its reform efforts under the leadership of the Georgian Dream party. Issues such as constant political infighting and an electoral imbalance led to a political crisis. Several protests against the government then appeared in the capital’s streets. Anti-corruption reforms were placed on hold, and the European Union was forced to intervene to try and resolve the political infighting in the country. Despite these attempts, the street protests continued and political polarisation increased. This has led to further infighting within the government. Given these current struggles, the European Commission did not recommend that Georgia be given EU candidate status.

But all is not lost. The European Commission provided Georgia with a list of improvements that need to be made before candidate status can be considered. First, Tbilisi must establish an independent anti-corruption body to hold the government accountable for its actions. Second, the country should pursue strict laws aimed at “de-oligarchisation”. Third, Georgia must encourage diverse political representation. Finally, infighting within the government must be resolved, as this will lead to a more stable and effective governing body.

If these areas are addressed, the European Commission would then be able to re-evaluate Georgia’s EU membership application. The Commission and other European institutions are willing and able to help Georgia achieve this goal. But it is now time for the government to determine how it will proceed.

The future of Georgia is bright. The current government should not waste this opportunity.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

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