Sunday, December 4

Georgia shifts closer to Vladimir Putin after the EU overlooks it as a candidate

When Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008, the war only lasted about five days but its effects would reverberate throughout the country for many years.

Georgia was once considered a frontrunner for EU membership after making huge strides for democratic reforms, but in 2012 that changed when billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, came to power.

Since then the country has been watched by democratic backsliding and accusations of corruption. Opposition figures were jailed and the country pursued closer ties with Russia.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by the EU, and on Thursday the bloc decided to grant Ukraine and Moldova status as candidate countries for membership but not Georgia. Instead, the country was simply recognized for its “European perspective”, a kind of prelude to candidacy.

Thousands attend a rally in support of the Georgia’s membership to the EU in the port city of Batumi (Photo: Nino Khimsiasvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The three former Soviet nations all applied for EU membership shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and while the Commission said the “door is wide open” for Georgia it still needed to take “necessary steps to move forward”.

The news came as a blow for the Georgian population, the vast majority of which are pro-EU. In the capital Tbilisi, a city of one million people, close to 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets on Monday to show their support for EU membership and to rally against the government.

Georgians are gearing up for another mass rally on Friday as anger against the government is “multiplying”, said Thornike Gordadze, former Georgian minister of European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

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He likened the situation to the Ukrainian ‘Euromaidan’ revolution in 2013 which ousted then-leader, Viktor Yanukovych, after he rejected the Ukrainian-European association agreement and instead chose closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (made up of Russia, Armenia , Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).

“Most probably the social movement (in Georgia) will have a major objective to ask the government to resign and have new elections,” said Mr Gordadze, now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

Demonstrators hold Georgian, EU and Ukrainian flags at a rally in front of the parliamentary building in Tbilisi (Photo: Shakh Aivazov/AP)

“I don’t think the government will accept it easily. I’m afraid that there will be lots of tensions in Georgia in the coming weeks.”

The EU’s decision to place Georgia on the slow lane for accession has sparked fears that it will push the Black Sea republic closer to Russia’s orbit.

Mr Gordadze said the Georgian government has used the country’s deteriorating relationship with the EU as a way to push a pro-Russian narrative, by claiming the West is trying to drag Georgia into war with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili claimed European colleagues had personally told him that Ukraine would be granted candidate status due to the Russian invasion, and that Moldova’s candidacy would be greenlighted due to its proximity to the war.

“One of the clearest arguments why we deserved more is the blood we shed – we fought three times against the Russian army and this decision was unfair, they should not have done it,” he was quoted as saying by GeorgiaToday.

Many of the EU Commission’s concerns around Georgia’s democracy is centered around the Georgian Dream Party government and the continuing influence of Mr Ivanishvili, who no longer holds any political position but has been described as an informal ruler.

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Demonstrators gather in front of the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi (Photo: Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the European Parliament called on the EU Council to impose sanctions against Mr Ivanishvili, saying it was “deeply worried by Ivanishivili’s personal and business links to the Kremlin” and that he is “directly responsible for current backsliding in the areas of media freedom and ambiguous relations with Russia”. The Georgian Dream Party brandished these comments as fake news.

According to Forbes, Mr Ivanishvili made his money in metals and banking in Russia and has a current net worth of $4.8bn – about a third of Georgia’s GDP – making him the richest man in the country. He is believed to have de facto control of the Georgian government and economy, with at least four of the cabinet members being former employees including the prime minister who was his personal assistant to him.

The Georgian government has refused to implement meaningful sanctions on the Kremlin and has been criticized by Ukraine over its lack of support.

Mr Gordadze described Georgia’s close ties with Russia as “extremely paradoxical”, saying that there was serious suspicion by the West that the country was being used as a way for Russians to circumvent sanctions by registering companies and opening accounts in the small Caucasian nation.

“Russia’s influence in Georgia has become more and more important,” he said. “Small pro-Russian, far-right, anti-West and anti-liberal groups are now flourishing in Georgia. They are totally tolerated and even suspected to be helped by the government.

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“There are sometimes clashes in the streets (with pro-West groups) and the police are suspiciously passive in not intervening.”

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The EU Commission put forward a list of priorities that Georgia should address if it wants to be granted candidate status, including the need for “de-oligarchisation”.

Mr Gordadze believes Georgia has a long way to go before that happens.

“The Georgian population had no illusions about the government, but still they thought after this rally and after the conclusions of the EU Commission the Georgian government would make some steps or at least promises to implement the conditions the EU is asking, but the government did the contrary.

“The prime minister said this is an unfair decision, the Europeans don’t want us to be part of the EU, we are better than Ukraine and Moldova, but guess what? They don’t want us.”

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